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Feb 25, 2006 07:21 PM

Austin Dining Scene

  • c

I hate to say it but, something about the selection or quality or ability to inspire me to want to eat out is lacking in Austin. I used to live in NYC, and ok, nothing is going to be the same but there are other cities that are doing something different like Dallas, for example. There are some places that I do enjoy (Z Tejas, Cafe Josie, Polvos, El Chile, Bombay Bistro, Clay Pit and I do like Salt Lick 360) that are great but overall I'm unimpressed.

I'm not sure there is an answer at this point. City is booming so maybe this will change.

Oh, and I'll state the obvious, the *published* food critics and restaurant review boards (outside of the 'hound) suck.

If I'm missing something please let me know!

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  1. It sounds like you need a change of pace! Try some of the hidden gems that may not be so obvious. Zax's, Capitol Brasserie, even a little trip to the Four Seasons... not to mention some creative things going on at the Roaring Fork. Caste Hill and Mirabelle (may be the same owners) offer some very interesting meals. There is so much more out there than appears to be on the surface. Best of luck!!!

    7 Replies
    1. re: Rene'

      Not to hijack this thread, but curious what you thought of Zax?

      1. re: ftf

        I thought Zax was very creative, delicious and I love the way it fits in its location. Our waiter dropped our drinks at the very beginning of the meal but he handled it gracefully and with humor. Another couple joined us and I recieved a "thanks for the great idea" email the next day. We will definitely do that again. We had a cheese and olive appetizer, mussels and after that, it didn't matter. That is how impressed I was. Very nice.

      2. re: Rene'
        Tha Groovin' Gourmet

        I'll second those emotions for Castle Hill. Truly an Austin gem.

        While the Chuy's group tends to get mixed reviews around here,
        their Shady Grove is another uniquely Austin eatery. Tortilla Crusted Catfish in Queso disproves the never cheese with fish fallacy. Worth a visit for anyone in town.

        There are many naysayers when it comes to Threadgill's, but I believe
        everyone should go at least once if only for the history of the place (Janis Joplin sang there very early in her career). You just might fall in love with their vegetable dishes (I love 'em) and the CFS ain't bad even if it ain't the best.

        And let's not forget Fonda San Miguel. Almost ancient by restaurant industry standards, I dare anyone to do Sunday brunch there and not come away gushing about the experience. Given your current dilemma, I say get there as quickly as you can. You're in Texas now, and the coolest place in the state IMNSHO...but it all was Mexico at one time. Best to connect with some indigenously inspired dishes, and I can't think of any better than those prepared by Miguel Ravago. If you like it hotnspicy, be sure to request their chipotle salsa when your chips are delivered. Muy sabroso!

        1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet

          Good post.

          I feel what you said is fairly accurate. Fonda San Miguel is truly the best brunch in the city, and arguably a Top 10 brunch in the US. However it also is an example of why dining in Austin is a little lacking. Go to brunch at the Commanders Palace in N.O. and you will have a cultural experience, i.e. live jazz. You also receive along with your 3 course brunch receive a free drink. In fact 95% of the "nicer" places I have brunch at offer a free drink at brunch.

          Not saying Miguel has to do this, but I just feel Austin dining in general never goes above and beyond what it has to be. Miguel's food is great and my only wish is that they would offer menudo on occasion.

          Shady Grove- man have I see the demise of that place. I remember when I moved to Austin 8 years ago how much I enjoyed the food. About 4 years ago it started to rapidly decline and I have been back on occasion and never have understood why people wait in line.

          Castle Hill, cannot say anything bad about this place. Good food and most reasonably priced wine list I have ever seen.

          1. re: ChrisZ (nyc)
            Tha Groovin' Gourmet

            Bummer to hear that about Shady's been awhile since I've been, so it looks like it may be much longer until I return!

            Headed for Austin this summer for the music products trade show. FSM is definitely on the list (for dinner and brunch), as is Castle Hill.

            I was thinking Shady Grove too, but will try to find something else based on your assessment.

            1. re: Tha Groovin' Gourmet

              I agree...skip Shady Grove. Maybe there is hope though...Comida Deluxe, the parent company to Shady Grove, Chuy's, Hula Hut, and Lucy's Boatyard has recently hired the executive chef from Jeffrey's to help them with some "new concepts". Hopefully one of those concepts will be to fix Shady Grove.

              1. re: Nacho
                Tha Groovin' Gourmet

                Sounds like a plan...let's hope it's for real.

                I'm really surprised the CD guys have let one of their outlets
                slip as it appears.

                I'm a big Chuy's fan (no flames please), and have somewhat tracked their operations as a dear friend was a high school buddy of theirs.

