The Mansion at Judges' Hill
The Mansion's intimacy and opulence are hard to top
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., Sept. 19, 2008
The Mansion at Judges' Hill1900 Rio Grande, 495-1857
Breakfast: Monday-Friday, 6:30-10am; Saturday-Sunday, 7-10am
Dinner: daily, 5:30-10pm
Sunday brunch: 11am-2pm
The Mansion at Judges' Hill is a beautiful old house built in 1897 as a wedding gift for local physician Goodall Wooten and his bride, Ella Newsome. In 1929, Ella hired Neiman Marcus to redecorate the place for, in today's money, $1 million. Fifteen years later, the Wooten family sold the place, and it became student housing and later a drug-abuse treatment center, and by 2003, it had morphed into a luxury boutique hotel with a nice restaurant. The food quality had been erratic – occasionally wonderful, at other times lackluster. We had heard good reports about a new chef and new management lately and decided to see what was happening.
There is only one small dining room with 12 tables in the restaurant, but everything is luxurious, from the paintings to the decor to the 1950s jazz playing in the background. All the plates are lavish modern designs. This being Austin, customer attire ranges from jeans and Polos to fancy dress. Most tables have couples with love in their eyes. And, indeed, this is a great date place.
The food truly has improved. We went twice, and our first experience was transcendent. Both food and service were perfect in every way, even though the place was doing overflow Friday night business. We started with scrumptious lobster tacos ($11.50) that had mango, avocado puree, and cilantro to go along with the sweet meat. Ditto for the Gulf Coast crab cakes ($12.50), which were made properly with vanishing amounts of filler. Their gazpacho ($7) used the normal ingredients plus charred tomatoes and roasted red peppers, which lent a nice smoky flavor. Lamb lovers will go nuts for the Lamb Trio ($34), which includes grilled chops, tenderloin, and umami-laden lamb ravioli. The playful petite medallions "Wellington" ($21) were a deconstructed version of the traditional beef dish with the medium-rare meat sitting on a piece of puff pastry instead of being wrapped in it. Very tasty. All the sauces demonstrate that the saucier invests the time necessary to fashion some serious reductions. A bottle of ripe, peppery La Daurelle Côtes-du-Rhône ($40) was the bargain of the wine list. The service was just the right combination of friendly and formal, and it was lightning quick.
Our second visit was on a Tuesday night. We were surprised to find the restaurant empty but for us and one other table, and they were friends of the manager. We started with the Duck Confit Flatbread ($9), a pizza with Mexican cheeses, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and crème fraîche. It was big enough for a dinner and wonderfully savory. The oysters "escabeche" ($10) were coated with masa and fried, then served with a jicama-and-corn relish and a sauce made from vegetables marinated in an escabeche style. The oysters were wonderfully crisp on the outside and just firm on the inside. The chef's take on a BLT wedge ($8) was a baby iceberg split in half with a sweet onion marmalade, bacon, and a rich, creamy jalapeño vinaigrette. The sea bass ($28) was pan-seared to crispy perfection with a risotto cake and sautéed spinach. The evening's only mild disappointment was the house-made pappardelle with chicken ($25) that arrived oversalted. The problem was not serious enough to warrant a return, just a little frustrating. The Mansion version is made with pesto and tomatoes and was otherwise delicious. I was happy to see one of my favorite wines on the list, the Chalone Pinot Blanc ($44), a dense, smoky wine that matched the whole meal. The service this time was more casual. I'm sure everyone was feeling a bit frustrated by the lack of business that night.
The restaurant is trying to build local business by offering diners a card with a 20% discount on dinner, which pulls the prices down to little more than a family restaurant (be sure to ask for one). Plus, the Mansion is the location for the popular Austin Cabaret Theatre, which, a dozen or so nights a year, hosts legendary cabaret performers from New York City.
One thing I've never understood about Austin's dining scene is why some of the best restaurants in town, which just happen to be in hotels, don't get much local traffic. Trio, Roaring Fork, the Driskill Grill, Finn & Porter, and Judges' Hill all deliver wonderful food and deserve our regular patronage. The restaurant food and service at Judges' Hill were of the highest standard our first night and very good the second. And for a romantic tryst, the intimacy and opulence are hard to top.