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AUS blow out dinner

My inlaws sent us a cash card for the holidays and insisted that we use it on a great meal. (Twist my arm!) After doing some research on Chowhound, I think we are deciding between Hudson's, Driskill, and Aquarelle. I know all of these places are good, but since we've been broke ever since we've moved here eight months ago, we want to pick a place that we will love without hesitation! (We recently went out for a fancy date night--for us--at Andiamo, and though my husband's special entree was amazing, my regular menu dish was lackluster, if not utterly lacking and rather awful. It kind of ruined the specialness of the night. So, as I said, we're trying to make the best possible choice here.)

Our hopes/limitations/requirements/etc:
*I don't eat pork or red meat, so I will probably opt for seafood. My husband does eat pork and red meat, so he will probably opt for one of those.

*We'd prefer intimate, quiet, and romantic to loud/crowded/hip. However, since we are in our early 30s, it would be nice if it didn't have a clubby, 50+ feel to it.

*A good wine list would be great, though because our funds are limited, it would be nice if there was a reasonable bottle option (around $40). If this is impossible, we can make do and have two glasses each.

*I think for this meal I'd prefer inventiveness over the "local ingredients" trend, if I have to make a choice. (Ideally, I'd like both.)

*Superior service. I don't want to be hurried through my one nice meal this year (!), and concurrently, I don't want to be ignored because there are other large parties who will spend more money. I also want a waitstaff that knows the menu very well and can recommend the best dishes and wine pairings, if possible.

*We are both off from regular work for the next few weeks, so we can go on a weeknight and avoid possible crowds. (Though if there is a special weekend menu, I'd like to know, and maybe we could get Friday reservations for some week in the future.)

Any recommendations, opinions, reviews would be really helpful. Though it seems a lot of 'Hounds recommend the Driskill, I haven't been able to find that many reviews of actual meals there. Right now, that's my top choice, but Aquarelle is running a close second. Everyone seems to believe that Hudson's is one of--if not *the*--best restaurant in the Austin area, but again, I haven't read many reviews here about the actual dining experiences. Am I just missing them?

And of course, if you would recommend another restaurant that I've overlooked here, please post about it! I know I've picked fine dining choices, but again that's because we really want an ultimate experience. However, if there are slightly less formal but still high quality restaurants that you think beat these places out in terms of value, I'd of course love to know.

THANKS!

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  1. First, very good picks. Those are exactly the places I would choose.

    Hudson's is going to be slim on the seafood choices. Hudson's is also a bit more crowded than Aquarelle. Aquarelle is very cozy and romantic, set in an old converted house. Driskill is more grand and opulent than Aquarelle.

    If there aren't many reviews on Chowhound, you can check the Austin Chronicle and Statesman. I wrote a very short review of Hudson's here: http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?s...

    For inventiveness, Driskill will be very, Hudson's is not so much inventive as having exotic meats, Aquarelle is not very inventive at all, just traditional French cuisine.

    I don't know that much about wine but it's my understanding that all three have good wine lists, though all on the expensive side.

    All three have excellent service, but Driskill especially. Mostly it's because the ratio of waitstaff to diners is so high there.

    I agree that Driskill should be your top pick, but it's also more expensive than the other two. I also agree that Aquarelle should be your second and Hudson's your last option.

    If you really want to go all out, Driskill has a tasting menu, which although expensive is good bang for the buck. Without any question, this is the best meal you could possibly have in Austin. They also have a prix fixe option.

    Neither Hudson's or Aquarelle have tasting menus. Aquarelle may have a prix fixe.

    1. Oh yeah, go on a weekday if you can. Driskill is often so empty on those nights that you will have a waiter wait on you and only one other table.

      1. Hermance,

        Your dilemma has inspired me to write up all the notes I've been collecting and post the reviews. In my opinion, both Hudson’s on the Bend and the Driskill Grill have some very good food, but both are flawed in different ways. I should note up front that I’ve only been to each restaurant twice since I first moved to Austin in August 2005.

        Here’s a review of a recent meal at The Driskill Grill, where I had the six-course tasting menu.

        Amuses bouches—We were given a trio or sampler of these: a fig and brie fondue with an orange slice and Fresno chile, which would have been very good if the fig were ripe; a tangy vichyssoise with crème fraîche—not a very exciting version of vichyssoise, unless you’re awed by the fact that it even shows up on a local menu; vanilla sauce with shrimp, fried leeks, and mascarpone [which seemed to accompany everything that evening]. The vanilla sauce dominated, though there was a briny aftertaste from the surprisingly chewy shrimp. These little “bites” before the meal are always a nice touch, though, and many diners would probably prefer three to just one.