      3. I’m with Rene’, you just need to get out there and keep trying. There are some good spots here in town, they just don’t smack you in the face the way they do in NY. Austin isn’t NY or Dallas and that’s part of the reason why we moved here. Castle Hill and Mirabelle are 2 of my favorites as well. I had a great meal at the Roaring Fork last Sunday. I had a center cut tenderloin, cooked perfectly and it cut like butter. They also have ½ price bottles of wine on Sunday (but we didn’t take advantage of time). I’m 8 months removed from my hometown and I am happy here overall as far as ‘hounding is concerned. The thing I miss the most about NY is the variety of ethnic foods (kati rolls, Jamaican patties, a quick falafel, etc). They may be available but not outside my door (and certainly not delivered in 20 min). I find the Thai food lacking but it is acceptable. Yaghi’s is decent pizza in a pinch and I like the Brick Oven on 35th. Moonshine is decent, my friend and his wife came to visit and we all enjoyed our entrees (although my ‘blackened’ fish had no evidence of blackening spices). Pao’s is good for Chinese even though they gave me someone else’s bag of food the last time I ordered in. I can’t gush enough about Uchi either, perfect every time. I do wish I had a neighborhood sushi joint where I could get my fill for less than $20.

        Places on my list to try are Gumbo’s and Enoteca Vespaio. Outside of Austin, I am trying to get to the Backstage Steakhouse (Driftwood?) and Little Texas Bistro in Buda. I just had some awesome breakfast taco’s from Rosie’s. Hang in there and if all else fails, fire up the grill. We couldn’t do that in NY!

        1. We see a number of City X is better, more chowy etc... than City Y posts every once in a while. For the most part, they never lead good chow and often lead to flame wars.
          Thus, such rants are counterproductive and usually off-topic. In our experience, making sweeping statements about an area's chow does not make one eat better. It's also beside the point, as the best chowhounds chow without borders; comparing one area with another is often meaningless in the big chow world out there.
          Please focus on seeking out the best chow in you can with your available resources -- it's a much more delicious experience.

          We have removed some off topic responses. We ask everyone to help us keep this board focused on finding great chow in Austin, and continue to offer suggestions on great places in Austin rather than getting derailed with rants about which city is better or which critic is worst.

          3 Replies
          1. re: The Chowhound Team

            I would also mention that a sense of humor HELPS A LOT! Nothing is perfect... but many dining experiences get close!

            1. re: Rene'

              OK, you've given me some hope and named some places that I was thinking of checking out. I'm going to place a trip back to NYC, BUT I'm also going to check out Castle Hill, Vespaio, Eastside and some others all while admiring our unique landscape.

              Thanks hounds!

              Last thought- anyone have thoughts on Ararat? Haven't been, read somewhere that it was good.

              1. re: Christine

                I like Ararat, but it's totally Austin....the restaurant is a small cinderblock building with persian rugs hanging from the walls. It's BYOB, so we often go for birthdays when we have a large group (8 to 10) and don't want to pay a fortune on the wine. Reservations are pretty much a must, especially for a large group. There's outside dining as well, but we haven't done that yet. So to wrap it up, the food is good, but don't expect much from the decor....although that's part of the appeal for many.

          2. This is very long. . .

            I sympathize with your lingering sense of dissatisfaction. Last August I moved here from NYC (before that I was in Boston, also a great foodie town). I'm still searching for my favorite versions of most cuisines. NYC does many things better--pizza, baked goods, Italian, French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, organic/slow cooking/new American. As a native Texan, however, I was never very happy with East Coast BBQ, hamburgers, and Tex Mex; plus, there were some things that I craved but could never find (kolaches, smoked German-style sausage, chicken-fried steak, fried Gulf shrimp).

            I always try local restaurants that get a lot of good buzz, but I find many of them disappointing overall (like Wink, Moonshine, Cafe Josie), despite the fact that they have some good dishes.

            At a recent Valentine’s Day dinner at Cafe Josie, for example, the meal started off with slices of baguette with a crisp crust but cottony interior. The dipping sauce for the bread contained three or four cloves’ worth of minced garlic, along with some red pepper and oregano flakes, in a not-green olive oil—-which was poured over a pat of butter. This is just one person’s opinion, but it might be better to invest in a high-quality butter or olive oil instead of burning out diners’ palates with over-seasoning up front.

            The crab-cake appetizer (that night’s variation on the usual lobster cakes) were fresh. The seafood was mixed with a filler (panko, aka Japanese breadcrumbs; cheese; and corn) and accompanied nicely by two aioli sauces. The crab cakes weren’t nearly as good, however, as the herb-crusted goat cheese, an ethereal bite of fried cheese on a bed of cilantro pesto with a touch of ancho chile in the sauce. This was well conceived and executed—-great flavors working together to produce a harmonious result.

