The Best Food In Austin
Beyond the Mexican food and barbecue are restaurants with style and tradition that can hold their own with the best in the state.
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 yard carefully manicured and its rooms embellished with diverse antiques that invite inspection, the Inn possesses an air of comfort and confident hospitality. Its atmosphere is one of the most satisfying that any Texas restaurant has developed.
The menu is imaginative and diverse. Some dishes are outstanding; but unfortunately the quality of the food, taken as a whole, is disconcertingly uneven. The justly renowned Portuguese Soup is a dazzling prelude, flavorful enough to seduce the affections of even the hardiest steak-and-potatoes Texan, and so popular that it is served with every dinner. But the pitiful salad which follows would be more at home in a cafeteria than here; it’s as out-of-place as an “ain’t” in an interview.
The main dishes are somewhat unpredictable. If you find a good one you will leave singing Chef Fred Tinnin’s praises; a bad one, and you will wish you had stayed home to raid the icebox. At various times we have been served tasty Medallions of Beef with a pilaf; a perfect Shrimp in Garlic Sauce (but a second order of the same dish at the same table was so over-garlicked that an Air Control Board raid seemed a distinct possibility); a satisfying, well-cooked beef filet cloaked in robust but overly emphatic Sauce Chausseur; and a thoroughly disappointing, even questionably fresh, Seafood in a Pot. The marinated flank steak, described so temptingly on the menu, has invariably proved to be dry, sauceless, and rather tasteless. The management, regrettably, has not always been responsive to customers’ polite complaints about unsatisfactory dishes.
For wine lovers who have the foresight to bring their bottle with them, the Inn at Brushy Creek has a surprise in store. Because the restaurant is located in a dry precinct of Williamson County, its picturesque bar stands unused, and the recent, silly Texas law that prohibits a guest from bringing his own wine into a restaurant that serves mixed drinks does not apply: there are no mixed drinks sold here, nor wines either. Instead there are pleasant wine glasses, a corkscrew, and (for those requiring them) silver ice buckets filled with crushed ice, all supplied with the utmost courtesy. The corkage charge? Nothing at all—making this one of the most attractive places in Texas to consummate the marriage of wine and food.
For some unexplained reason, the long arm of Williamson County’s tee-totalers had not reached in to snatch away the luscious, alcohol-rich desserts that constitute the final glory of the Inn. A fitting finish, no less expert than the opening Portuguese Soup, is provided by Black Russian Pie, Brandied Strawberries, Cherries Reveille (pitted fresh cherries in Southern Comfort over ice cream), or, mirabile dictu, Coupe de Harvey Wallbanger (Galliano, vodka, and mandarin sherbet). This is one place you should never skip the desserts.
No self-respecting American city can do without a fancy restaurant atop some midtown skyscraper or television tower. Austin’s entry in this Chamber-of-Commerc-y Sweepstakes is the 23rd-floor Polonaise Restaurant, and its lofty setting in the Westgate Building adjacent to the Capitol is more tasteful than many similar ventures.
Originally founded in 1966 by Dallas’s Old Warsaw as a sort of Hill Country outpost of haute cuisine (in those days the good restaurants in Austin could be counted on two fingers: Green Pastures and the old Driskill Hotel), the Polonaise selected Andre Graindorge as its first chef. When the economic situation began to turn sour Old Warsaw pulled out, and so did Andre. Since then the management (now Norman Baton) has been seeking the magic combination, with varying degrees of success.
Because it pretends to be more than it is, the Polonaise has incurred the scorn of sophisticated Austinites. By and large this treatment is unjustified. It is expensive, and neither the decor nor the menu (with certain exotic exceptions) is particularly interesting; but there is no place in Austin which serves such a variety of consistently good seafood, and the skillfully-prepared U.S. Prime steaks, especially those accompanied by a sauce, are immensely superior to the monotonous sorts of things one gets at typical Texas steak palaces. What the restaurant lacks is finesse, the confident self-assurance that what comes out of the kitchen is worthy of the guest’s expectations, the feeling that something more inspired than a straight-forward commercial transaction is taking place. There is nothing wrong with the Polonaise that a spirit of adventure and a boost in morale wouldn’t solve, and the two are probably related.
