In late 2009, French chef Bruno Davaillon arrived at The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek with a brave mission: to honor the legacy of Dean Fearing’s elegant, media-darling restaurant while adding his signature European flare to the menu. Davaillon continued to follow much of the restaurant’s tradition, but minimized plate ingredients and pushed the envelope with new and foreign culinary techniques. Recently, the restaurant released a new cookbook, “The Mansion on Turtle Creek Cookbook” – it’s first in over 20 years – with favorite recipes from the days of Fearing and new culinary compilations from the genius of Davillon. Here, Chef Davillon – who was recently nominated for a James Beard Award – talks Fearing, his favorite recipe from the restaurant, and how Dallas compares to Austin and Houston.
The Mansion on Turtle Creek already published a cookbook before. What made you feel it was time for another one?
It’s been over twenty years since that one published, and much has changed in that time. The cooking has changed. The chef has changed. The ingredients have changed, and we thought it was important to show readers how things are different.
How is the book different from the last book? Was there anything you added or wanted to do differently?
The story was very different. I arrived here two, two-and-a-half years ago. I had seen the older book and wanted to take a fresh, new approach on this one. We put a lot of my recipes in there and some of the old recipes were rewritten to reflect how the time has changed.
Dean Fearing writes the foreword to this book and talks about his experiences in Dallas and cooking at the mansion. Tell me how things have changed since he left.
I met him a couple of years ago before I came to the mansion. I knew his style, but it’s very different from what I’m doing right now. His legacy is still at the mansion, but I don’t do things like him. Every chef has his own style, and I’m bringing mine. The mansion has always been very loyal to local vendors and local flavors. The trend is still the same, but the recipes have changed.
When you say different, what do you mean? How would you describe your style?
I was trained in France and Europe. I’ve been trained with a European mindset. The techniques and the plates are different. I put less ingredients on the plate, and I’m more focused on three flavors. I like that to be the maximum so it’s direct and to the point.
These aren’t typical Texas recipes. If you had to describe the cuisine from the mansion, how would you best sum it up?
I think it reflects Texas cuisine pretty well, actually. The ingredients are high quality and it’s to the point. The style is different in that it’s French, but I’ve traveled to the East Coast and the West Coast, so I would say the menu is like a passport of my travels and what I’ve learned. I think that the Texas ingredients and local vendors make it very Texan. We always want to push the bar and try to do something to be more reflective of what’s going on out there. I don’t want to say we’re ahead of the trend, but we understand what’s going on in Texas.
What recipe will resonate with devoted fans of the mansion?
Obviously, the tortilla soup. It’s been here forever. We can’t take it off the menu, even if we wanted to, which thankfully I don’t. It’s a very good soup. It has deep roots at the mansion. People come here to taste it. The lobster salad is really popular too. A lot of the dishes are put on the menu at one point and just work really well, so we tried to bring those and put them in the book. I mean, I’m not Dean Fearing and I’m not going to try what was done before. I really like to use some local flavors and do it my way.
Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
Probably the lobster salad or the chorizo-crusted halibut. I like them because they are simple flavors, but really combine well and work well with the guests here.
How have you seen the Dallas culinary scene evolve through the years?
Lately, it has been evolving quite a lot. A lot of young chefs are opening small restaurants and doing really interesting menus. We are doing a really great job with restaurants here. When you talk about a food city like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, you don’t think about Dallas at first. Austin comes to mind. I was in Austin three weeks ago and had a great time, but Dallas has come a long way and I think we’re on the right track to have some really great restaurants in town. We’re changing the food scene in a good way.
The food scene in Texas is becoming more popular. It seems to be something people are paying a lot more attention to. Do you feel like Dallas doesn’t get enough credit for its food scene in Texas, compared to cities like Houston and Austin?
I think you deserve what you deserve. If we talk about Austin more than Houston, I think it’s that Austin has been better than Houston. We’re catching up with those cities, but we don’t have tourism that Austin does. I think it’s coming a long way; it’s going to get interesting in the future.
Tortilla Soup from The Mansion on Turtle Creek Cookbook
6 Roma tomatoes
½ medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 New Mexico chile, seeded
8 cups low-sodium chicken stock
3 tablespoons plus about ½ cup canola oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 sprig fresh thyme
½ tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 large bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped (seeded for milder soup)
6 small corn tortillas, quartered
2 epazote leaves, or fresh Mexican oregano (see note)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups vegetable oil
2 corn tortillas, cut into
2 x ½-inch strips
1 ripe avocado, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 ounces aged cheddar cheese, shredded
Combine the tomatoes and onion in a blender and puree. Pour the puree into a bowl and set aside.
Roast the New Mexico chile in a 375-degree oven for 3 to 4 minutes. In a blender, puree the chile with 1 cup of the chicken stock. Pour the mixture into a bowl and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil in a medium saute pan over high heat and toast the garlic, cumin seeds, thyme, dried oregano, and coriander seeds, stirring, until golden and fragrant. Set the toasted spice mixture aside in a small bowl.
Heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil in a large stockpot over high heat. Add the onion and tomato puree and cook for 5 minutes. Add the remaining chicken stock, the bay leaf, tomato paste, chile puree, jalapeno, and the toasted spice mixture.
In a Dutch oven or heavy skillet, add just enough oil to cover the quartered tortillas (do not add the tortillas to the pot at this point), and heat the oil to 350 degrees. When the oil is hot, fry the quartered tortillas for 2 to 4 minutes, or until crisp. Drain the fried quarters on paper towels, add them to the stockpot, and bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 1 hour, skimming off the fat as necessary. In the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the epazote leaves or fresh oregano. Process the soup in a food mill, or use a blender to obtain a smooth consistency, and return the soup to the stockpot to keep warm. If the soup becomes too thick, add additional chicken stock to thin it out. Season the soup with salt, lemon juice, and cayenne to taste.
Just before serving, prepare the garnish. In a separate stockpot, poach the chicken breast in the chicken stock over low heat for 15 minutes, then cut into ½-inch cubes. In a Dutch oven or heavy skillet, heat 4 cups vegetable oil to 350 degrees. Fry the tortilla strips for 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Drain the strips on paper towels and season with salt.
To serve, warm the chicken and avocado cubes up slowly in a little bit of the tortilla soup, then divide evenly among four soup bowls. Pour the hot tortilla soup over each bowl and top with the cheddar cheese and fried tortilla strips, or serve on the side.
Epazote is a pungent Mexican herb available in Mexican specialty stores. If epazote isn’t available, you can substitute fresh Mexican oregano.