            Restaurant salads here, as at other local restaurants, continue to be less interesting than pre-packaged ones from Whole Foods. The grated Manchego cheese on the baby spinach salad wasn’t sharp or pungent enough to overcome the sweetness of the walnuts glazed with cajeta (a Mexican goat-milk caramel) and the sugary, not tart, passion-fruit vinaigrette. The cotija Caesar was defended by my dining companion on the grounds that Caesar salad is usually disappointing. There was (perhaps too much of) a promised punch of chipotle aioli that overwhelmed all the other flavors on the plate. Only the accompanying green-chile polenta “croutons” matched the spiciness. Texturally, however, they weren’t too appealing.

            I had the pork tenderloin as a main course (which I would have avoided if I’d realized that some local food “critic” had once pronounced it the best pork dish in the city). The spiced-rum glaze on the pork medallions grilled up to a pleasantly sweet char, and the pork was of good quality. Like other dishes, however, there was too much of one note. This course would have benefited from savory or spicy ingredients to counter the very sweet sauce. The side of garlic mashers were mashed to a creamy, maybe slightly runny, consistency; they were, however, only mildly garlicky. The daily vegetable mix of steamed carrot slices and thick stalks of asparagus lacked any kind of seasoning whatsoever. My companion wasn’t wowed by the green “poblano rice” or the black beans but liked the buttery richness (from the mango habañero butter) of the pepita redish entree. The fish was flavorful, but a bit on the soggy side that night. This impression may have been augmented by an unspoken comparison to the perfectly-cooked ruby trout with ginger-cream sauce and the special wild salmon with gorgonzola vinaigrette from dinner at the Eastside Cafe the previous night.

            Desserts left something to be desired, especially the chocolate dessert. Two rounds of dry chocolate cake, with a creamy layer in between, were liberally topped with a chocolate “ganache” that looked and tasted like it was made from the recipe on the back of a tin of Hershey’s cocoa powder. I forget the name of the other dessert, but it was essentially a pecan-shortbread cookie thinly spread on top with a dark caramelized pecan sauce and topped with one fairly-ripe strawberry. The whole thing sat on a bed of a brightly-flavored mango cream sauce that would have been so good in a different context. I fantasized about how it would taste over a good bread pudding or Italian baba’ or as the filling of a French cream puff. The latter dessert was the better of the two at Cafe Josie, but neither was spectacular.

            Overall, dinner was uneven but not unpleasant. The goat cheese appetizer was wonderful, as were elements of other dishes, particularly the pork itself in the maple-glazed pork tenderloin; the spicy-sweet buttery sauce that accompanied the pepita-encrusted redfish; and the mango cream sauce that came with the pecan-shortbread dessert. Some of the sides, salads, and desserts were ill-conceived, with seasoning that either overreached (like the dipping sauce) or didn’t exist (the hard, plain steamed vegetables). Service was friendly and assured, which is not the same thing as knowledgeable. Our server could tell us what was in a dish, but couldn’t explain how things tasted. When describing the preparation of the beef tenderloin, he summed it up as “you know, a steak.” As if that's all there is to say.

            So far, the only Austin restaurants that I really love are:

            * Vespaio and its attached sister restaurant, Enoteca Vespaio

            I love the prosciutto pizza. And it’s not for everyone, but the lardo pizza is lusciously decadent. The meats from the “deli” case are very good, though Niman Ranch, as excellent as they are at producing fresh pork, is not the last word in Italian proscicutto and sausage. I like the supplì—-thank god someone in town is serving Italian-style fritti. The supplì in Italy are often served plain, right out of the fryer; at Vespaio, they would taste bland if served on their own. But because the supplì at Vespaio are accompanied by a great deal of spicy quick-cooked arrabbiata sauce (containing onions, not a traditional ingredient, in addition to garlic, dried hot red peppers, olive oil, and tomatoes), you don’t notice the underseasoning of the rice balls themselves. This is just a quibble. I ate the remaining sauce with a spoon, so I’m not complaining too much. But, wouldn’t the supplì be better if their constituent ingredients were flavorful enough to stand on their own? Ditto with the polenta that accompanies the stewed pork (not traditional Italian porchetta) and sautéed garlic-chile rapini. And shouldn’t an assertive sauce like the arrabbiata be the star of its own pasta dish?

            I quibble because Vespaio aspires to be an authentic Italian restaurant, of the sort that thrive in NYC. Some of the basics need work, like the primi other than risotto. Their pappardelle with bolognese sauce, for instance, is quite fresh. I give them credit for not drowning the sauce in cream, like a lot of Italian restaurants in the States do. But, as good as this pasta is, I’m not sure their bolognese sauce rises above the sum of its parts. Since this is a simple, classic sauce, the right cuts of meat—-and not just ground beef—-have to be cooked perfectly and very slowly (six hours, minimum) in order to achieve greatness.