On our most recent visit (after a ten-minute wait for the menus) the service was good, although somewhat more folksy than one might expect in such a place. A small slice of cold quiche is served gratis as an appetizer with each meal—a nice touch, but how much better it would be if it were warm! The soup du jour, cream of broccoli, was flavorful but had been thickened too much. The onion soup tasted—I swear to God—as if it had been made with Coca Cola; it is one of the strangest sweet-and-steely flavors you will ever encounter, and definitely not to be recommended except as a curiosity. It wasn’t very hot, either.
By contrast the salad was respectable and the avocado house dressing delicious. The entrees were outstanding: one, delightful frog legs; the other, Tournedos Henry IV , a filet of exceptional quality, beautifully cooked, with bearnaise and a wine sauce far more delicate than the chausseur at the Inn at Brushy Creek. The accompanying mixed vegetables were deftly seasoned.
The Polonaise shares with the AlpenHof the distinction of having the most intelligent, informed wine service in town, and Norman Baton’s collection of bottles is second to none. Our waiter, asked for his suggestions, recommended a St. Julien which was not on the printed list. It proved to be quite a fine bottle, squarely within the price range we had indicated (as at most other Austin restaurants, wine prices at the Polonaise are unconscionably high). Rare indeed is the Austin waiter who has judged any of the wines he sells, much less developed the ability to compare them. This waiter had.
THE OLDEST FINE RESTAURANT IN Austin—and still one of the best—is Green Pastures. Located in a residential South Austin neighborhood, this plantation-style mansion is the closest thing to true Southern hospitality one is likely to find in Central Texas. Despite fires, changing tastes, and rising costs, Green Pastures has stuck to its traditions.
Although the restaurant is open every day, there is no better time to visit Green Pastures than Sunday noon. The Old South buffet lunch served then is an elegant affair, not just an ordinary after-Church cafeteria line. Silver chafing dishes containing freshly-cooked foods are personally supervised by the owner, Ken Koock; they are kept covered when a guest is not actually passing down the line, thus retaining their warmth and dispelling the usual chuckwagon atmosphere that so often blights buffets. Unobtrusive piano music is provided in the background.
A superb milk punch (made with melted ice cream and just the right touch of alcohol) is served to guests as they arrive; refills are of course allowed. The meal itself includes a separate table of cold hors d’oeuvres, along with the main buffet which on a recent visit consisted of Swedish meatballs, an awesome round of rare roast beef, chicken Copenhagen (splendid, freshly-fried chicken seasoned with sage), homemade rolls, a tasteful but not especially exciting array of vegetables, and several wittily decorated cakes and pastries prepared by the restaurant’s own pastry chef.
Children are not very much in evidence at the Sunday brunch, but those who come are far more welcome than they are at most fine restaurants; there is even a special dessert for them. The cordial treatment of children is simply one aspect of one of Green Pastures’ most appealing attributes: its cheerful service. One never has the feeling that the waiters and serving personnel who handle the brunch are secretly wishing they were still in bed reading the Sunday papers. As one admirer of the scene remarked, “it’s so nice to spend six dollars and be treated like a king.”
In the evenings, a la carte dinners can be selected from a portable blackboard menu that includes such specialties as breast of chicken over wild rice, rib eye steak in an excellent and plentiful Bordelaise sauce, outstanding curried shrimp, shish kebab, and two or three others. The house salad dressing and homemade cheese appetizer are both quite good. Vegetables are generally too bland; on a recent visit, “squash medley” was closer to squash monotone. The wine cellar contains a number of fine bottles whose very existence is unfortunately obscured by one of the most misleading, uninformative lists anywhere. Once past the grands crus of Bordeaux (“price on request”), the list descends into such descriptions as “St. Emilion” with no year, only a price (in this case, $8.25 for a half bottle). Assistance from the staff was nonexistent on our last visit. If the guest did not know independently that the bottle referred to was actually a 1967 classed growth, he would be hard pressed to find it out.
