WITH SOME NOTABLE EXCEPTIONS, DINING out in Texas has not yet reached the status of a high art. Compared to the East or West Coasts', Texas restaurants are a pedestrian bunch, afflicted by gimmicks and uninspired cuisine. For many Texans a meal of grilled steak, salad, and baked potato-with-everything is still the first thought that comes to mind when the suggestion is made to "go out for dinner." (On the other hand, anyone who has tried to find a decent meal in Arkansas or Oklahoma knows that urban Texans are better off than they realize.)
The European tradition of dining as an aesthetic experience got lost with a lot else on the frontier; it is only now beginning to reappear. Perhaps the key to the problem can be found in the very words, "go out for dinner ." Texas dining is still dominated by the school of thought which holds that restaurants exist primarily to give Mom a night off from the kitchen.
There are, however, an increasing number of Texas restaurants which do not cater to these base motives. Never mind that these first-class places, many of them, are often marred by their willingness to treat dining as a form of conspicuous consumption, thereby mistaking show for substance and reducing themselves to entertainers instead of artists. Never mind: because there are some which aspire to greater things and occasionally attain them. Of these, Austin surprisingly has more than its share—even though only two of the most noteworthy eight are in the center of town. The fact is, they are open and thriving; and that is a cause for modest rejoicing.
There is a little stone cottage in the Hill Country 15 miles west of Austin on Highway 71. Out front is an inconspicuous, hand-painted sign that reads: "Andre's. Belgian-French cooking." The owner-chef inside regularly prepares the best food in the Austin area-food which is arguably the best in Texas.
Superlatives should not be tossed about recklessly, but here they are deserved. We have enjoyed fine meals at Tony's, Old Warsaw, and La Louisiane...but our meals at Andre's have been better than any of these. If there is better food in Texas we have yet to find it. There are many in Austin who insist we never will.
Andre Graindorge, 31, has been in the restaurant business for four years. This is his second location (the first, a cramped little store-front across from the Travis County Courthouse, was short on atmosphere but long on love). He serves two fu1l-course dinners every night, plus a limited selection of a la carte dishes. There are only ten tables, each graced with a white table cloth and a candle.
On a recent visit, our dinner choices included a gorgeously subtle trout stuffed with crabmeat, and a filet, aged to perfection, served with fresh mushrooms in a wine sauce. Each was accompanied by pommes croquettes, delicately-seasoned baby carrots, and—wonder of wonders—crusty home-made French bread. Andre always prepares his own soups. This time he had chosen cream of broccoli, which could not have been better; on a previous visit we had a tomato soup so good that we left thinking Campbell's and Heinz should be charged with false advertising. His famous Boston lettuce vinaigrette won accolades from an obdurate friend of ours who has spent 30 years avoiding salads. Andre's own light chocolate eclair was a pleasant finish to a totally satsifying meal, although if you want something a little heavier and the restaurant is not too crowded, he will prepare classic crepes suzette. Our bill, including tax and tip, came to less than ten dollars each.
The a la carte menu included such appetizers as fondue Bruxelloise, burgundy snails, and an exemplary onion soup; among the entrees were Dover sole a la meuniere, duck with orange sauce, and peppered filet steak. In the past Andre has served rack of lamb for two, but a shortage of top-quality lamb has caused him to drop this item for a while.
The dinner choices vary from night to night, depending upon the quality of the ingredients Andre finds in the markets. Among the most popular last year were Carbonnades of Beef (a sort of Belgian pot roast cooked with beer) and domestic rabbit in Sauce Espagnole. At the time you make your reservations it is worth asking what is planned, particularly since the restaurant has no mixed beverage permit and you therefore can bring your own wine if you choose. (Andre has a good, and growing, selection of French wines. Prices are a little high, but not as unreasonable as most Austin restaurants demand.)
There are a handful of little things that could be better at Andre's, but most are so small it seems almost petty to mention them. Some of the tables are too close together for comfort, and the utilitarian, functional silverware (while perfectly adequate) is nothing special. The corkage fee of $3.50 for each bottle of wine you may bring along is, frankly, exorbitant; two dollars would be more than enough. But these are minor flaws.
This is not the place to go if you just want to have a good meal before dashing off to the theater or a concert. The intimate atmosphere and the distinguished food virtually compel you to savor each course slowly and linger over coffee as the candle dims. You should set aside at least three hours for the experience, including the leisurely 20 or 25 minute drive each way. Unless the Chicago Symphony is in Austin, there is hardly a more rewarding way to spend an evening out.
THE INN AT BRUSHY CREEK has the most far-flung national reputation of any of Austin's restaurants. Snugly nestled in an 1840's farm house 20 miles north of the city, it is conveniently located just a stone's throw off Interstate 35 in the booming, history-conscious community of Round Rock. Both Holiday magazine and, lately, the National Observer have steered curious gourmet travelers in its direction.
Like a well-appointed country home, its