        I have to mention the breads. This may have been my favorite part of the meal, though I also liked the anchovy salad. The DG’s dense, chewy breads are definitely not European-style, but they are good. There is an actually sour, crusty sourdough as well as a dried fruit and wheat bread. The latter contains minced garlic, olives, dried apricot, almonds, garlic in rosemary oil, and whole wheat. [Note: Our server said that they'd stopped adding fresh rosemary to the bread (now it’s just rosemary-flavored garlicky oil) because some timid diners complained about the “odd” flavor. Arrggghh! Why don’t the bland-bread lovers just eat the sourdough and leave the strong-flavored bread for the rest of us?]

        For a first course, I had the white asparagus and arugula salad, with Levante anchovies, Manchego aioli, and shallots. The cheese and white asparagus were wrapped with the anchovy, and the mascarpone and arugula were dotted about the plate. The Manchego must have been unaged, because it was almost as white as the asparagus. This was a very nice combination—the crunch of the asparagus (not sure that this is in season, though I barely noticed its taste) played against the soft cheese; the salty anchovy contrasted with the sweet mascarpone.

        For a second course, I had the coral sea prawns with grilled chorizo, charred tomatoes, corn butter, and coriander. The chorizo wasn’t particularly good to me (I eat this all the time), yet it was the only flavor that stood out. It was a shame, too, because I usually love shrimp. This dish, however, was just okay. The third course, which came out at the same time as the second one in order to match the courses of my friend, was the better of the two: pan-seared skate wing with haricots verts and yellow wax beans in a sauce Veronique, along with brown-butter spätzle. This was pretty good. My favorite part may have been the spätzle, which were pan-fried in butter, not boiled, as these tiny dumplings often are in Germany.

        The fourth and fifth courses also came out together. One was the pan-roasted veal tenderloin. This came with an incredibly peppery Mornay sauce mixed with al dente housemade pasta and two small but good bites of crisp veal sweetbreads. The tenderloin itself had that almost-steamed, oddly soft texture of this cut of meat (it collapsed onto itself when I cut into it with a knife) and also its typical bland flavor. The other course was slow-roasted beef tenderloin with “onion-truffle crumble” on top and a tarragon beurre rouge. On the side were Parmesan-polenta “fries." Some little slices of black truffle were the best part of this dish. At first I thought the onion-crumble topping was crisped sweet potato because it was so sweet. Tenderloin isn’t my favorite cut of meat, but it can definitely be better than this. Some spiciness or a mixture of sweet and more intense onions might help. Although this was our young server’s favorite dish, I thought these two courses were not a good duo. The pasta wasn’t bad, though.

        I should mention now that I find the sampler-of-main-courses approach to the tasting menu at the Driskill Grill to be seriously flawed. Four of my six courses were main dishes. Why would I want to sample almost everything in a particular category—unless I'm eating somewhere like Babbo, or the kitchen is limiting the sampler platter to desserts? To me the best tasting menus offer a progression. Everyone has their own ideas about how this should be ordered, but, just to give an example: caviar or oysters, soup or salad, fish, foie gras, sorbet, lighter to heavier main courses, a cheese course, a dessert medley, chocolate. Each course lays the way for the one to come. There is often a wine-pairing option, as there was at the Driskill Grill, and sometimes you are given choices within each course (this is not an option at the DG). Perhaps other ‘hounds can inform us about what’s typical in other cities in the state.

        Dessert is another serious weakness at the Driskill Grill, as their offerings are extremely limited. There are two chocolate choices (a crème brulée and a pot au crème). Otherwise, you're confined to ice cream, sorbet, fruit, or cheese (selections include Laura Chenel’s chevre, petit basque, and port L’évêque). My tasting menu came with a toffee-chocolate pot au crème, which appeared to have been the regular pot au crème, but with toffee crumbled on top of it. It had a raw-tasting crust of oatmeal-cookie dough. The dessert also came with a dollop of whipped cream and a bubble-sugar flourish. Unlike most chocolate desserts in town, this one was made with rich, dark chocolate. There wasn’t, however, enough of it. (I'd say it was 2 x 2 x 1/2 inches). I could do without the oatmeal crust, too.

        The espresso, which I paid extra for, was very weak. The going-away truffles were free, but they weren’t very good.

        On an earlier visit to the Driskill Grill, I tried the three-course option, which actually does give you one of each type of “course” but excludes dessert. My first course was the apple salad with cubes of supposedly five different apples bound with housemade ricotta, seasoned with spiced lemon vinaigrette, and then dotted with balsamic reduction. There was one very tart apple on the plate which was very nice. I could taste it in the “five-apple” salad, though the others were indistinguishable. When there are no good apples (again, it’s not apple season), wouldn’t it be better to make this with just the one good apple? This dish had nice textural contrasts; however, I would have liked the salad more if it had a little more flavor. The menu says this comes with a crisp sweet potato; if it was on the plate, I don’t remember anything about it.

