Stars and Gripes

For years the Mansion on Turtle Creek merited our highest rating, but now it's no longer tops in our book.

August 2001By Comments

In May I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as the editor of Texas Monthly’s Restaurant Guide: I demoted Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek from three stars to one. For weeks before the issue came out, I found myself obsessively going over the details of the meal I had had at the Mansion in March with our two Dallas restaurant reviewers: The seared foie gras, with its lightly crunchy crust and meltingly rich center—yes, that was superb. And the fat, medium-rare sea scallop, pink as mother-of-pearl, in a caramelized orange sauce—wonderful. But then I would remember the halibut steak crusted in coconut, lime leaf, and chile threads (perfectly cooked halibut can be soufflé-light, but this one was just average and even a bit unevenly done, and its crust reminded me of nothing so much as grass clippings) and its accompanying purées (the yucca root-mint resembled thick mashed potatoes with no discernible flavor of mint and the lovely bright green of the gingered-English pea purée did not compensate for a certain Gerber’s-like quality). As much as I applaud the kitchen for trying out novel tastes and textures, I wouldn’t dream of ordering that dish again. When I wasn’t fixated on the food (and we sampled more than I’ve mentioned), I would think about our readers and worry that our three stars might have misled them for months. Then I would think about the Mansion’s chef, Dean Fearing, whose food can be deliriously good, and wonder how the demotion would make him feel. Stars! How can such a tiny typographical symbol be so heavy?

Of the 215 restaurants that we list each month, we give stars to 21. Three of those have three stars (Cafe Annie and Tony’s in Houston and Star Canyon in Dallas), 4 have two stars, and 14 have one. Theoretically, stars are shorthand: They let you glance down the page to quickly find the top restaurants in a city—good, better, best in a three-star system like ours. But of course stars aren’t that simple. Thanks in large part to the reputation of the revered Guide Michelin of Europe and its famously tough restaurant inspectors, stars also confer status and power, both on the place evaluated and the publication doing the rating. You set yourself up as an authority, and both the public and the restaurant community take notice. I’ve been yelled at in French, called a bitch in English, gotten scathing letters, and received innumerable bouquets of flowers and unsolicited gifts of food. Favors don’t come just by FedEx either. Once I was dining at a posh restaurant in Houston when a bottle of extremely expensive wine mysteriously appeared at my table; I foiled that tactic by not drinking any of it. (Ploys like this are why all our reviewers are anonymous; I never make reservations under my own name, but sometimes I’m recognized.) An Austin restaurateur told me back in the eighties that he thought each star was worth an additional $1,000 of income a month, a figure that would be far greater today. No wonder stars are a big deal.

Deciding which restaurants rate stars is hard because it’s not a matter of science but of aesthetics. In the seventies, when I was new at this job, I naively thought that I could devise a perfectly objective system for evaluating restaurants. Such checklists do exist. The Mobil Travel Guide and the American Automobile Association, for instance, give hotels and restaurants zero to five stars or diamonds, and their guidelines are amazingly specific. Their spies look for things like whether the server neatly refolds the guest’s napkin when he temporarily leaves the table. Little or no subjectivity is allowed to creep in. But I didn’t get far with my list. Even in the cut-and-dried area of service, precision eluded me. How long is too long to wait for a credit card receipt? Five minutes? Seven? Assessing atmosphere is also almost totally a matter of taste; I become quite dyspeptic when I see walls painted that popular split-pea-soup color, but others find it the height of chic. And evaluating food, the most important element, depends wholly on having a discriminating palate and extensive dining experience.

Oh, sure, you can say objectively that lettuce leaves should not resemble a melted Salvador Dalí watch and a baked meringue shell should be distinguishable from portland cement. But the fine points—the star points—defy being evaluated in a purely objective way. How do you describe, in so many words, the difference between a bordelaise sauce that is robust and one that is harsh? Or the precise crunchiness of perfectly al dente vegetables? All the restaurant critics I’ve met apply personal experience on a case-by-case basis. Here’s my system, based on 26 years of professional eating: When I finish a dish and think to myself, “Hey, that was really great. I want to have it again next time”—that is a one-star item. When I’m in the middle of eating something and realize that I want more and more and more, that’s two stars. And when I take my first forkful of a dish, stop in mid-bite, and say with my mouth full to whomever happens to be listening, “Wow! This is fabulous!”—that is a three-star experience. New York Times critic William Grimes calls such a creation an “eye-rolling pleasure bomb.” Exactly.

The restaurant at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel opened in 1980. It went straight from zero to two stars in July 1984 and got three stars in January 1996. Dean Fearing has been the chef for the entire time, and under him the dining room has attained a national reputation. There’s no question that the man can cook. He was a co-creator of Southwestern cuisine in the early eighties and since then has moved imaginatively into Asian, North African, and other global styles. He’s also a great goodwill ambassador, sauntering about the dining room in his custom-made Lucchese cowboy boots with a thousand-watt grin on his face. The trial lawyers, CEO’s, and cosmetic surgeons who can afford the fearsome prices (Fearing’s famous tortilla soup $11, sea bass $40, sirloin $50—the last two with vegetables included, thank God) love the Mansion. The lighting makes women look glamorous and men look virile, and there’s a good chance you might spot a hotel guest like Mel Gibson or Madonna having a bite at a discreet table. It’s quite a scene.

We’ve always given the Mansion good reviews. True, sometimes there would be a word or two of criticism (“sadly gummy twice-baked potato wedges” in October 1995, to cite one example), but nothing all that serious. Over the past year, however, something seemed to change. Our reviews are updated every three months, and with each visit our reviewers (who have been with us since 1981 and 1988) were getting more disgruntled. In February they wrote, “potato-crusted sea bass with roasted oyster mushrooms on fine braised cabbage, while quite respectable, wasn’t a transporting experience.” In March I received e-mailed comments about a recent visit that began, “Spend $100 for lunches for two and you expect more than a salt overdose.” I called the reviewers, and we decided that the three of us would dine together at the Mansion.

We got a great table in the coveted main dining room and were treated with the Mansion’s usual homey aplomb. Except for one small slipup—no refills were offered the sole coffee drinker—the service was fine and properly attentive. Other than the high and low points previously mentioned, the meal ranged from extraordinarily nice (primo tomato-and-mozzarella salad, sparklingly fresh dessert sorbets) to good enough (a pair of upscale enchiladas with a filling of adobo grilled vegetables in one and fresh spinach with tomato confit in the other) to average (undistinguished french fries) to below par (oily triangles of achiote shrimp toast). Afterward, we drove back to my hotel and sat in the lobby with our notes spread out on a coffee table, weighing the evidence. Everyone agreed that this was not a three-star meal; the only question remaining was whether it merited one star or two. The reviewers were split down the middle. I cast the final vote—for one. The good dishes were dazzling, but the pedestrian ones brought them down. Two stars suggest an experience almost as close to flawless as three, and that did not describe the two hours we had just spent at the restaurant.

For now, the Mansion’s star count—based on a new visit by the reviewers and a follow-up visit by me—holds steady at one. Asked if he wished to comment, Fearing said, “While we’re disappointed in Texas Monthly’s review, we would like to note that among the accolades received in the past year, the Mansion was named the best hotel restaurant in the world by Condé Nast Traveler and earned the highest possible ratings from both the Mobil Travel Guide and AAA.” The differences of opinion do not surprise me. After all, critics often disagree, and any visit reflects a given moment in time. We will continue to revisit the Mansion, and if it changes, so will its stars.

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