Chef Avner Samuel has a reputation for pushing the boundaries. In fact, according to D Magazine who have him listed as a Best Chef in their Best of Big D directory, Avner is “as close as we get to a Michelin-type chef auteur.” Now Restaurant Manager and Executive Chef of the Mariposa restaurant at Neiman Marcus Willow Bend, Avner has brought his culinary gifts to Plano.
Just a few months in, Avner has already made big changes, and, according to him, the restaurant is more successful now that it has ever been in the last 18 years. Change, however, has not come without opposition.
“In the first few days, there was a big fuss about the salmon taco … there was such resentment I had to put it on my daily specials,” he says with a laugh. “So, I’m giving in on just one item … it’ll go back on the menu.”
Three other items that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon are: the consume, the pop-overs and the Mandarin Orange Souffle Salad–on the menu at Neiman Marcus since 1957.
That being said, Avner claims to have made the souffle better. “Today we serve even more of the orange souffle than before,” he says. “Firstly, the chicken is completely cooked sous vide, so all my chicken stays in my chicken; its not dried in the oven or boiled in water. The second thing is the presentation: it looks like a piece of art now.”
The rest of the menu, however, is completely new and a great improvement. “I found the menu to be so old,” says Avner. “There was a big separation between the restaurant and the rest of the store. It was very important for me that the food would look in colors and arrangement like the rest of the store.”
A highlight of Avner’s first iteration of the menu (which will change seasonally) is the Red Beet Cured Pacific Salmon (pictured above), topped with black caviar and crème fraîche and neatly perched on perfectly crispy latkes. It’s a work of art: beautiful to look at and the perfect combination of flavors. Avner cures the salmon in-house himself.
And while Avner is not a fan of the Salmon Taco, he’s particularly proud of his Braised Short Rib Taco. “85% of the costumers are women, so there was some resistance to putting short rib on the menu,” he explains. “But, it’s been selling like crazy. In the first week I cooked 20 pounds, the second week I cooked 30 and this morning I cook 110. Ladies eat short rib.”
Indeed, ladies do eat short rib. Before I sit down for coffee with Avner, he brings me a plate of his Coffee Braised Short Ribs and I instantly fall in love; the meat is just so tender and flavorful. The tacos are made from the same meat. “To get beautiful squares I have to trim the short rib and whatever is falling down, it becomes my meat for the taco,” he explains.
Ladies, however, also love salad and the Brussel Sprout Leaves Salad is a delight with delicately roasted heirloom beets, toasted pumpkin seeds, dates and goat cheese finished with the most heavenly lime vinaigrette. Another light option is the Tartare of Ahi Tuna served in a bowl and sitting elegantly in a yuzu-ponzu gastric sauce. Both are exceptional.
Meanwhile, the Crushed Avocado on House Made Seeded Bread is a show-stopper. While this dish may appear to be nothing more than fancy avocado toast, this could not be further from the truth. Firstly, the bread is gluten-free and secondly, it’s not really a bread, it’s almost a fruit cake. “It’s got flax seeds, oats, pistachio, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, buckwheat, cranberries, red current, salt, olive oil and little bit sugar,” says Avner. The result is a bread so delicately soft it’s difficult to pick up (pro-tip: use a fork) and just sweet enough that it balances perfectly with the creamy avocado that sits on top. It’s fabulous.
Also worth mentioning is The Original Tortilla Soup, as much for the story as for the soup itself. Avner claims to have invented the soup during his time at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas (from 1981 to 1985) and he’s still a little annoyed that Dean Fearing changed that recipe when he took over The Mansion. “He put cilantro in the tortilla soup, and there is no cilantro in tortilla soup,” Avner says. He’s not joking.
I’ve got to give it to Avner: he makes a very good soup. It’s more of a broth than a heavy traditional soup, and is served dry with a tiny mound of shredded chicken (cooked sous vide) topped with crisp tortillas. The broth is then poured on top. It’s certainly much better than any other tortilla soup I may have tried elsewhere, even without the cilantro.
Perhaps what makes the food on Avner’s new menu so good is his commitment to sourcing the best fresh local ingredients, including using herbs grown in the store’s own rooftop herb garden. He even does all his own butchering in house.
What’s made the real difference, however, is Avner Samuel himself. With over 50 years experience in the kitchen at some of the top restaurants in the world, Avner knows what he’s doing and he still loves doing it.
“Food is about passion; If I don’t eat it, I don’t serve it,” he says simply.
With Chef Avner Samuel at the helm, Mariposa at Neiman Marcus Willow Bend now competes, and even outshines, the top chef-driven restaurants in the area. If you’ve not tried Mariposa recently, you absolutely need to go.
Mariposa, Neiman Marcus Willow Bend
Neiman Marcus Willow Bend, The Shops at Willow Bend, Level Three
2201 Dallas Parkway, Plano, Texas 75093
972.244.2818 | neimanmarcus.com
Chef Avner Samuel
A few things you may not know about Avner:
- Avner Samuel is from Jerusalem, Israel.
- Previous to joining Neiman Marcus, Avner, was the Chef/Owner of the award winning restaurant, NOSH, which was featured in numerous publications including Gourmet Magazine, New York Times, Restaurant Hospitality, Esquire Magazine, Men’s Health, Time Magazine, Texas Monthly and The Dallas Morning News.
- Avner opened a NOSH in Plano. The restaurant on West Park cost $1.5 million to open. “It was a very expensive mistake,” recalls Avner. “At that time, Plano needed cooks not chefs.”
- In 1981, Avner was named Executive Chef of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas.
- In the early 80s, Avner was recognized as one of the “Gang of Five”. This elite group of Texas chefs included: Avner Samuel, Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Robert Del Grande and Anne Lindsay Greer.
- In 1985, “Rosewood” asked Avner Samuel to open their newest Dallas property, The Crescent Court Hotel, where he served on the executive committee and was the Executive Chef. Mr. Samuel later became the Executive Chef of the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas for four years. In 1991 he moved to London to reopen the newly renovated Churchill Hotel London where he created a sensation with his genius menus.
- Avner Samuel opened his first restaurant, Avner’s, on McKinney Avenue in 1993. Two years later he added the critically acclaimed Yellow to his list of fine restaurants. In 1998, Mr. Samuel opened his highly lauded Bistro A, which was named to the Dallas Morning News list of the 10 Best New Restaurants for that year.
- In August 2003, Samuel opened, Aurora. The Dallas Morning News claimed it was the “farthest reaching, most daring restaurant” to open that year and Aurora was awarded 5 stars as well as the “number one best new restaurant”.