Mansion at Judges' Hill
New owners are breathing life into an Austin landmark
Reviewed by Gracie Salem, Fri., Nov. 30, 2012
Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 6:30-10am; Sat.-Sun., 7-11am; Dinner: Mon.-Sun., 4-10pm
Mansion at Judges' Hill1900 Rio Grande, 495-1800
Dinner & bar: 4-10pm daily; breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 6:30-10am; Sat.-Sun., 7-11am
Although for months, word on the street has been that C3 Presents had purchased both the 1600 block of S. Congress and the Mansion at Judge’s Hill, their public relations representatives tell us they do not own the Mansion. While other news outlets have reported Capital Sports and Entertainment, a partner of C3, is indeed developing the South Congress project, current ownership of the Mansion is in the hands of Rio Grande Investments ATX. With change in the air, a visit to the beloved historic building and its charming restaurant was in order. We made reservations for dinner recently to check out chef Rob Snow’s new menu*.
It was a Thursday evening, and let me say this first: We were running late. Offered a five-thirty table, we were expecting an onslaught of diners with Formula One looming. We arrived in a rush, shrugging off our jackets and giving many thanks to the sweet hostess for holding our spot. We were then taken to a cozy table for two in the corner of a completely empty dining room. There are few dining experiences as odd as one in an empty dining room. While we would have loved the bustle and noise of neighboring guests, we were charmed by the informed and lovely service we received that evening. Our server was timely, efficient, and, in times of uncertainty, honest. She brought us two White Cosmopolitans, strong with Tito's vodka and white grape juice. We dove right into chef Rob Snow's menu, ordering crab cakes ($16) and beef carpaccio ($14) to begin. Our waitress asked the kitchen to split our crab cake appetizer into two small plates, a nice touch. They each sat on a roasted pepper puree and were warm, light with filler, and delicious. A side wedge of cold, previously-charred pita bread, however, was an odd companion to the plate. On that note, a basket of sliced pumpernickel bread arrived upon ordering and was served with an herbed, olive oil dipping sauce. Pumpernickel is an odd choice for table bread, as well as the wrong partner for olive oil. It deserved butter. Our server told us there were no menu specifications when it came to bread; it was up to the daily whimsy of pastry chef Taff Mayberry.
The carpaccio was perfect: bright pink and well-seasoned with capers, hard-boiled egg, and bitter, delicate mizuna greens from Boggy Creek Farm. The smoked gouda and poblano soup ($8) that followed was the best part of the meal. It was flavorful, creamy, yet somehow remained light on the palate. An herb salad with bacon lardons sat aside the bowl, and we kept tugging it back and forth between us. I would definitely return just for that soup. We next shared a pasta course of red pepper pappardelle ($16), my personal favorite cut of pasta. It featured a cream sauce with kale, mushrooms, leeks, and chicken-fried eggplant, which came in a deck-of-cards sized crispy hunk on top of the pasta. The eggplant was odd, I must admit, hanging out there on top and wishing it had been cooked in fresher oil. But once cut up and incorporated with the rest of the ingredients, it worked. Chef Snow seems to like deconstructing ingredients, or presenting two cooking methods when one would be expected.
Our entrees included two from the main menu. The beef tenderloin ($29) was perfectly cooked to medium, as ordered. Everything supporting the beef was well executed, but the sweet nature of sweet potatoes and sarsaparilla reduction, while very tasty, seemed better suited for a pork dish. Wild black drum ($19) was served with a Louisiana-style hominy, a smart side item that was creamy with a kick of spice. The cornbread puree on this plate, however, was another misstep. It was unfortunately presented cold next to wilted spinach, marring an otherwise satisfying fish dish. Throughout the meal, bread and pastry choices were odd, off-putting, and a struggle for even our server to describe. Dessert saw a deep dish of crème brûlée ($9) topped with enormous strawberries and a disc of meringue. It was a delightful, silly mess.
The genteel old mansion is so seductive that I would have loved to march upstairs to spend the night in a big, comfy bedroom. My imaginary visit includes an order of pancakes and an omelet from room service, and a feast on that memorable soup and another good steak later in the day. As my father always advised: If a restaurant can handle making a soup and a steak to your liking, then it's worth a return visit. We'll be back when we've got time to spend the night.
[*Corrections have been made to the original version of this story, which misidentified the actual ownership of the property.]