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Mar 11, 2012 02:37 PM

Overall view of dining scene in Austin

Folks, what can I say. I've lived here for 12 years. We have eaten out almost weekly since that time at many of the restaurants ever mention in Chowhound. We have raved about Austin food. We have had well executed dishes along with excellent service and ambiance in the same restaurant. Then we've had at least one of each in other places. One can really run the gambit from trailer food to high-end indulgences.
But, as of the last couple of years, I am beginning to become more and more disappointed with the food and service; more especially of the $$-$$$ restaurants. Just last night, we decided to try Siena since we had not been there in several months. Of course, the Boar is great, but everything else left us wanting. The risotto was no better than one from a box...really! We watched the service staff give back massages in front of the cooking window...lordy, lordy!
No long ago we ate at Jeffery's...had to send dishes back and service was lacking. When I pay $150+ for a meal for two...I expect to walk away very satisfied with service and quality of food.
Folks, I'm just not finding great food. No, I have yet to try Congress or Parkside.
I know that the economy is tight, but I could do with smaller dishes than with ones that I can cook better at home. And really, classic spaghetti carbonara, how simple a dish...eggs, pasta, cheeses and pancetta--how easy is that--can't find a good one.
Hope I didn't upset you guys too much...I love Austin, but I am really getting more and more disappointed and stay home more and more.

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  1. Well, I sort of agree with you and sorta don't. Jeffrey's just came under new ownership, so maybe they're just working out the kinks. I think that was a few months ago though, so if it's not enjoyable now, that might be a bad portent.

    I still think we're blessed with some f***ing fantastic restaurants, though. I lived in NY long enough to really become a snob, and Uchi beats most places I've ever been, anywhere. Going to Uchiko tomorrow night... psyched to try it out.

    I thought El Arbol was a fantastic restaurant, although I only went there once. I had the grilled octopus app and the grilled escolar with manchego gnocchi... so good. Too bad the owner just decided that he (or she?) didn't want to run a restaurant anymore and pulled the plug. Lame. I guess the Parkside guy is behind Olive and June, though? Opinions are just starting to develop about that place, but once again, it's new, and I'm sure they'll work out the kinks. Parkside is fantastic in my opinion.

    Perla's is great. It's simply prepared seafood, but everything I've ever had there has been cooked perfectly, and the vibe and staff are nice. I've always thought that Vespaio is overrated, but Enoteca never disappoints. Wink's food is tasty, but I found the crowd to be pretty bourgie and unpleasant... once again, just an opinion. Justine's food is pretty normal but tasty enough, but it's really about the experience there, which I love. Plus it's pretty cheap. Then there's also Chez Nous, which can feel a bit dated and dingy, but I also still love.

    I've only been to Olivia once, and my server was so pretentious that I don't think I ever want to go back, just on the off chance that he still works there. My parents were in town and my dad asked about the filet topped with foie gras, and the server responded with the smarmiest "yes, it's very decadent" you've ever heard. That was just the tip of the iceberg as far as all of the other ridiculous things he said. Ew, ew, ew. I'm really not exaggerating... the guy must have had neck problems from such a perpetually upturned nose.

    Haven't been to Congress yet, either. Really interested in going. I agree that the trailer scene has gotten a bit overwhelming in a way, but I still appreciate it. If you want a nice sit down experience crossed with a trailer, I'd highly recommend G'Raj Mahal. i also really want to check out Barley Swine.

    Anyway though... I think we're in pretty good shape. I love it here. Everybody's got their own opinions though, and that's what makes the world go round.

    2 Replies
    1. re: popvulture

      Oh, and forgot to mention La Condesa. I don't like it, but that's probably because I've never, ever been to an upscale Mexican restaurant that I've liked (Rosa Mexicana and Zocalo in NY, Bayless' various places). I just don't like seeing Mexican stuff fancified with designer cocktails and Herman Miller furniture. Gotta say though... lots of people love it, and that's totally fine with me.

      1. re: popvulture

        Tried Uchiko last night and it was fabulous from start to finish.
        We have never had a bad meal at Paggi House if you want to go old school.
        I agree that Jeffrey's was just terrible and we won't be back unless the reviews really turn around with the new set of owners.
        Same for Congress, it was totally overrated and expensive, we always thought of the Driskell with David Bull as our favorite, so Congress was truly a disappointment.