        The second course was pork belly with green chile peppers, teriyaki sauce, yellow miso, and grilled boy choy. I love pork belly. This version had a very crisp skin with a tender and fatty interior. The glaze caramelized nicely on the surface. Though this wasn’t as meltingly tender as some that I’ve had, it was very good.

        The third course was the crisp breast of duck in an apple-raisin hollandaise with braised lettuce, sun chokes, and sunflower sprouts. The greens were vinegary, almost cole-slaw-like in flavor, and the sun-choke puree was buttery and smooth. But all I really cared about was the duck breast, which was not as crisp as I’d like it, but was still very nice.

        I paid extra for the sweet-potato sorbet, which was highly recommended by the server. It was good, very creamy—more like ice cream than sorbet. I also tried some of my friend’s lemon sorbet, which was very tart and flavorful, but more like an Italian ice in texture.

        Overall, the Driskill Grill was a mixed bag. The restaurant is formal, but not too stuffy. If you are seated in the front half of the dining room, as I was once, you’ll hear all the noise from the bar. In my opinion, the six-course tasting menu has conceptual problems. You would probably end up eating every main dish on the menu if you ordered the nine-course one. If I return, I’m either ordering a la carte or sticking with the three-course option. On my visits, the service has been more enthusiastic and friendly than knowledgeable.

        In terms of food quality, form seems emphasized over substance, and many of the dishes are busier than they need to be. This is ironic, given that the dishes that are very good—the anchovy and asparagus salad, the pork belly—stand out because of the quality of the main ingredients, not the other distracting elements in the dish.

        This is already way too long, and I haven’t even discussed my two meals at Hudson’s on the Bend yet. I’ll post back later with that info.

        I hope these long responses don’t make you regret asking for restaurant reviews!

        MPH

        1. While the place is a little trendy, breaking one of your requirements, Uchi is probably the best restaurant in Austin. Not the fanciest -- no white tablecloth -- and not the best service. But despite that our little city is landlocked, and speaking from experience, Uchi eclipses the best sushi that the West Coast or Hawaii offer. Japan or Korea may offer better, but as I've never there I cannot say.

          Then again, if I had to pick one super-nice meal in Austin that should echo favorably for a whole year, I would listen to MPH. His love of amazing food, his meticulous nature, and his newness to Austin grant him an objective perspective a lot of us longterm Austinites no longer possess.

          4 Replies
          1. re: tom in austin

            Tom, to say that Uchi eclipses the best sushi that the West Coast or Hawaii has to offer is a very bold statement, as I'm sure you know. You having said that, however, has made me become even more curious than ever to try it out (especially after having lived in Vancouver and spent much time in San Francisco).

            1. re: Nab

              On the scale of fish quality alone, no, what I've said is not true. But when judged as a whole, Uchi is my favorite sushi restaurant.

            2. re: tom in austin

              A very serious statement indeed. I'd say Nobu is a bit better, but also a bit more expensive.

              For this meal, I wouldn't go to Uchi. It's very crowded even on weekday nights.

              1. re: Kent Wang

                Absolutely: if you want intimate, quiet, and non-trendy, Uchi is not the place.

            3. First, MPH, THANKS for this review of the Driskill. Interestingly, though I have not been there, I have been somewhat concerned that the dishes might be too busy to cohere and deliver the punch. I value inventiveness, but I also like dishes in which the main ingredient is made the star, particularly for an entree. I am anxious to hear about your Hudson's experience. Who knows? For one night, I might relinquish my rules about beef and pork, which are really health choices rather than the more noble moral reasons.

              Tom in Austin, Uchi is another restaurant that I have considered, primarily because of all of the rave reviews around here, so thanks for suggesting it. For some reason, Uchi seems to me like something we would do for "special date night" in terms of ambiance and feel of the evening. But then again, from what I understand around here, the price may be such that we might want to consider it for this meal.

              My sincere thanks to all of those who have posted. Please keep your opinions coming. Since we can only choose one meal, it stokes my foodie dreams to hear about others that could be in our (distant) future.