Nevertheless, the service (apart from the wine) is up to Green Pastures’ very high standard, the coffee is some of the best in town, and guests usually leave with the feeling that they have had a very pleasant experience indeed.
Old Vienna is a curiosity among Austin’s fine restaurants. People seem either to love it or to hate it. Younger than most (it opened in 1972), it is securely ensconced in a stately old mansion on a residential avenue of faded elegance close to downtown.
There is nothing faded about the decor, however. Sumptuous and plush, it reminds some visitors of imperial Europe at the height of her glories. To others it more nearly resembles what Emperor Franz Josef might have chosen for the boudoir of his mistress. At least this much can be said: you will not soon forget it.
We must confess that, for us at least, Old Vienna is a classic example of a restaurant that places show above substance. This is not to say that its various continental specialties are not worth sampling; they are, and you can enjoy a creditable meal there. But the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole because they often exist more for the sake of appearances than to provide an essential component of dining.
Item: the service. Despite formal attire, mysterious accents and much gliding around, the waiters do not behave as waiters should. On our most recent visit ours departed, crestfallen, when we declined to order cocktails, and we spent the next 15 minutes trying to coax him back. As the food began to arrive, we found that he belonged to the “who gets the—?” school of service.
Item: the food. In principle there is nothing wrong with the food. Almost everything, however, is done to excess, apparently on the theory that if a little bit of, say, salad dressing is a good thing, then a jeroboam of it would be even better and probably a lot more ritzy too, regardless of how soggy the hapless lettuce becomes. Chicken breast with parmesan cheese, a sensible and well-cooked dish, suffered from a surfeit of cheese. A spurious Cordon Bleu made (admittedly) with pork instead of veal was an unsubtle mixture of aggressive flavors. The other entrees fared better: Hungarian goulash was pleasant and reasonably authentic; fillet Eszterhazi was outstanding. The vegetables, however, were bland and soggy, and the garlic fumes from the potatoes were powerful enough to interfere with vision.
Item: the wine. Despite a ten to 20 percent penciled markdown in the listed prices, Old Vienna’s wines continue to be overpriced. The list, moreover, is a peculiar one. Hungarian and Austrian wines predominate, harmless enough but ill-suited to the sort of dishes the restaurant serves (and certainly iIl-suited at Bordeaux prices). Withal, the wine is better than the wine service. We selected an Austrian white from the list and, after ordering our food, gave the waiter the name and number of the bottle we had chosen. A dark shadow of panic crossed his face. “What?” he asked. The description was repeated. “Show me,” he pleaded, clutching frantically for the wine list and dropping three menus onto the floor. The appropriate area was pointed out. “I only have one on that page,” he said with a mixture of sorrow and self-defense. (One could almost hear the ghost of Evelyn Waugh snorting: “I! I! Not only does this man know nothing of these wines, he presumes to be the custodian of them!”) Predictably, the wine we had chosen was not the one he had. Rather than pay $7 for a bottle of “Bull’s Blood of Eger,” we chose to drink iced tea.
The latest additions at the Old Vienna are a semicircular pebble driveway (for carriages?) and a hideous olive drab waterproof canopy. Nobody questions the principle that luxurious decor can make a meal more pleasant, but it seems a shame to spend money on this sort of gaudy excess when the food and wine are not yet what they ought to be. There is hope, however. A new chef was scheduled to arrive straight from Vienna sometime in January; if he is able to assert his authority in the kitchen, Old Vienna may yet deliver what it promises.
MarCo’s is another restaurant with old Austin ties, albeit quite different from Green Pastures. Opened in 1973 by Mary Kaltman, an associate of the late President Lyndon Johnson and former manager of the Driskill Hotel dining room, it got off to a roaring start but has lately begun to show definite signs of slipping. The original chef was recruited from Old Warsaw but left before Christmas to join the Polonaise. Such a departure can change a restaurant overnight, and it seems to have had an adverse effect on MarCo’s.