      2. Thanks for post. Yes, I do agree with you, it's just the overall standards seem to be falling.

        4 Replies
        1. re: SLadd

          by your own admission you haven't really checked out the spots that are driving the scene now. jefferey's, sienna...these are places that were overpriced to begin. Jeffrey's hasn't been innovative in a decade.

          eastside king is cheap and pushes the envelope in terms of new offerings. as do a dozen other trailers in this town. barley swine, parkside, lenoir, elizabeth street, congress..more pricey but very good.

          If you wanna stick to the old standards, I dare you to try and get lousy service at threadgill's.

          I don't really understand the point of this post.

          1. re: ieathereforeiam

            I agree with the above... and the original post sounds like you just need to try some new places. Jeffrey's is a dinosaur. It's literally Austin's very first haute cuisine place.

            We all need to try new places, though... that's not an accusation. Like I said, I'm going to Uchiko for the first time tomorrow, and I haven't been to Congress yet. East Side King (all three) are fantastic. The pork belly at the Grackle location is insane. The beet fries with kewpie mayo at Liberty... ugh, don't even get me started. I dream of them. I've only gotten takeout from Elizabeth St, but it was great. Sure, it's more expensive than your typical great Vietnamese place (of which there are many), but it also doesn't have linoleum floors, and they put dungeoness crab in their spring rolls. Just a different experience, neither better nor worse.

            So yeah, I think we have some damn fantastic places in this town. I wouldn't throw most of em out of bed.

            1. re: popvulture

              You can't evaluate Austin if you haven't tried the best. I haven't been to Jeffreys since they gave me salmonella. But Barley Swine, Uchi, Uchiko are superb. Parkside is great, and La Condesa and Congress are also quite good. That's a pretty decent collection of top end restaurants, and doesn't count a couple I haven't been to. Food now is vastly better than twelve years ago

              1. re: frankcross

                +1. those are some of the best restaurants (and values) in the nation. You can't eat at a NYC restaurant of the caliber of Uchi/Uchiko for the price anywhere else i'm aware of. Except maybe vegas.

        2. Great post- I for one am not upset at all by your comments, and I think you have set the stage for a great discussion.

          When it comes to chains and higher priced restaurants- Austin is feeling some of the same pinch that is being felt nationwide. Cost-cutting continues, and it shows up first in the quality of the cuts of meat and in choice of vegetables. A very common problem now as well is the choice of fresh versus pre-cut packaged lettuce for salads. I find it amazing to be so refreshed by the presence of a salad made from fresh lettuce, but such are the times we live in.

          I just moved back here after 18 months in purgatory- Houston (where there has not been a truly great restaurant since the heyday of Tony's in the 1980s) and while I have been sad to see some recent events, overall I am optimistic.

          Jeffrey's is a special exception. The young chef who took over that place was a colossal idiot and destined to fail from day one. They would have been better off putting Paula Deen in charge. I only dined there once under his regime and that food was absolute crap. All I can give him credit for is being a great salesman to his investors.

          Mirabelle is gone, Zoot is long gone, and Chez Nous- one of my favorite restaurants of all time- has taken some cost-cutting measures that are minor but terribly obvious given their usual high standard.

          But also there is Fabi and Rosi (I was there last night and had probably the most perfectly cooked mussels ever in Texas), there is Hopdoddy, there is Haddington's (for some things), SoCo Cafe on a culinary high, and a wealth of newcomers offering everything from a specialty in braised meat to Detroit style Pizza and a newcomer to the BBQ scene who removes the need to drive an hour out of town to be amazed.

          I avoid the high dollar these days. For all the praise for Congress Cafe- to give one example- I read the fine print qualifications and- combined with the fact their attached hipster condo complex is less than 50% sold- see all I need to see. I won't waste my money there. And with the economy like it is here- full of real estate agents who essentially own local lifestyle publications- I see zero value in what they are flogging and giving rave reviews to in their rags.

