In the absence of Michelin stars, The Mansion on Turtle Creek serves as Dallas' culinary measuring stick.
The priciest restaurants are described as "more expensive than The Mansion." When other kitchens list tortilla soup on their menus, people ask: "Is it as good as The Mansion's?" And when people recount the city's top restaurants, the Turtle Creek icon always ranks somewhere near the top.
In recent years, however, the famed restaurant has taken some gentle knocks. It lost two chefs—Dean Fearing, who left to start his own place, and John Tesar, whose departure was more sudden (and less amicable). It allowed other establishments to take the lead as diners became more interested in locally sourced ingredients. It waited until places like Dragonfly and The Ritz had realized the benefits of upscale patios before renovating theirs. And in the interim between the breakup with Tesar and the arrival of a new chef, its kitchen drifted.
Understand that it never faltered. The Mansion's line cooks know what they're doing; guests are allowed to linger; service is prompt without being stuffy. When I told our waiter one evening that I had just called Domino's, he laughed and said, "if he [the delivery guy] can sneak it through the back door and the chef doesn't kill him, that's fine." The venerable establishment didn't lose its sense of humor, just its sense of direction.
So when Rosewood Hotel, which houses the restaurant, announced after a lengthy search the signing of Las Vegas chef Bruno Davaillon to replace Tesar, some local media outlets greeted the news with the same kind of anticipation Left Behind devotees show when you mention the Rapture. Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner even traveled to Sin City for a preview. She dined at Mix—the restaurant where Davaillon earned national acclaim—and raved about the chef's standout shrimp cocktail.
The chef says the Mansion's starter is very similar to the one he served in Vegas. It's no wonder both critics and guests practically swooned. Creamy horseradish panna cotta and a swirl of tomato syrup combine to play a very convincing cocktail sauce role, only with more richly interlaced flavors and a far less aggressive nature than more conventional sauces, as it easily allows the taste of chilled shellfish to come through.
The shrimp cocktail is what you want from a restaurant of The Mansion's stature, something so crafty you have to banish expectations at the door. But at the moment it's difficult to call the new chef a savior, a star or anything more than a technically brilliant cook. This is not meant to denigrate Davaillon's efforts. He started at the beginning of November, introduced his first real menu changes a month later, but is still in the process of determining a course—a theme for his new kitchen.
"I know what I can do," Davaillon says, "but I didn't know what fits and what doesn't. I had to see what The Mansion was."
To this end, he's spending time with local farmers and other purveyors, trying to understand what they can produce—and, more important, what they might be able to produce specifically for his restaurant. Right now the chef crusts thick halibut fillets in finely chopped Spanish chorizo, dressing the firm and clean fish with a gritty, sweet-tart layer that at once enhances and fattens the fillet. Later he hopes to find a Mexican sausage that will suit his needs. "I'm going to more and more use local ingredients," he promises.
In other words, the menu will evolve. "I will find not a niche, but something"—Davaillon pauses to consider, then continues—"I don't know what, exactly, but after a few months, I'll have a better idea."
It's refreshing to find a chef who's not interested in making an instant splash ("I do not want to move too drastically," he admits) because, as I said, his cooking is technically exquisite. He chooses Colorado lamb aged between agnelet (French for baby lamb) and agneau blanc (spring lamb)—Davaillon was born and raised in the Loire Valley—because the meat is naturally supple and flavor delicate. The rack of lamb entrée comes with a side of grits and kale, his first two forays into more Southern ingredients. The greens come from a Texas farm, and he treats them gently, heating them for no more than five or six minutes so the sharp flavor and snappy texture don't wilt away. He orders grits from an organic farm in Tennessee, cooking them carefully for more than an hour.
I've eaten grits prepared by some of the best chefs in the Old South, portions cooked in small-town diners and fancied-up cheese grits made at fusion restaurants in Atlanta and Charleston. But these, from a French chef who spent the last five years in Las Vegas, are the fluffiest and most memorable I've ever tried.
Davaillon is hardly interested in replicating Fearing's Southwestern cuisine. In fact, he will likely ditch Fearing's famous tortilla soup, saying "as the menu evolves it might go away."
If the word "might" sounds like a lingering possibility to fans of the spicy broth, Davaillon adds, "I'll come up with a soup that will put tortilla soup to rest."
Right now, one of the most popular soups on his first menu is a butternut squash pureed and ladled over rounds of sweet king crab, a simple combination blending the rustic essence of fall with the richness and wealth of fine shellfish. If anything, it's an example of the sort of thing this chef prefers: fresh ingredients, unadorned, working in concert so one—the earthy butternut, say—provides ballast for the other.
If there's a fault in Davaillon's current menu, it's not one of execution, but thought. Every item I've sampled so far is precise and as near to perfect as humanly possible. Yet the Colorado rack of lamb entrée is merely a plate of four distinct items—meat, grits, greens and a filled crepe, each standing alone. There's no sense that he planned the whole to work together, that he wanted guests to taste one element and shrug, pick at the next and nod, then bite into the third and experience an eye-opening "wow—now it all makes sense," as with the shrimp cocktail.
Clearly he's capable of that level of creativity.
So what's going on? Well, as he said, there's no need to move drastically just yet. Give the place a few months, maybe by March or April, and that technical brilliance will flower into one of the more interesting local and seasonal menus around. After all, spring is the season of resurrection.The Mansion on Turtle Creek 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd., 214-443-4747. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$$