In no other major Austin restaurant (except possibly the Inn at Brushy Creek) is there such a wide variation in the quality of individual dishes. On our recent visit, the highly-recommended supreme of chicken with artichokes and fresh mushrooms was brilliant in concept but flawed in execution: the sauce was greasy, the chicken bordered on medium-rare, but it was still clearly a dish that began as a fine idea. The accompanying frozen mango salad was not only a perfect companion to the entree, it was superb in its own right. Coquille San Francisco (crabmeat and sole with avocado) was excellent. Chicken Livers Parisienne, on the other hand, was disastrous. Described on the menu as “an inspired medley of sauteed chicken livers, onion, red peppers and sour cream,” it actually consisted of mercilessly overcooked livers, no onions, pimentos instead of peppers, and a teaspoon of sour cream on top. The taste was downright unpleasant.
Onion soup was far better than the Polonaise’s, with particularly good grated cheese. Strips of store-bought (Mrs. Baird’s?) bread, flavored with butter and garlic, did not suffice as the appetizer they were intended to be. Key lime pie was easily the best of the desserts, but the bread pudding and chocolate mousse were also good.
MarCo’s (the peculiar name is an abbreviation of “the Mary Company”) is not a serious contender in wines. There are no distinguished bottles—just one Bordeaux, one Burgundy, and so forth, apparently made available simply to sate your thirst for the grape and not to impress anyone. Prices are moderately high but not prohibitive.
Faced with an almost unmanageably dull building near a freeway intersection, Ms. Kaltman has done the best she could with the cavernous dining room. The lobby has some welcome touches; there is an 1896 Marshall Field catalog to read while you wait, and in December one wall was lined with intriguing pictures by fourth-graders interpreting the Mona Lisa and other classics.
The service is friendly, relaxed, and unpretentious. These are nice folks.
The AlpenHof near Lake Travis is one of the best German restaurants in Texas. It is also the only fine restaurant in the Austin area which serves good wine at reasonable prices, and that fact alone should make it worth a visit.
For those who expect a brawling, beer-hall atmosphere (or even a smoky Rathskeller), the AlpenHof’s intimate dining room comes as a surprise. The warm decor, candles, red tablecloths, and a crackling fire in winter are reminders that the place is aptly named: it is the image of an Alpine lodge.
Affable Bob Lowe, the white-bearded manager, moved here from Patti’s in Houston. A connoisseur of German wines, he had carefully selected 20 or so different estate bottlings from the Rhine and Moselle, along with a handful of French reds, and put them up for sale at prices that do not exploit the customer.
The food is straightforwardly German. Sauerbraten was a little dry, conservatively seasoned, but hearty and satisfying. Rouladen (rolled beef) was nicely done but might pose a hazard to those who do not like pickles, inasmuch as the core of the beef roll was a pungent dill. The excellent, rich lentil soup cried out for some dark German bread instead of the bland, soft American rolls that were served. Bean salad, a Texas picnic favorite, was very good indeed.
Eighty percent of the AlpenHofs clientele come from Austin, about 20 miles away. Although the restaurant would be an ideal spot to sip wine on a sunny afternoon, it is unfortunately only open for dinner.
Authentic Chinese cuisine is relatively new to Texas. Even now there exist only a handful of good restaurants serving the real thing, and until recently none of them was in Austin. The opening of the Hunan in October, 1973, brought exceptionally good Chinese food to the Capital City for the first time.
Specializing in the spicy dishes of Chairman Mao’s native province (for which it is named), Hunan is literally and figuratively the hottest thing to hit Austin dining in years.
Manager Frank Yi owns the Lotus Eaters restaurant on First Avenue in New York City (he also has a degree in Library Science, but that is another story). His chef is “imported” from Manhattan and offers his guests the same attention to detail that New York Chinese food connoisseurs demand. Only medium-to-large fresh shrimp are used; beef dishes, even the minced ones, employ only flank steak because no other cut gives exactly the right flavor; fresh ham is used exclusively in the pork dishes; chicken legs and thighs are used in dishes like Kung Pao that call for chunks; the breasts are reserved for dishes requiring strips of poultry, and the rest of the bird is simmered for homemade soup broths.