          Just remember, this is Austin. Explore, have fun, and remember that a great meal can come from a trailer just as well as from a $40 an entree night. And remember too that as the business cycle has its way, there are many new entrants to the restaurant world. Even among the greats there are occasional stumbles. Look not only to the meal in front of you, but what that person is capable of with time.

          That is my approach anyway- and I think right now Austin is more promising than it has ever been. There are a lot of serious and dedicated chefs here who don't care about getting some food critic Award or getting on Top Chef. If I want to taste food from guys like that - I go to NY or LA where the real talent is on the cutting edge. Austin can be awesome, but it is not cutting edge. This is not a bad thing.

            1. re: dinaofdoom

              Ugh- thanks for the warning. I picked a great time to get on my high horse...

              1. re: elpaninaro

                ahahaha. i just meant it as a heads-up to anyone posting.

                1. re: dinaofdoom

                  Ha, I find it hilarious that this made it on Eater. I personally find the original post a bit preposterous, but hey... like I said before, we all have our opinions. That said, I think we have a s**t ton of awesome high end restaurants here, and even more in the lower price range. So many kinds of great ethnic food, and tons of American options (of course including the holy BBQ). It's really kind of pointless even making a list because we're fortunate enough to have one that could go on for a REALLY long time and keeps getting new editions.

                  So, like I said, the situation here is just fine. Go check out more of the fine dining places you haven't yet visited, or maybe just go to La Moreliana grocery store on S.Congress, buy a couple of tickets from the nice people at the register, then order some excellent tacos from the nice ladies working the griddle in the back for like three bucks total.

                  1. re: popvulture

                    Also, still bummed that The Good Knight is gone.

              2. re: dinaofdoom

                What the heck is Austin Eater? Sounds like a venue to post opinions about other people's opinions about food. I've been posting for years and have never heard of this.

                Being an everyday cook, I don't really understand these lofty pursuits. We're somewhat spoiled in Austin. We should be on our knees praising Jah that we have all of these choices - per capita, don't we have the most eating establishments? Oh, the pain of the bourgeoisie......

                1. re: rudeboy

                  Eater is a nationwide food blog with local pages. It's not a message board (although comments are allowed), and more of a blog about local restaurant news. Openings/closings, chef news, etc.

              3. I don't get to Austin that often, but based on what I see when I get to town, I agree with you. I guess the real difference I see when reading the responses here is 1) what constitutes fine dining; and 2) what is your definition of "high end."

                At least to me, fine dining, by definition, includes a broad choice of good wines from at least several regions across a moderately broad range of prices. In that regard alone, almost every restaurant in Austin fails. I have yet to eat at Barley Swine (and hope to do so on my next visit), but come on . . . . The wine list, if you can call it that, has 11 red wines and seven whites. And no restaurant in Austin has what I would call an impressive wine list.

                Again, a question of definitions. "High end" to me is the very finest ingredients combined with flawless preparation and technique. I'm thinking Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, French Laundry, etc. Of at least aspiring to that sort of cuisine. Again, nothing in Austin seems to be aiming that high. (And frankly, the few restaurants in Dallas that do are for the most part closing and dropping like flies.) But the only places that I travel frequently that I'm really finding much depth in high end restaurants these days in New York City, the San Francisco Bay/Napa/Sonoma area, and Paris.

                I would sum up the Austin dining scene as I see it as 1) fairly strong on low to mid priced places (main courses in the $15 - 35 range) with local ingredients; 2) very weak and short wine lists predominate; 3) pretty strong for some low end ethnic cuisines and regional cuisines; 4) very weak on European Classic ethnic cuisines -- French, Italian, Spanish, etc. although I am fond of Chez Nous; 5) pretty strong on low priced options; and 6) totally bereft of high end restaurants.

                17 Replies
                1. re: Mike C. Miller

                  Mike- well said. I think you pretty well nailed it.

                  This is not to say I do not love Austin's restaurant scene- I do. But I do no go out to dinner here expecting an Eleven Madison Park experience, for example. That does not exist here- as I noted above it did exist in Houston at one time when Tony's was at it's peak, but that is the only time.

                  At times there have been chefs here with technique who could have approached those highs, but noone in this entire state- heck anywhere outside of a handful of major cities- is going to be able to invest in the raw ingredients necessary and turn a decent profit.

