My visit to Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek has been one of pleasant discoveries even before I entered the restaurant. For almost as long as it's been open I've somehow been aware of the restaurant's reputation at the pinnacle of the Dallas fine dining scene. I've also known that it was nestled in a leafy, quiet part of the city, although I could not quite picture such an area on the map I used to get here. Because I could see the downtown skyline as I (supposedly) neared my destination, I feared I must have taken a very wrong turn along the way. But my directions were accurate, as was my general expectation of the neighborhood: Turtle Creek is a verdant, reasonably tranquil, oasis in Uptown Dallas. And immediately upon pulling into the courtyard it was clear that I landed in the lap of luxury.
Executive Chef John Tesar's reputation also precedes him. He bought his first restaurant in the Hamptons at age 24; not long after that he opened 13 Barrow Street, his first restaurant in New York City. He would go on to establish Vine restaurant on Wall Street and manage 44 X Hell’s Kitchen in the Theater District. After a brief post-9/11 excursion to a Lake Tahoe resort as the corporate executive chef, he returned to New York as executive chef of Rick Moonen's highly-acclaimed restaurant, rm. When the restauranteur introduced Rick Moonen's RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Vegas, Tesar returned to Nevada to oversee operations there. Along the way he crossed paths--and sometimes swords--with a number of America's more famous chefs.
Tesar looks too young to have such an extensive resume, and I'm eager to learn more about that wild period in New York when several of today's nationally famous chefs were building their reputations. But first I want to know more about this beautiful restaurant at Rosewood Mansion, where Tesar arrived in late 2006, and to sample the dish I was told to expect: King Crab and Two Butter Sauces.
The crab is served in a white ceramic bowl that is nearly the same color as the butter sauce; in turn, the butter sauce is almost the same tone as the garlic foam on top. It's like coming upon a still pond on a foggy morning: I can't tell where the foam ends and the liquid begins. It's an inspired presentation. I stick my fork to the bottom of the bowl and give a gentle stir, causing a swirl of parsley purée to come to the top. The appetizer is a little magical...even before I take a bite.
The chef suggests a William Fèvre Chablis 2006 to go along with the appetizer. One critic says the wine "has an attractive and expressive minerality, steely yet with a presence of ripe, white fruits wrapped around this harder core, with a leafy, nettly outer wrapping." I'm not sure about the meaning of some of those words, but the wine is very nice and it does go well with the crab.
Why two butters? "It's two garlic butters and just a little garlic foam," Tesar says, "and one of the butters is emulsified and one is the actual broken butter in which the crabmeat is warmed." The foam gives a pop of garlicky flavor that wakes up my palate; the two butter sauce is more subtle and, unlike plain drawn butter, doesn't overpower the succulent crab. The chef tells me the King Crab is not only one of the more successful dishes on his reinvented menu but it also characterizes his food philosophy: he's really into seafood, and he likes straightforward cuisine.
It's all about "the art of simplicity."
"Others start with more components," he says, "but when I get to the third ingredient, you have to explain to me why you want to add a fourth. I come from the school where the protein--or whatever the center of the dish is--should be the star, and whatever else is on the plate should complement it. Also, in most cases, there should be a classic association: I reinvent a lot of classic dishes in contemporary fashion. If you're dealing with the freshest and best ingredients you can find, why do you need to do much with it anyway? Salt and olive oil is sometimes all you really need."
I understand this approach in theory, and yet--sitting here eating the chef's food--I realize that cuisine from what he calls the "simple but elegant school" doesn't mean that it would be simple for just anyone to prepare. And of course it wouldn't be: Tesar says food like this takes "time, effort, care, and technique."
It's obvious that a lot of "time, effort, and care" went into what is in many ways a new restaurant at Rosewood Mansion--a reinvention that involved significant challenges as well as opportunities. A major challenge was introducing any change: the Mansion has a storied reputation and a loyal and long-standing clientele. It also had an iconic chef, Dean Fearing, who departed to open his own restaurant, Fearing's, in partnership with the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas. (Fearing's is only about a mile away from Rosewood Mansion.)
The $20-million hotel and restaurant redesign did a lot to draw a line between the old era and the Tesar regime. Before the renovation there were a lot of comparisons with the Fearing days, but that reference point seems to be fading. "Taken as the sum of its revamped parts, the Mansion continues to be the paradigm of fine dining in Dallas," wrote Bill Addison, the esteemed restaurant critic at the Dallas Morning News, in February, adding significantly: "But it is a different restaurant now."
Given all the creativity that's involved in the back of the house--cooking at such a high level--and in the front of the house--pulling off a major renovation of the dining rooms, I ask Tesar if he sees any link to the impulse to study film, as he did when he enrolled at NYU. Sure, he says, "I've been a frustrated artist my entire life. I play the guitar but I can't sing. I'm good with color but I can't draw." Cooking is his outlet for that creativity now. He also points out that both realms are highly visual, a point that's obvious with film but perhaps not always as appreciated when if comes to food.
Tesar is also quick to point out that creative circumstances coexist with the opportunities for destruction and failure, and he candidly tells me he knows about both experiences. "Sometimes your talent is ahead of your maturity," he says in reference to his own New York days as well as speaking generally of other elite chefs. He knows the ups and downs, he says.
Now, I read Kitchen Confidential when it came out in 2000, and I can't pull up from memory the exploits of the pseudonymous Jimmy Sears. But it is clear from Tesar's context that, like Bourdain's self-portrait, the depiction of Sears is not altogether flattering. And when I check later, the portrait is not entirely heroic. (Whose life, honestly recounted, would be?) Nevertheless, the first strokes of Bourdain's portrait of "Jimmy Sears" are impressive:
Jimmy was a brilliant cook. He'd come up with Brendan Walsh at Arizona 206, and the food he turned out in his brief time working [in a pseudonymous restaurant] was so good, I'd stay after my shift was over, sit at the bar and order dinner and pay for it. Seeing what Jimmy could do in the kitchen really inspired me; I'd been slinging hash for way too long, and tasting a real demiglace again, eating new, exciting food, seeing new presentations, made me remember what I'd enjoyed about food in the first place.
Sitting in the glorious Rosewood Mansion dining room, enjoying my own exposure to "eating new, exciting food," and appreciating firsthand an exquisite presentation of the chef's King Crab, I understand what Bourdain wrote about Tesar's talent. While Bourdain may overstate some things in his book, it's obvious to me that, in this case, he simply reported it as it happened.
For menus, hours of service, and reservations contact information, visit the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek website.
© Marshal Zeringue