It was the long-ago winter when my family’s two superannuated cats expired right before the holidays that Mother issued a surprising edict: “We’re having Christmas dinner at the Four Seasons this year.” It took three days to pry the reason out of her: She couldn’t bear the thought of cooking a turkey dinner without Dolly and Liza underfoot, begging for scraps.
Thus began my family’s long and sentimental relationship with the Café at the Four Seasons in Austin, where my parents, two brothers, assorted spouses, and I gathered holiday after holiday, like jubilant Dickens characters around a figgy pudding. So when the hotel management announced earlier this year that it was going to—gasp—redo and rename the Café, I was appalled. No good can come of this, I fulminated.
Guess what? I was wrong. Well, partially. I should say that I don’t care for the modern new look, which strikes me as out of place in the grand hotel, especially the garish screen at the entrance. I’m neutral on the name change, which refers to steaks, seafood, and wine. But I love the revamped menu. It has imagination to spare and is, in fact, a credible entry into the much-ballyhooed contemporary steakhouse genre. In one fell swoop, executive chef Elmar Prambs and chef de cuisine Todd Duplechan have catapulted the restaurant into the twenty- first century, joining the likes of Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak, in New York and Las Vegas, and Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, in Beverly Hills. Pretty good company.
Given that the nouvelle steakhouse shtick means getting out of the vintage steakhouse rut, you’ll see things here you’d never expect. The so-called Bacon and Eggs appetizer turns out to be cubes of braised pork belly and a perfectly round, crumb-crusted, deep-fried poached egg. Another starter, the crab fondue, comes brimming with whole nuggets of lump crab in a mild Swiss cheese blend. It is so delicate you can actually taste the pristine shellfish.
The entrées, of course, center on red meat, with choices including the usual grain-finished beef, plus natural beef and Wagyu. My precisely cooked tenderloin, great except for one ribbon of fat, came with a silky bordelaise sauce and crisp haricots verts. A tender, lightly charred rack of lamb proved sumptuous even though far rarer than the requested “medium.” The seafood offerings presented several departures from the ordinary, one being an olive oil—poached halibut filet drizzled with a celery-infused oil.
My favorite part of the menu, though, may be the side dishes. Consider, for instance, a risotto not of rice but farro, a nutty, whole-grain Italian wheat. It arrives in a small cast-iron serving dish, à la Craftsteak, and my only criticism is that the portion is skimpy. Another side I liked is the sautéed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; once you’ve had these delicate, feather-edged fungi, boring old portobellos just won’t cut it.