                  And this is not a bad thing. Personally, I prefer simpler food most of the time. Simple can be great- Chez Nous is the poster child for that. I have had some amazing dinners at places like EMP and Craft, but as with any other hobby truly enjoying that experience requires a good deal of experience, advanced preparation and careful attention at table.

                  And the few times I have brought that preparation and mentality to Austin restaurants that I was told were world class (Uchi and Wink the biggies), I came away very disappointed. When you put yourself out there as world class, and charge prices to match, you create enormous expectations.

                  This is how I can say Wink sucks and in the same breath state I found something at Bacon that makes me want to go back there again and again.

                  1. re: elpaninaro

                    Really, EMP charges $195/head for the dinner tasting menu. Masa's $400/head for omakase with no pairings. You can't drop that at any Austin restaurant before wine. The prices in Austin are nothing compared to the coasts for dining. And the Dallas culinary scene has been dead for years, save for Smoke and a few others. The French Room and the Mansion (and Fearing's and the offspring of the that early 90s generation of Southwest Cuisine chefs I grew up with) have always done fine dining well, but there's nothing innovative there. And Congress has a sick wine list by any standard, verticals, first growths, multiple formats; it can hang. I'd also argue that distrubutors don't favor Austin. In Texas, it's a secondary market, populated with patrons who are increasingly wine savvy, but not nearly as likely to buy the big bottles as our fellow Texans in Houston and Dallas. There's little incentive to go bid at auction for bottles that won't move, however interesting they may be. Also, one can bring one's own wine to most of the best restaurants in Austin.

                    The one positive thing I can say about this conversation is that it opens up the topic of what constitutes fine dining. One could argue for deep wine lists and silver and crystal, or one could argue for the knowledge, experience, and innovation one encounters throughout the restaurant. And it might not always match one's experiences elsewhere, but it continues to evolve and improve.

                    A corollary and endnote: El Bulli, as a restaurant, was never profitable. A burger joint's margins allowed EMP to halve its covers and double its kitchen staff. DBGB, Barley Swine, and their ilk are the new fine dining. It might be time to re-evaluate.

                    1. re: bubbleboy79

                      "There's little incentive to go bid at auction for bottles that won't move, however interesting they may be."

                      Not to mention, illegal in Texas. Places like Bar Henry can create interesting, mature, reasonably priced wine lists via auction. Not an option here.

                      1. re: bubbleboy79

                        I think you are exactly right- as I pointed out, noone in Austin would ever make the investment in a restaurant like EMP because they would never get the customers in at the necessary prices. And your point on El Bulli is right on.

                        As for what constitutes fine dining- for me it is all about the food first and foremost. And those kinds of experiences are not intended for every day- nor would they be terribly healthy over time. I don't want to eat like that most of the time. It is possible to state that there is no true fine dining in Austin and yet still love and appreciate the talent here and the terrific food that is prepared. The food here is what I want to eat 95% of the time.

                        The rest of it is more subjective- decor etc. And on wine, at today's prices and with the generally high turnover of staff (pilferage, lack of knowledge)- I do not think it is possible for 99.999% of restaurants to maintain a really solid (and mature) wine list across a variety of price ranges. Congress has a pretty stellar list- but even then most of those wines are way too young. Still, I give them great credit for stocking up on 2007 burgundies which do okay with food right now, and for things like 1989 Mouton Rothschild which are not trophy darlings but in fact are perfectly mature and more suitable as a harmonious dinner companion than a 1982 or 1986 will ever be. Not since the Four Seasons 15 years ago- where the sommelier had stocked some really good midweight vintages of Bordeaux- have I seen such good choices.

                        But again- if we are talking fine dining, 95% of that list is too young to be served. This is why I am so big on BYO in Austin. If I can find good to great food, wine is not a problem. And happily Austin continues each year to embrace BYO even more (and I think taking it away is going to prove a huge mistake for Bistrot Mirabelle.)

                        1. re: elpaninaro

                          So - let's talk about wine here in Austin. Most places have very simple lists that look like a wine rep suggested the wines and the descriptions. Even Wink, which I think has pretty good food (and superb desserts!) has at best an indifferent wine list.