              3 Replies
              1. re: hermance

                No problem. I can’t tell you how many bad meals I’ve had after various people have told me, “Oh, that place is really good.” Well, I want to ask, what was good about it? What is a good version of fill-in-the-blank to you? When did you eat there? Sometimes, people make recommendations without ever having tried the restaurant at all. They just “heard” it was good. I hear a lot of things, too, but they’re usually meaningless. I would hate to think this happened regularly on chowhound, but I suppose it’s possible. Anyway, to help make sure that bad chow doesn’t happen to good people, as the mantra goes, I try to give detailed reports on what I ate and what I liked and disliked about it. That way, people will have more information with which to make informed—and ideally delicious—choices.

                On to Hudson’s on the Bend. My notes from my meals are really sketchy, as I seem to have jotted them on the back of a cocktail napkin. There may be a few gaps. I liked many items at HOTB, but I also found that too many offerings depended upon the “exotic” nature of the ingredients rather than proper cooking and seasoning. In other words, they may figure that no one really knows if the “elk” is good or not, because no one regularly eats elk. So, let’s just grill it medium-rare and send it out with a bunch of dipping sauces. The “rattlesnake cakes” are perhaps the most flagrant offense of this nature.

                I’ve had two meals at Hudson’s on the Bend. On the first visit, I tried the smoked duck diablos, which consist of duck breast, jalapeño, jicama, and figs in balsamic, all of which were wrapped in applewood bacon and charred beyond recognition. Despite the burnt, almost black exterior, I was of the opinion that I prefer my duck breast, jalapeño, jicama, and figs without the bacon, as long as the duck breast is good. This was accompanied by a "red-chili-glaze" dipping sauce, which made an appearance again with my main course. To me, this sauce had the sweetness of supermarket barbecue sauce. It definitely wasn’t spicy. I ordered this appetizer at the suggestion of the server who said it was “fun” to share. I guess it could be fun, if you enjoy pulling out long skewers of bite-sized portions of the above from an overturned apple half. I learned that I don’t. (I also couldn't stop wondering what they did with all the uneaten apple halves.)

                I did like the darker bread that came with dinner; I think a ciabatta was also offered. A trio (the theme of the evening) of butters was offered, of which I most enjoyed the one with roasted garlic.

                For a main course, I had the famous Hudson’s mixed grill, which includes hardwood-grilled venison and rabbit tenders, pecan-smoked Bandera quail in a lime-cilantro-ginger glaze, with Chuy’s spicy game sausage, and achiote-marinated buffalo. This came with three dipping sauces, one of which was the sweet one mentioned above. Regarding the other two, I would guess that one was horseradish-based and one berry- and/or –chili-flavored, but I can’t tell from my notes. All I wrote down was that they didn’t add much to the combination. I thought the quail was pretty good. Of the remaining meats, the venison sausage had the most flavor, due to the various sausage seasonings. The venison and rabbit tenders were very tender, but that’s all I would say about them. I couldn’t taste the achiote seasoning on the grilled buffalo. I probably should have ordered a more straightforward course, since this seemed more like “adventure dining” than truly inspired fare. The meat was slightly underdone, so it came out more rare than medium-rare.

                I ordered the pumpkin white-chocolate bread pudding for dessert, which came with vanilla ice cream and bourbon-vanilla-praline sauce. Apparently, it didn’t make much of an impression on me, as my notes simply say that the ice cream was better than the pudding.

                The second time I ate at Hudson’s, I avoided exotic birds and beasts. To start this time, I had the seared foie gras, which sat on top of a cinnamon gordita, and was drizzled with mango and tamarind sauces, all of which was then finished with a red-onion-jalapeño marmalade. This was also very busy, conceptually speaking, but I just pushed aside the cinnamon gordita (my friend ate it) and stuck with the fois gras accented with fruit. The fois gras had a crisp exterior, and a warm, melting interior, as seared fois gras should. Very nice.

                Next I had the watermelon gazpacho. This was fine, nothing spectacular, but refreshing and good. What made it work well, however, was that our knowledgeable, professional server suggested that it follow the fois gras as a palate cleanser before the main course. I don’t think I would have even enjoyed the gazpacho nearly as much had it been a true first course (even assuming I hadn’t followed with fois gras). I’ll mention here that the service at Hudson’s on the Bend is the best I’ve experienced at a formal Austin restaurant. For me, that means their advice helps make my meal taste great, and they unobtrusively keep things moving at a good pace. I don’t care if they smile every time they clear plates, or things like that. In fact, overly friendly servers have rarely been the best ones, in my experience.