Among the many interesting and outstanding dishes available are Moo Shee Pork, rolled at your table in thin crepe-like pancakes made on the premises; Shrimp with Walnuts, a beautiful creation consisting of lightly fried shrimp, English walnuts, onions, fresh snow pea pods, and a tangy red sauce; Sauteed Shredded Beef and fragrant Hot and Sour Soup, both about as fiery as tender Western palates can endure; sizzling Beef with Scallops; and delicate Kung Pao Chicken with Peanuts. There are many more items, like Beef with Peppers all the way to such exotic treats as Squirrel Fish and Honey-dipped Bananas.
Since acquiring its beer license in December, Hunan is able to serve the cold, frothy beverage that is the best possible accompaniment to their highly-seasoned foods. Tea is also available but it is made with Lipton tea bags, a scandalous practice that should shame Mr. Yi in his dreams. There is plenty of fresh loose tea to be had in Austin Chinese groceries, and his customers can tell the difference.
Next to Andre’s, Hunan serves the best food in Austin. On uncrowded evenings, the service is more communicative and helpful that most Chinese restaurants provide. The decor is best forgotten: a suburban shopping center store-front offers few possibilities for atmospheric dining, and none has been developed here. Hunan earns its star despite its setting, strictly on the strength of its quality cuisine.
—”WHEN I WAS THE CHEF aboard a Belgian passenger liner,” says Andre Graindorge, “a woman passenger got so hung up on the cooking that she came down to meet me.” That was eight years ago, and the woman is now his wife. Her parents lived in Austin, so the young couple moved there and Andre put to work the skills he had acquired in the cooking school at the Ecole Hotelier in Brussels. He also began to blend his Belgian heritage with Central Texas informality: you may see him shopping at an Austin market wearing cowboy boots, a western coat, and a pearl button shirt. But when he gets into the kitchen it is Belgium all the way.
Andre came to Austin with the desire but not the wherewithal to start a restaurant of his own. He organized the kitchen at the new Polonaise, then switched to the Swiss Chalet, and even spent a few months as a carpenter (one of his hobbies) before taking charge of the cafeteria at the local branch of I.B.M. Those were traumatic months. “I’d never seen a chicken fried steak,” he says, rolling his eyes skyward. “But I had a good assistant from Bergstrom Air Force Base. He knew how to fix it, so I watched him.” The I.B.M. kitchen had no stove or skillets, only a steam oven, griddles, and pots suitable for cooking 50 gallons of mashed potatoes at a time. “I told myself, I’ve got to do something else: I can’t go on like this.” He smiles the smile of a man who has passed successfully through Purgatory.
He opened his first restaurant in March, 1970, doing most of the interior reconstruction himself. Two weeks before the scheduled opening, the place was nothing but bare boards and a pile of debris. But the restaurant opened on time and was a success from the first day. He has now remodeled an attractive Hill Country inn with far more ambience.
Andre got his taste for cooking from his grandmother, who raised him. “She cooked all day,” he says. “She started in the morning making her soup, peeling asparagus for lunch, baking bread. There was something wonderful to smell every minute.” His personal ideal for a restaurant is the little French auberge, a country inn that specializes in game dishes, rather than the splendid urban palaces of classic cuisine like Lasserre or Tour d’ Argent in Paris. He likes the intimacy, the personal contact between owner/chef and guest, that the smaller places can provide. Texas law, however, has thrown a serious roadblock in the path of his plans to serve game: in contrast to European custom, it is a criminal offense to sell wild game like vension or rabbit commercially. Fortunately his next door neighbor raises domestic rabbits, and quail can also be purchased on the open market. He has done wonders with both.
Andre has one policy that is almost unique among the better Texas restaurants: he has never advertised. His reputation has spread solely by word-of-mouth from his loyal clientele.