My dining companion had already been seated in a remote corner of the library, the secondary dining room at the Mansion restaurant, and as I joined her, the hip young maître d' suddenly began pounding his fist on the paneled wall behind us.
"You're sitting in front of the escape hatch!" he said, banging on panel after panel in search of a secret door. At last, a veteran server walked up, and with the flick of his finger, an entire section of the wall pivoted open to reveal ... the ghost of Dean Fearing.
Well, no, there was no chefly apparition behind the hidden door. But it wasn't so hard to imagine: The Mansion Restaurant is thick with history and burdened with great expectations. With its 40th birthday just around the corner, it is one of the last storied, formal restaurants in town — or for that matter, in the United States. The new French-Texan menu, by chef Sebastien Archambault, is larded with luxury ingredients. And the building, a grand residence built in 1925 and last updated in 2007, still has the stately bearing of a dowager, albeit one struggling to keep up appearances.
Archambault, a second-generation French chef who was actually born in Lubbock, is under some pressure here. Ever since the oil heiress Caroline Rose Hunt opened the extravagant restaurant in 1980, a procession of Dallas' most celebrated chefs have run the kitchen, including Fearing, the Mansion's longest-running chef, who pioneered modern Southwestern cuisine here in the 1980s; Avner Samuel; John Tesar; and Bruno Davaillon, all of whom earned top reviews and placed the Mansion among the country's leading restaurants.
But the restaurant faded after Davaillon departed in 2015 to open Bullion downtown. Under chef Tom Parlo, it was demoted from five stars to two by former Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner. The Mansion became so irrelevant that after Archambault became executive chef in May, it took three months before anyone even noticed.
Archambault, who was executive chef at the Park Hyatt in New York City, took his time developing a completely new menu, which debuted in October, and my first dinner here began brilliantly. The classic Mansion gin and tonic was effervescent and tropical, scented with kaffir lime leaves and nicely complemented by the amuse-bouche, a croquette of brandade made with fresh red snapper and dabbed with garlicky aioli.
An appetizer of charred octopus was electric with flavor. A single large tentacle, creamy and tender, was curled around a warm salad of fresh Purple Haze peas, navy beans and black-eyed peas. Every element of the dish — punchy shallot vinaigrette, smoky guanciale, spicy Aleppo mayonnaise and chermoula — was in harmony. So many elements on the plate, yet still direct and bold.
A disk of Texas beef tartare, made with Rosewood tenderloin, was classic and delicious, surrounded by golden dots of smoked duck-egg yolk and thin strands of crisp fried potato and carrot instead of the usual toasts or chips.
Both dishes felt traditional, yet light and modern, and I was excited to get the main courses. Then suddenly the waiter appeared with bowls of tortilla soup — perhaps the ghost of Fearing is here after all — which we had not ordered. "This is the original, the Dean Fearing recipe," the waiter said, explaining that to honor the recently deceased Hunt, they are serving it again. But it was not on the menu, and it was not going out to every table. I had been recognized.
The soup, beloved though it may be, is a heavy dish from a different era, dense with spices and piled with shredded chicken and tortilla strips. The nimble flavors of the first courses were obliterated by it.
The Mansion is a celebratory place, the kind of place where you order a $72 Maine lobster. But the "lobster" consisted of only a small tail — perhaps from a 1-pounder — surrounded by sweet potato ravioli, chanterelles, chard and gremolata. Unlike the octopus, none of the elements meshed and my main impression of the dish was, where is the rest of my lobster?
My companion's $35 agnolotti was filled with butternut squash and strewn with braised maitake mushrooms. We were mystified why the server recommended a side dish of lemon oyster mushrooms, which tasted like they had come out of a Chinese takeout container and, even at the mushroom convention on our table, were completely out of place with rest of the menu.
Hoping to find some coherence and the excitement of those first courses, I ordered the tasting menu on my second visit: a $125, eight-course opportunity for Archambault to express his vision and push some boundaries with dishes off the regular menu.
This time, I was seated in the main dining room in front of the fire. The amuse-bouche was a tiny cup of cream of chestnut soup, an ultrarich sip on a cold night. All systems set for success. Then the first course arrived: a bowl of lobster bisque, with two chunks of knuckle meat (there's the rest of my lobster!) and a pillow-shaped pomme soufflé dabbed with crème fraîche and caviar, which the waiter soon covered with the dark, heavy bisque. Two creamy soups in a row?
The dinner continued, course after course, rich, heavy and old-fashioned. Lobster bisque even made a repeat appearance, drowning what should have been a light course of seared gulf red snapper. A scallop set atop creamy farro was filled with sandy grit. A smoked Texas boar chop was nearly raw at the bone. Out-of-season peas appeared in numerous dishes. The pomme soufflé popped up again, too, alongside a portion of Rosewood beef filet far too large for a tasting menu. For dessert: a skillful chocolate torte by pastry chef Jacquelynn Beckman, but the same full-size dessert is on the regular menu.