                Alas, nothing could make up for my next course. Courtney’s hot and crunchy ruby trout was neither hot nor crunchy. Apparently, that day they were offering it bland and soggy. It was “swimming in a pool of mango habañero aioli,” if you redefine this as a sauce that doesn’t taste like garlic or habañero, but instead like sweet butter. In fact, this drenching in sauce was what made the trout so soggy—the fried fish was a sponge that soaked up every last overly-sweet drop. This dish was supposed to be “splashed“ with “ancho sauce.” It was splashed with something—something that wasn’t the least bit spicy. I’ve made obvious in other posts the fact that sweet sauces that are supposed to be spicy are a major pet peeve of mine, so I won’t belabor the point again here. Roasted-garlic wild-rice flan (no, that’s not a typo) accompanied it. I like roasted-garlic flan, and I like wild-rice “flan,” or sformato. I don’t like roasted-garlic-wild-rice flan twice as much. Maybe half as much, though. FYI: People *love* this trout dish. I tried it because a colleague told me that I must have it. Sigh.

                Dessert was another disappointing chocolate dish named “Chocolate Intemperance,” this time with a raspberry note. Because the chocolate wasn’t rich enough, this was no better than everyone else’s bad chocolate torte. Granted, L.A. Burdick (a chocolate-maker in New England), Jacques Torres (in NYC), and various fine-dining restaurants out-of-state have raised the chocolate bar so high that most desserts taste as bad as a Hershey’s bar to me. However, I won’t rest until I find something closer to chocolate nirvana in the Lone Star state. If it kills me, then at least I will die in pursuit of a good cause.

                By the way, I only remember one of the amuses bouche. It was chorizo in puff pastry, probably with about five other ingredients added for good measure. It was pleasant enough.

                Overall, Hudson’s on the Bend had some clunkers and some good dishes. They get in their own way, it seems to me, with over-saucing and simultaneous underseasoning, plus the various distracting flourishes and odd combinations. I like this restaurant because they’re trying to put a Hill-Country spin on fine dining. The last thing Austin needs is another bad French restaurant, for example.

                If you check out the menu, you’ll see that they offer several other fish dishes, plus duck and pheasant breasts. I do plan to go back to try a few of them. For what it's worth, I'm not currently planning a return to the Driskill Grill.

                The service at HOTB is excellent; their wine list is nice. The restaurant itself is elegant and inviting. Although someone wrote recently that it’s loud, that hasn’t been my experience, unless I happen to get stuck near a table of loud diners. But that’s only the fault of the loud diners. There are different, spacious dining rooms that open onto each other, on several levels. (Unlike like the small, separate rooms at someplace like East Side Cafe). They also have patio seating, which is illuminated year-round with holiday lights to enhance the beauty of the Hill Country setting. (And perhaps to distract you from the noise of RR 620).

                Have a great meal, and please report back afterwards!

                MPH

                1. re: MPH

                  MPH, Thanks again for a great, detailed post. I'm curious, though. Given your descriptions of the meals at the Driskill and at HOTB, it seems like you enjoyed the food at the Driskill more, yet you aren't planning a return trip. Can you tell me why this might be? What about the overall experience makes you willing/wanting to try Hudson's again but not necessarily the Driskill? (I know that your answer to this might be very subjective, but I'm just interested in how you're thinking of the experiences overall.

                  Tonight, we are off to try the best new restaurant in Georgetown, where we live, Nonna's, which is right off the square. My husband's student is a manager there, and we've heard that everything is made in-house, a true rarity in Georgetown. I'll report back on this meal and later on our big meal, which we probably won't do until mid-January.

                  Thanks again, everyone. I hope we win the lottery (which we don't ever even play, but still...) so that we can try Uchi sometime. It does sound really great.

                  Does anyone want to make a claim for Aquarelle?

                  1. re: hermance

                    Hermance,

                    Sorry about the delay in responding; it was due to the holi-daze.

                    You raise a good question. The reason that I'm not interested in going back to the Driskill Grill is that I’ve already tried almost everything on their menu, thanks to the format of their "tasting menu." I liked the skate and the pork belly. I liked the bread. But none of these high points make me want to rush back there. And, I really can't abide a high-end restaurant that has bad dessert offerings. What’s a fine meal without a decadent dessert?

                    On the other hand, at Hudson's on the Bend, there are still many individual dishes that I have not tried, nor have I experienced their tasting menu. Because the Driskill Grill was overhyped as the best restaurant in town, I was especially disappointed with my dining experiences. I've had highs and lows at HOTB, but the overall experiences were good. Partly this had to do with their excellent service; partly this was a result of my expectations.

                    On Austin’s fine-dining scene, I’ve preferred restaurants that take some risks with a larger menu over the more-cautious ones with smaller menus. To date, the restaurants that have played it safe have usually delivered really boring meals.

                    That can always change, of course. I didn't like Wink when I tried it, but recent posts make me want to give it a second chance. When I do, I hope to be pleasantly surprised.

                    Best,
                    MPH