The twittering classes, having nibbled their way through several hip restaurants in East Austin, have shifted en masse west of I-35 to their latest target: El Arbol, a two-month-old Argentine restaurant. As a result, a reservation at the sprawling venue has become a coveted commodity. Don’t think you can show up on a whim. Tables go only to those who plot and plan.
But if you persevere, do anything short of a felony to secure a spot on the patio or deck. After sundown, under the eponymous sheltering oak, with a little breeze riffling your hair, there are few places in the city more magical. If that’s not to be, you can still be reasonably content in one of the dining rooms—perhaps the downstairs one, with curvy white chairs, or maybe the upstairs one, with tall, tufted-brown-leather booths (habitués of the Belmont lounge will recognize the mid-century-modern style of designer Joel Mozersky, who must be able to crank this stuff out in his sleep by now).
As for the menu, Argentina is an old-world country, despite its South American situation. Italy and Spain, and to a lesser extent France, dominate its foodways. So when you open chef Chad Dolezal’s menu, don’t be surprised to see empanadas, ceviche, and ñoquis (gnocchi). And definitely expect—given Argentina’s extensive cattle industry—to see beef in the guise of steaks, veal sweetbreads, and excellent crumb-crusted cutlets (which Texans will recognize as kissing cousins of chicken-fried steak).
A good place to begin is the grilled beef heart. Looking and tasting more like skinny fajitas than organ meat, said corazón makes a tender, light starter, augmented by a sassy balsamic reduction and dabs of chile oil. (One note: On the first go-round, our order was lukewarm and dried-out. Its replacement, comped by manager Victor Farnsworth, was perfect.) We also loved the empanada Mendoza, a lively mix of pork, raisins, green olives, and almonds in a slightly too sturdy pastry crust.
Among the entrées, our table’s unanimous favorite was the vieiras, shimmering sea scallops showered with crisp bread crumbs and immersed in a mushroom-and-white-wine cream sauce that was as thick as an old-fashioned Stroganoff. It definitely beat out the $43 ribeye (tragically overcooked and overpriced) and the conejo al salmorejo, half a rabbit whose wonderfully juicy paprika-rubbed meat was compromised by a lackluster white-wine sauce.
Desserts, like much of the menu, are more homey than haute. The one gourmet effort—alfajores with layers of chocolate, dulce de leche, and coconut whipped cream—didn’t work because the fancy phyllo leaves substituted for the humble shortbread cookie were not only unsatisfying but hard to manage. A far better choice was the panqueque, an apple crepe lavished with dulce de leche.
Flaws aside, we had a great time, due in no small part to the ministrations of staff and management. I plan to give the kitchen time to hone its chops while I focus on the positives: having drinks and uncomplicated dishes on the patio and basking in the glorious spring weather. Summer will be here soon enough. Bar. 3411 Glenview (512-323-5177). Open Mon—Fri 5—midnight, Sat & Sun 10—midnight. Reservations recommended. $$$—$$$$ W+
Try this recipe for Milanesa Napolitana from El, Arbol, Austin.