On Judges' Hill
Sits a mansion with a menu of equal elegance
When the stately Wooten mansion was re-invented as the Mansion at Judges' Hill last spring, we had the impression that the owners aspired to the rarified company of the nation's best boutique hotels, five-star establishments renowned for both their exemplary hospitality and excellent food service. It was exciting to contemplate a local property that would be mentioned in the same list of hostelries such as the Inn at Little Washington, the Mansion at Turtle Creek, and the Inn at Blackberry Farm. The Austin Mansion certainly got off to an auspicious start, hiring accomplished young chef John Maxwell to create their fine-dining outlet, with menus for breakfast, lunch, Sunday brunch, and dinner. Maxwell assembled a qualified staff, bringing along a sous chef from Zoot and hiring pastry chef Katherine Clapner, formerly of Stephan Pyles' Star Canyon operation, to create fresh breads, distinctive breakfast pastries, and custom plated desserts. Though the hotel's business got off to a slow start, every time we visited in the early days, the kitchen was in extremely fine form.
We had been so impressed with our early meals at the Mansion, in fact, that it was scheduled for review after only being open a couple of months. (We usually wait four to six months before reviewing new restaurants, to give them time to find their groove.) No sooner was the review written than we heard about upheaval in the Mansion kitchen: Clapner had left in a dispute with management, and sous chef Paul Hieb would soon be leaving to pursue a product development job in Fredericksburg. Realizing the foods we'd described -- especially the breads, pastries, and desserts, were due to change -- the review was shelved and rescheduled for the fall. Once again, just as we were set to go, word on the street was that the Mansion had hired a consultant to revamp the food service program, with an eye toward saving money. Hours of operation were streamlined, some kitchen staff members were laid off, and it was suggested that too many menu items were being made in-house, from scratch. (There's obviously a cautionary tale here for business owners about what a small town this really is when it comes to restaurant workers and purveyors. Everybody knows everybody's business, and news travels lightning fast.) Our hearts sank when we heard about more changes at the Mansion, and we approached the upcoming review with trepidation.
The good news is that we needn't have worried. The kitchen is still in the capable hands of chef John Maxwell, and his cooking continues to reflect subtlety of palate, confidence, and genuine skill at balancing flavors. Our most recent meal at the Mansion was every bit as delightful as the Easter Sunday brunch we'd loved, as well as the lunches and dinners about which we'd raved. While the majority of the Austin dining public may not yet have a clear idea of what the restaurant at the Mansion at Judges' Hill has to offer, John Maxwell knows what he's doing. Given time, and management willing to support consistent hours of operation, he should be able to develop a loyal clientele within the local community, as well as with the traveling public.
On a recent evening, a friend joined me on the Mansion's veranda. In the waning fall twilight, she sipped an excellent Bombay Sapphire Martini ($10), while I had San Pelligrino water with lime, and we contemplated the meal to come. We were soon seated in the small dining room to the left of the front door, beneath an oil painting of the Tuscan hills. The gracious decor, rich draperies, and deluxe furnishings of the Mansion are in keeping with its history as one of Austin's finest turn-of-the-century homes. The restaurant's china, silver, and crystal are classically elegant. It's a lovely place to enjoy a meal. Chef Maxwell's autumn menu is divided between a handful of classic Continental dishes, such as House Smoked Salmon With Traditional Garnishes ($7.95), Salad Lyonnaise With a Poached Quail Egg ($7.95), and Grilled Hereford Filet With Tarragon Bearnaise ($31.95), and a larger selection of more modern American regional dishes. Based on my previous meals at the Mansion, I can tell you the classic dishes are perfectly executed and will please a traditional or nonadventurous palate. The modern selection, on the other hand, is the real showcase for Maxwell's talents. Choose from that list, and he'll blow you away.
Our meal began with a shared salad of House Smoked Duck Ham ($8.50) circling a slaw of Napa cabbage, carrot matchsticks, and peppery radish sprouts in a toasted cumin vinaigrette. The rosy circles of ham made an excellent foil for the crunchy slaw and the beautifully balanced dressing in the hearty fall salad. Austinites who love foie gras, as well as those who are always on the lookout for a definitive sweetbread preparation, will be drawn to the appetizers on Maxwell's Modern menu. The Duo of Foie Gras ($14.50) features a salty pink tourchon garnished with a tiny Seckle pear, poached and fanned, as well as an ethereal mousseline paired with a robust, Armagnac-soaked prune. The skill and detail work necessary to produce a dish of this subtle sophistication demonstrates that plenty of things are still being made in-house, from scratch, in the Mansion kitchen, consultation be damned. (We've looked into it, and it turns out that in the absence of a pastry chef, Maxwell is making the breads, pastries, and desserts himself, as well.) The Pan Roasted Veal Sweetbreads ($9.50) were perfectly complemented by a remarkable smoked red onion marmalade and a cider reduction sauce that had us wanting to lick the plate. Another definitive fall standout.
Entrées at the Mansion range in price from $16.50 to $31.50, and side dishes are offered a la carte for $3.95-4.25. The items we chose that evening proved to be so hearty, side dishes were really not necessary, however inviting they looked. I chose a grilled Red Oak Farms New York Strip ($26.95) on a warm salad of Fingerling potatoes, yellow wax beans, and haricots verts in a horseradish vinaigrette. The steak was cooked exactly medium rare, and medallions of tender beef were arranged around the salad, which still retained the crisp character of the vegetables. It's a well-executed twist on the all-American meat and potatoes meal. The Rosemary-Scented Filet of Atlantic Salmon ($24.95) was nestled on a bed of mild celery root-green apple compote with sharper accents of bitter wilted frisée and salty salmon roe. It was yet another stellar example of Maxwell's skill at balancing well-chosen seasonal flavors.
The pacing of our meal was leisurely, as befits a fine-dining experience in a stately, luxurious mansion. The service was friendly and well-informed. Though we didn't order wine with this particular meal, the Mansion wine list is small and well-chosen, with several good selections by the glass. My only complaints in the service area would be very personal: The obnoxious, screeching jazz fusion on the sound system was a jarring contrast to the quiet sophistication of the mansion setting, and the dining room chairs are so tall that a short person such as myself ends up feeling like Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann with her feet far off the floor. However, the musical selection thankfully changed about halfway through our appetizers, and I think I'd suffer sitting on any chair in town if I knew John Maxwell would be doing the cooking. I think he's got the goods to steer the Mansion at Judges' Hill into the pantheon of fine boutique hotels, if that's indeed where the owners aspire to be.