                          There are, however, a few restaurants with great wine lists:

                          Olivia: First place in town that carried Occhipinti, Texier, and Paolo Bea. Stephanie Childs is the sommelier and she does a great job of matching the wine to the cooking.
                          Congress: June Rodil's list has no equal in Austin. Truly wonderful, with lots of great producers at all price points.
                          Uchi/Uchiko: Also great wine list. Not in the same league with June's list at Congress, but interesting in its own right.
                          Paggi House: Lots of high-end Burgundy and Bordeaux, including plenty of DRC, Dujac, etc. Prices are reasonable, though not cheap by any measure.
                          June and Olivier: Good list with some excellent possibilities. Have only been once and reserve further judgement.

                          Everywhere else you're better off sticking to beer.

                          1. re: Andrew Zachary

                            Wow!! Paggie house list is VERY nice. Never even heard of the place. I'd make a special trip to eat there. You could nitpick a bit -- outside of Dujac, de Montille, and Ghislaine Barthod, there are not enough of my favorite red Burg producers on the list -- but hell, I'm just delighted to see those three!! How's the food?

                            As for the others, I thought that Oliva was a nice enough small list the one time I ate there. Not terrible impressed by the food.

                            Congress, more depth than quality, especially in terms of the quality of the producers in Burgundy (which is where I most often buy). Liked the whites better than the reds. Rhones and Bordeaux better than the Burgs. Kind of hard to account for that. Italian producers seemed pretty middling and uninspiring. No real small or hidden gems that I noted (although Italy isn't my strong point).

                            Uchi, underwhelmed. Thought that both in Chard, Riesling, White Bordeaux, etc. all could have had higher quality producers, even at the low price points on the list, never mind more depth at higher price points.

                            1. re: Mike C. Miller

                              Ah, we should define our terms about wine.

                              1) Because of the arcane, idiotic and down-right ridiculous liquor laws, restaurants cannot buy older gems at auction.
                              2) Not many of the great Burgundy producers make it into Texas; still fewer are available in Austin and a much smaller set are available for restaurants.
                              3) By local standards, hell, by any standards! a list with Dujac, de Montille, Barthod, Bonneau du Martray, Mugnier, F. Jobard, Lafon, Liger-Belair and Lafarge is a great list. Add in some reasonably priced DRC's (hah! That's an oxymoron.) and the list looks pretty amazing. Sure, it would be nice to see some older wines and more depth, but see 1 & 2 above.
                              4) In California, tastes are finally moving away from "more oak + more alcohol = a great wine." There are Chardonnays from Hanzell, Stony Hill, Littorai and Mayacamas, who collectively have been making wine for nearly 2 centuries. These are mostly minimally oaked, moderate-alcohol wines at very reasonable prices.

                              That said, we probably disagree about "hidden gems." That's fine. I'll keep the rest hidden. They are there, but usually in the arcane areas from off-beat producers.

                              1. re: Andrew Zachary

                                "Not many of the great Burgundy producers make it into Texas"

                                I respectfully disagree. When I think of great producers, I think of: Domaine Leflaive, Roumier, Ramonet, Rousseau, DRC, Montille (at least old Montille), Dujac, Coche, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Mugnier, Fourrier, d'Angerville, Lafon, maybe Vogue, maybe Leroy, Meo Camuzet, certain Drouhin, certain Jadot, Ponsot, Bachelet, maybe Chevillon, a handful of others, maybe more. All of the above, with the possible exception of Ponsot, Dujac (past two vintages... previously available), Leroy, and Chevillon make it to Austin. The odds of walking into a store and buying Coche CC are pretty much the same as everywhere else on the planet. But you can usually walk into the Austin Wine Merchant and walk out with Montille or Ramonet or Roumier, Lafarge, Lafon, Martray, Jadot, Drouhin, Leflaive, Mugnier, etc. New releases, sure, but that's what they do. I can think of very few other shops in the States where that's reliably the case.