Throughout the meal, crumbs collected on the tabletop and were left unswept. In fact, on none of my visits were crumbs cleared away -- leaving us to either sit in the mess or rudely swat them to the floor.
The wine pairings, an additional $85, started with an extravagant surprise — Krug Grande Cuvée Brut — but continued with a series of solid old standards. There was nothing even slightly adventurous like an orange wine, or a wine from a young producer, or an unfamiliar area, or an unusual grape. None of the bottles had much age. One of them was corked.
The final tab for two: $563.32.
Could things have really gone that wrong at the Mansion? Even when I had been recognized as a critic?
I went back for one more dinner with a friend and her son, and I threw out a fat pitch, ordering that beautiful gin and tonic again. This time, it arrived flat and lifeless, overpowered by a heavy dose of gin. We ordered salads to start, but just one plate arrived, holding a white dome topped with gold leaf, a scoop of something white, and a squiggle of sauce. "If that's the salad, this is the most innovative restaurant I've ever been to," the young foodie said. Sorry (though no one said that), it was someone else's dessert wrongly delivered to a table that was just seated.
What can I say about the rest of the meal? Tuscan kale salad with crispy hen egg was fine, if unexciting. So was a beet salad with horseradish and labneh. The tartar sauce with the crab cake had some oomph, courtesy of chopped green olives and pickle relish. The Rosewood Wagyu rib-eye was exactly medium rare, though the outside was an off-putting gray. In another main course, the diver scallops were grit-free this time.
That so-called salad made a return appearance when we ordered the spiced apple cake for dessert, the dome filled with a delicate crème fraîche mousse, the scoop horchata ice cream, the squiggle dulce de leche. It, too, was good.
Archambault can be a thoughtful chef, but too many dishes are dull or repetitive or poorly executed. The tasting menu is incoherent. The service is chummy and unprofessional. The interior is dated.
And yet, despite it all, the Mansion is still an important part of the social fabric of the city. As we left, a boisterous crowd was spilling out of the bar into the lobby. The holiday decorations were twinkling and the staff was warmly offering goodbyes.
It is still a special-occasion restaurant. And those celebrating a special occasion, and spending serious money to do it, deserve so much more.
The Mansion Restaurant
Rating: One star
Price: $$$$ (Dinner starters $16 to $56; mains $35 to $72; desserts $14; eight-course tasting menu $125, $210 with wine pairings. Lunch starters $12 to $26; salads and sandwiches $10 to $21; mains $24 to $38; desserts $10 to $14; three-course menu $46 to $50.)
Service: Eager but sloppy. Servers are engaging and filled with intriguing tidbits about the history of the Mansion and its famous guests. But they are prone to rookie mistakes such as snatching away plates before they are finished, delivering the wrong order and serving corked wine.
Ambience: With its 40th birthday just around the corner, the Mansion is one of the last storied, formal restaurants in town. The French-American menu by Sebastien Archambault is larded with luxury ingredients. And the building still has the stately bearing of a dowager, albeit one struggling to keep up appearances. Yet there is still a dress code for guests (business casual).
Noise: Easy listening (69 decibels)
Drinks: The wine list is broad and boring, with Grand Marque bubbles, popular California reds and whites, trophies from Bordeaux and Burgundy, etc. Many bottles are under $100, notably a 2015 Henry Fessy Régnié Cru Beaujolais ($52). Cocktails include Mansion classics such as the gin and tonic ($16), which can be an astonishing drink or a flat disappointment.
Recommended: Charred octopus, Texas beef tartare, jumbo lump blue crab cake, Rosewood Wagyu beef rib-eye, chocolate torte
GPS: Oddly, the main dining room feels more dated than the secondary dining room, a dark-paneled former library.
Address: 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas; 214-443-4747; rosewoodhotels.com
Hours: Breakfast Monday-Friday from 6:30 to 11 a.m. and Saturday-Sunday from 7 to 11 a.m. Lunch Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Brunch Saturday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday from 6 to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday from 6 to 9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Health department score: B (80, October)
Access: Bar, restaurant and restrooms are two steps up from the lobby; a metal ramp is placed over them when needed. Restrooms are accessed through the bar, which can be packed.
Parking: Free valet parking
4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)
3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)
2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)
1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)
No stars: Poor (Not recommended)
Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.
60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.
70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.
80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.
86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.
Average dinner per person:
$ — $19 and under
$$ — $20 to $50
$$$ — $50 to $99
$$$$ — $100 and over