When Bruno Davaillon took over the kitchen at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in 2009, he not only earned five stars for the hotel's vaunted restaurant, he also raised the culinary bar in Dallas – significantly.
His flavors were pure, his ideas inspired, his technique stunning. His idiom – modern French with global influences and a distinct Texas accent – tasted exactly right for the city's highest-profile dining room. Those first few years, Davaillon's dazzling cooking thrilled again and again, and the French-born chef helped lead the way as Dallas' dining scene deliciously evolved. Davaillon left the hotel in late 2015, with plans to open his own restaurant.
It was no accident that such a forward-looking chef had ruled the Mansion's stoves: The hotel had a history of featuring innovative top talent. Dean Fearing's groundbreaking Southwestern cuisine helped put Texas on the country's culinary map during his long tenure there from 1985 to 2006. John Tesar made a splash there from 2006 until his departure in early 2009, impressing then-Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Bill Addison with "the most exhilarating dining experience I've had thus far in Dallas."
Davaillon, of course, is a hard act to follow, and the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, which was sold in 2011 to Hong Kong-based New World Hospitality, is one of Dallas' most beloved landmarks. Therefore it was no great surprise that its management took its time searching for the French chef's replacement. More than a year after Davaillon's departure, the hotel announced that Tom Parlo would take over as executive chef.
Though the choice was a bit of a head-scratcher, as Parlo hadn't drawn much notice in his last post – as executive chef at Hotel Granduca in Austin – I was eager to see and taste what he had in store.
It took some time for him to begin introducing his menus, and when I showed up for a first visit about three months after he arrived, the experience was jarringly disappointing.
Most of Parlo's plates were decent and forgettable, such as yellowfin tuna tartare with a pleasant crunch of water chestnut and dabs of yuzu purée. Slices of nicely cooked yet unremarkable rib-eye shared a tidy plate with two pucks of confit potato, a dot of mustard and nicely roasted Kalettes – tiny loose heads of kale crossed with Brussels sprouts.
A few were expensive flops. If you had given me three dense cubes of "24-hour pork collar" with corn tortillas and salsa verde, charged me $8.99 and suggested I shred them like carnitas, I would have been happy. Parlo set them on a murky sauce next to a glistening layered slab of chicharrón, pear purée and jellied pork (a "pork tart"), charged me $40 and suggested (via a recommended "enhancement" on the menu) that I cough up an additional $50 for shaved truffles.
We passed the plate (sans truffles) around the table, trying to find a way to enjoy it and failing miserably.
Was it an off night? Had the chef not yet hit his stride? I waited nearly three months to return.
Much of what I sampled over the course of three subsequent visits, two dinners and a lunch, was fine, if not terribly interesting – decent, generic fancy hotel food, with fancy price tags (the average price of a dinner entree is more than $50). Nicely seared scallops on a gentle coconut curry sauce with forbidden rice. Thick, moist slices of lightly smoked chicken breast on a perfect little jus, flanked by mushroom ragout and those tender roasted Kalettes. Beautifully cooked rack of lamb set on silky hummus and tabbouleh and served with tzatziki sauce and pita chips.
There was one dish I'd be excited to order again: Chilean sea bass on a lovely, clear shellfish broth flecked with herbs, accompanied by a beautiful Roman spring vegetable dish, vignarola. Parlo's version was a gorgeous mix, tender and buttery, of English peas, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, green garbanzos, morels, cardoons and more, set on a fine spring vegetable purée enlivened with mint and lemon.
But more often when Parlo stretched beyond the conventional, his dishes were overwrought, oversauced, unbalanced or pretentious. A 63-degree farm egg couldn't stand up to the strong flavors of caramelized cauliflower purée and sherry jus. A lobster-mousse-filled cannelloni fashioned from strands of black (squid-ink) and regular spaghetti fell apart under the fork, while its bouillabaisse sauce clashed with the sweet-and-sour peppers on the plate. Next to them, a warm calamari salad – which would have made a fine impression on its own in a casual trattoria – couldn't compete with the cacophony.
Hot and cold foie gras was simply awful. The cold: a glass of moscato gelée topped with a hard piece of cold foie that I later learned was a foie gras praline. Around this textural nightmare a server poured chilled rhubarb soup. The hot: seared foie straddling a slice of 12-layer chocolate-and-pistachio cake on one side (seriously weird with duck liver) and a thin circle of poached rhubarb on the other. Assorted rhubarb condiments did not help to pull the flavors together.
