Much of that has to do with the restaurant's reputation for doting service (particularly enjoyed by regulars) and with the three unusually gifted chefs who led the kitchen over the last thirty years. Dean Fearing came on as executive chef in 1984, catapulting the restaurant's fame. He worked the dining room in his chef's whites and cowboy boots while pushing forward the era's Southwestern cuisine craze with luxurious tortilla soup and lobster tacos. He stayed for 21 years, sometimes veering into rococo fusion flings (imagine fried quail surrounded by pot stickers, egg salad, and gingered rice salad) before leaving in 2006 to open Fearing's, with its four stunning themed rooms, in the Ritz-Carlton Dallas.
A quest to replace Fearing brought outspoken chef John Tesar to the city. He expelled the Southwestern shtick in favor of broader New American extravagances. I gave his cooking five stars during my tenure as dining critic at the Dallas Morning News: I still daydream about a lobe of foie gras impaled with a vanilla bean, its tiny black seeds trailing off into an apple puree underneath. Tesar moved on in early 2009 (he currently operates two Dallas restaurants, Spoon and Knife); Bruno Davaillon, previously at Alain Ducasse's Mix at the Hotel at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, replaced him nine months later. Davaillon hails from the Touraine area of France's Loire Valley. He isn't an extrovert like his predecessors and stays close to the stoves. But he has the same degree of virtuoso talent.
The Mansion has strived to remain relevant to changing tastes: a multimillion-dollar renovation last decade toned down the space's formality with modern art and slick leather chairs. Servers once wore tuxedoes through the day; now they wear khakis at lunch and black at dinner. I understand the urge to reach a larger audience, but I come to a place like the Mansion expecting to bask in throwback grandeur. The kitchen offers an a la carte menu, but when most appetizers are priced over $20 and mains cost $38 to $59, you might as well go for one of four five-course tasting menus themed to vegetables ($85), seafood ($95), and meat ($105), or the "gourmand" ($115) that covers the protein gamut. The staff might even nudge the kitchen to mix and match dishes from different menus on the diners' behalf.
My first meal at the Mansion since I left Dallas (and my first time trying Davaillon's creations) began with a Belon oyster, its shell also filled with chopped Texas wagyu tartare, smoked cream, lemon zest, and a shower of crunchy red quinoa. It mixed French and Lone Star State aesthetics and hinted at the exotic. It telegraphed Davaillon's headspace as a chef: His imagination meanders but his technique is classical and micro-detailed. The sculptured courses that came next traveled the world of flavors, but the kitchen's precision gave the meal a cohesive arch. Dashi broth and gelee, cubed daikon, and a sprinkling of buckwheat offset the richness of cauliflower panna cotta and caviar. Pastrami, wilted Savoy cabbage, mustard cream airlifted hunks of supple monkfish to Bucharest. Cilantro-crusted lamb evoked North Africa, with its sides of merguez (cleverly stuffed and braised in a cylinder made of kohlrabi) and minted yogurt.
Straight-up modern American pleasures landed on the table as well: a silky sweetbread raviolo over autumnal chestnut puree; an equally seasonal stunner from pastry chef Nicolas Blouin of apple spheres poached in hibiscus syrup (at first glance they resembled raspberries) with lemon pound cake, almond granola, and bracing green apple sorbet crowned a pretty apple chip. It was one of those dinners where trust in the chef's gifts instantly took hold, where my friend and I simply relaxed into the experience. I had to hunt for criticisms. There was really only one: the curry in a piquillo pepper marmalade came on too strong alongside delicate king crab meat wrapped in avocado cannelloni-style.
Servers may be more casually dressed but they remain as pampering as ever. In their knowledge of the cooking, one can sense unusually strong communication between the kitchen and the dining room. Newly arrived sommelier Jennifer Eby, whose ebullience will fit right in with the staff, poured elegant French whites throughout the evening. Like Davaillon, Eby also arrived from Vegas — as did Tesar before he relocated to Dallas. Sin City recruitment is clearly the ace up the Mansion management's sleeve. Their gambles have paid off. They've assembled a team of exceptional talents.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Food Photos: Bill Addison