            Desserts can be problematic, too. I had a great chocolate semifreddo at Vespaio. At Enoteca Vespaio, I’ve had the pumpkin and chocolate-walnut tarts at different times. The filling of the former was pleasant, though that of the latter was served at far too cold a temperature. I practically needed an ice-pick to make the first cut. The tart crusts, however, had had been overworked and were much too tough. I also tried EV’s pristine mascarpone cheesecake. I like this kind of simple, elegant dessert. The best NYC-style cheesecakes are amazing because the cream cheese they use is amazing—-rich, dense, almost buttery, with a great texture that melts on the tongue. I’m afraid that Vespaio's mascarpone simply isn’t up to being showcased.

            * Bistro 88

            Just this weekend I picked up take-out from nearby Bistro 88 for dinner with friends. I’m going back on Monday night because take-out is so hard to gauge, but I must say that I really liked everything I sampled. The shrimp and crab cakes just tasted like shrimp (the crab was indiscernible), but they were flavorful, as were the mango and papaya purees that came with them. For other appetizers we had the potstickers--which were made of light wonton wrappers, about the thickness of crepes, and not the thicker dumpling dough--and the grilled lamb chops. The potstickers were the better of these two appetizers. As for main courses, the orange sauce for the roast duck was a little too sweet. I love duck, but I’d say this dish was just okay, not great. The sautéed seasonal vegetables (asparagus, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes) were flavorful (unlike the veggies at Cafe Josie). The pork tenderloin entree was delicious, though. It was a well-cooked, well-marbled thick steak of pork, accompanied by those same veggies and excellent mashed potatoes. Still, the meat dishes paled in comparison to what the chef can do with fish. The miso sea bass was excellent. I think it's the best fish dish I’ve had all year. It was perfectly cooked, subtly but powerfully flavored with miso and ginger. The fish just melted on the tongue like butter. I also really liked the dry-sautéed green beans, with a dark--maybe soy-based--garlicky sauce, that came with the fish. I vaguely remember Seamus raving about them in a much earlier thread.

            And the desserts! They had two very good chocolate desserts: a chocolate croccante, an airy but delicious chocolate mousse on a hazelnut-sprinkled cookie bottom; and a luscious dessert of chocolate ganache, which is good-quality chocolate melted with cream, then chilled and molded into a round, with a very thin layer of mousse added in the middle. It was garnished with a couple of hazelnuts and a chocolate leaf. Basically you get a large, delicious truffle. The lemon chantilly was not unpleasant, but it wasn’t as good. It consisted of a light, lemony cream layered over sponge cake. If it had more citrus punch, rather than just tasting like sweet cream, it would have been much better. With the possible exception of a chocolate dessert enjoyed a year ago at the Shoreline Grill, the croccante and chocolate ganache desserts were the best ones I’ve had in town.

            * Eastside Cafe

            I’ve returned many times and like all their fish dishes, many of their sides, and their cherry cobbler.

            * Tony's Southern Comfort

            I love the CFS, the fried chicken and waffles, the Southern-style sides, and the banana pudding.

            I also love the brisket at Smitty's in Lockhart and at City Market in Luling, and I’ve had great hamburgers at a lot of places (from the No. 1 burger at the Top Notch drive-in to Burger Tex on Airport Boulevard to the Nutty Brown Cafe). There are also great out-of-town sources for kolaches, smoked sausage, and Gulf seafood.

            I’m not a fan of the local Tex Mex. I think it pales in comparison to the offerings in San Antonio and Houston, let alone the many smaller towns near the border. I can't understand the local love of Polvo's. Their Mexican breakfast and flour tortillas were awful when a group of us tried this place out. Maybe they do other things well, but I can't love a place that misses on the basics.

            But, you know, it’s still early in the search. I still haven’t tried Uchi, Aquarelle, or Mirabelle, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Driskill Grill. They’re all on my list. There are also a lot of excellent meals to be had in nearby San Antonio—-Le Rêve, Boudro's, El Mirador, Las Canarias, Magnolia Pancake House, Mr. and Mrs. G’s Home Cooking—-plus the best nearby Tex Mex.

            Let us know when you find something inspiring!

            1. i totally agree... after living in austin for 7 years... it seems like the dining scene has bombed. i keep going to the same places over and over... everything here is tex/mex - sure thats fine but take it to the next level - you can only eat so many fajitas ... plus casual dining its just chain places in this city - the city doesn't seem to support small upcoming restraunts in this price range - please make me change my mind on this generalization... i'm tired of the wallmart nation here in austin - seriously if it doesn't change soon i am going to bail.