And execution was inconsistent: One night half the table's main courses, duck breast and venison, were overcooked to toughness.
Curiously in such a high-profile setting, Parlo's cooking seems to lack a point of view; as a chef he doesn't seem to have anything in particular to say. His two five-course tasting menus, "spring" and "gourmand" at the moment, borrow many dishes from the fairly brief a la carte menu, including their main courses – duck on the seasonal menu and venison on the gourmand menu. The only fresh green thing on the entire spring menu was a leaf or two of bok choy, on the scallop curry dish – also cribbed from the a la carte menu. At prices of $100 and $110, respectively, I'm looking for more expression.
By-the-glass wine pairings for both were correct, if pedestrian. Wine director Jennifer Eby's book-length wine list holds plenty of famous treats for very deep-pocketed Burgundy and Bordeaux lovers, but few delightful surprises for less wealthy wine adventurers.
As for the service, on my first visit I was not immediately recognized, and we were grudgingly and not very pleasantly sent to the Siberia of a private dining room because one of my guests, wearing artfully shirred jeans from Nordstrom and carrying a Chanel bag, did not meet the hotel's "business casual" dress code. I was surprised, as the hotel famously dropped its dress code in 2007 and began allowing jeans. But it was most enlightening to see how haughtily diners not known to the management might be treated. Before long an on-the-ball waiter spotted me, and we were offered a table on the terrace, where we were gushed over.
Meanwhile, errors like interrupting a diner who's paying $110 for a tasting menu to ask if she's done with her plate seems all the starker in the main dining room, which once felt elegant and now feels drab and stodgy. To make matters worse, Parlo makes the rounds to the tables, not looking very happy about it. Does management insist he does this?
Fortunately, the Mansion's desserts, created by longtime executive pastry chef Nicolas Blouin, create a delicious diversion. Diving into his strawberry panna cotta – a layered parfait with limoncello granité, intensely flavorful poached berries, almond streusel and strawberry foam – or a devilishly rich hazelnut bar (a triumph of crackly dacquoise and silky chocolate, served with mandarin sorbet), I remembered how wonderful the place can be.
And should be. Dallas has become one of the country's pre-eminent rising cities, with Dallas-Fort Worth second nationwide only to Houston in attracting new residents. It's an awesome achievement, one that has involved the active and engaged participation of players in so many sectors of our civic life, particularly the arts and culture, business and commerce – and hotels play an important role in that. The Mansion has a tradition of culinary innovation to uphold, with stiff competition from all sides. The Joule has a vibrant, forward-looking restaurant in CBD Provisions. The Ritz-Carlton has jazzy Fearing's. The Adolphus is about to splash back on the scene in high style with the French Room.
The Mansion is falling down on the job.
The Mansion Restaurant (2 stars)
Price: $$$$ (Lunch starters $10 to $25; sandwiches $18 to $22; main courses $22 to $38; desserts $12; three-course lunch $45. Dinner starters $18 to $28; main courses $34 to $64; desserts $14; 5-course tasting menus $100 to $110. Breakfast dishes $6 to $28. Brunch starters $10 to $25; main courses $20 to $38; desserts $12.)
Service: Can range from haughty to ingratiating, and from polished to careless.
Ambience: The formal main dining room feels a bit tired and stodgy; the terrace lacks energy, but it's nice at lunchtime.
Noise level: So quiet you can easily follow the conversation at the next table. Not that you would.
Location: The Mansion Restaurant, Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas; 214-443-4747
Hours: Breakfast Monday-Friday 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday-Sunday 7 to 10:30 a.m. Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brunch Saturday- Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health inspection score: 96 (April 20, 2017)
Alcohol: Full bar, with a book-length, pricy wine list whose markups are average for Dallas. Strengths are classic Burgundies and Bordeaux.
5 stars: Extraordinary (Defines fine dining in the region)
4 stars: Excellent (One of the finest restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth)
3 stars: Very good (A destination restaurant for this type of dining)
2 stars: Good (Commendable effort, but experience can be uneven)
1 star: Fair (Experience is generally disappointing)
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50