                                As for local lists, I haven't been in awhile, but I don't think Olivia's list has ever been as strong as when it first opened. Was special then. And Uchi/Uchiko's lists haven't been interesting since J. Rodil left. (I like those restaurants and frequent them but their doesn't seem to be a big focus on the wine program.) Congress' list is very strong and could hold its own in any market. Esp once you've taken a look at what's available via proper channels.

                                As for food, well, I can't think of a time when Austin's food scene was any better than it is now. More later.

                                1. re: Steven Dilley

                                  Dujac is now exclusive to Spec's and I think it all goes to Houston (Dallas may get some as there are no Spec's there yet- but in Houston and Austin we are screwed). As you might imagine, they sell out of the favored grand crus in top vintages right away and are already sitting on a mountain of 2007 and 2008 Charmes and premier crus.

                                    1. re: Mike C. Miller

                                      Is Pappas Bros shooting for the world record in longest wine list?

                                      1. re: Mike C. Miller

                                        Obviously, I'm not suggesting its on par with RN74 or Veritas or the old Cru list or Daniel, all of which rank with the world's top lists. And it's pretty obvious that's not what I suggested.

                                        1. re: Steven Dilley

                                          OK, what did you mean "hold it's own in ANY market." I'm curious. It's a middling wine list. Nothing more. Unfortunately, other than Pappas Brothers -- and I deplore eating steaks out -- I don't know of a single restaurant in Texas that has anything other than a middling wine list these days.

                                          1. re: Mike C. Miller

                                            Mike, The wine list at Pappas is truly spectacular. Unfortunately, it looks like many of the treasures come straight from Rudy's cellars.

                                            1. re: Mike C. Miller

                                              Sorry, I've been traveling.

                                              I was speaking to the quality of the list and location, meaning that the list would hold its own in some generic, comparably upscale restaurant in NY or SF or wherever. By that I'm not claiming the list is comparable to Daniel. I mean if there were a Congress restaurant in NY, its current list would hold up just fine.

                                              Now that I think about it, though... Congress strikes me as a restaurant with one-Michelin-star aspirations, or whatever the equivalent is, and its wine list holds up in that category. (I'm not arguing it would be the best wine list in that category.)

                                              It sounds like you might have an single objective standard when it comes to evaluating wine lists, and that's fine, but I can be quite happy if list is well-curated and interesting, like Ten Bells or Isa.

                                              As for eating steaks out... maybe you're not eating them at the right place. ;)

                              2. re: bubbleboy79

                                I think we need to be careful to define our terms. You don't have to have high end fine dining to have a good restaurant. But to have "fine dining," you may have to have some of the elements that have been talked about here.

                                Look at the cafe upstairs at Chez Panisse, Zuni Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, etc. There are many, many restaurants of that ilk that do fresh seasonal ingredients that trump any on offer in Austin, but are not white table cloth, crystal, and sliver, etc. To me, they are excellent restaurants. Maybe even fine dining. So I would take issue with Bubbleboy79 if he is arguing that crystal and sliver are a prerequisite for fine dining. Zuni Cafe's wine list is only two pages, but very well curated. Frankly, I'd rather have their two pages than the 20 pages or so at Congress -- better producers, more variety, and the wines are better suited to the cuisine. Unfortunately, I just don't see that quality level in any Austin wine list, much less a list like Gramercy Tavern (modest in size, but very well selected).

                                In some respects, Austin seems to have it backwards. The smaller less expensive places don't seem to put much emphasis on their wine programs. Indeed, some almost seem to ignore wine and treat it as an afterthought. And the bigger fancier places don't seem to put as much emphasis on their foods. For them it's more about decor and ambiance.

                                My ideal restaurant is causal to the point of being very unassuming -- say Chez Panisse upstairs -- but with knockout quality food and at least a very good wine list. Unfortunately, I don't see any place in Austin that fits the bill on both sides right now. (Nor in Houston, for that matter, although Mark's comes close. In Dallas, both Lucia and Nonna come close although they both fall down on the wine side a bit.)

                                1. re: Mike C. Miller

                                  Good point on the length of the wine lists. One thing that I think is really helping improve Austin food (and presumably elsewhere) is a much smaller menu allowing for better consistency and more affordable use of fresh/top quality ingredients.

                                  The same could work for wine lists.