Treat yourself to the pleasures of well-prepared meals in comfortable settings by starting at the Driskill Hotel, centrally located at the corner of Brazos and Sixth Street. For dinner, the Driskill Grill creates a quiet space behind the busy, noisy Driskill Bar, one of the city's most popular gathering spots.
The Grill has the look of an early 20th century gentlemen's club, with dark wood, oil paintings and sconces on the walls. In that elegant setting, the very modern menu draws inspiration from the dynamic world of contemporary farm-to-table dining with a Southwestern touch.
A tasting is a good way to experience the extensive menu. Executive chef Jonathan Gelman's plates arrive at the table with a painterly touch.
Deep red brush strokes of caramelized beet juice decorate an appetizer plate with tastings of beef tartare, ahi poke, and a Prince Edward Island oyster on the half shell.
On the dessert plate, delicately painted tendrils and flowers extend from the Chocolate-Raspberry Gateau with fresh raspberries as if the dessert were resting on a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The Chocolate Carmel Crunch Bar is topped not only with a shiny, candied hazelnut but a delicate square of gold leaf.
Using heat to frame his flavors, scallops and seared hamachi are rolled in chili dust. Chef Gelman ups the volume on his half-shell oysters by using spicy local chives in a modified mignonette, making the briny Prince Edward Sound oysters sparkle and shine.
The familiar ahi tuna burger is playfully transformed into a slider, the tender, perfectly cooked patty topped with slices of fresh strawberry.
In the entree part of the tasting, a richly flavored Madera sauce compliments tender lamb chops. To contrast the textures and flavors, the lamb chops are coated with toasted breadcrumbs. The overall effect is deeply satisfying, light and refreshing.
THE DRISKILL GRILL: 604 Brazos Street, Austin, Texas 78701 | (512) 391-7162
Franklin Barbecue, one of the most popular barbecue joints in Austin, until recently, sold all of its food from a trailer. Kyra Coots, a fan, reminisced about those days. "The old place had uncovered benches and in the winter when it rained you got wet. People didn't care. They'd wait two hours miserable, but when they were eating their barbecue, they knew it was worth it."
Franklin Barbecue came in from the cold when it moved into 900 East 11th, a small space on the east side of I-35, near an entrance to the University of Texas. Now the old trailer sits forlornly in the back next to the smoke trailer.
"At Franklin," Coots added, "You're definitely here for the meat. It's not a sides place."
The brisket, pork rib, and pulled pork are hand cut, seasoned and smoked by handyman, co-owner, and chef, Aaron Franklin. Only the sausage is made by an outside provider, the Texas Sausage Company.
Stacy Franklin, Aaron's wife and co-owner, explains the genesis of the business, "Aaron was really into barbecue, fooling around with it for years. But he didn't really get it until we opened."
This is seat-of-the-pants, learn-as-you-go cooking.
Aaron keeps it simple with a dry rub of kosher salt and coarse black pepper that goes on before the meats are smoked from 9:00 am until 7:00 am the next day. What comes out of the smoker in the morning is what's served in the restaurant that day.
The handwritten sign in the window explains how it works, "Hours: 7 days a week, 11:00am-till the meat runs out!" Which means, people in the know start lining up an hour before opening time.
Ordering at Franklin retains part of the trailer experience, albeit inside a nicely appointed interior. Standing in line, customers inch their way to a glass barrier behind which Aaron wields a sharp knife, carving-to-order whatever meat you want and laying the hot, fragrant barbecue onto a square of waxed paper.
The meat is weighed and handed to the cashier where you pay your bill. Adding two slices of white bread, any of the housemade sides and sauces -- if you want any -- and you're on your way to one of the dozen Formica tables inside or the handful of wooden picnic tables and benches outside on the covered patio.
Locals recommend passing up the lean for the fatty brisket. A thick slab shows why the brisket is so popular. Juicy, tender and flaky, the brisket has a lot of good, meat flavor with salty-peppery heat. The pork ribs are good too, but when Aaron asks you what you want, ask for the fat, middle ribs. The small ribs on the end can be dried out.
The pulled pork is moist and tender and benefits from a good dousing of the Port Vinegar sauce.
FRANKLIN BARBECUE: 900 E. 11th, Austin, TX 78702
At La Condesa, elegance comes with a basket of crisp taco chips and guacamole topped with green apples and fresh crab.
In a setting that could be mistaken for an art gallery, light fixtures descend like apparitions from the high ceiling.
With a bar and patio on the upper level and an expansive dining room and deck on the street level, the restaurant is airy and spacious. La Condesa fills up quickly when the kitchen opens for dinner at 5:00pm so reservations are essential.
Cocktails and appetizers are a great way to go.
Ceviche gets a light touch. On the night we visited, we had the Pacific amberjack. Slices of the delicate white fish were surrounded by an orange-lime sauce, the heat supplied by chipotle peppers and ginger. Delicious.
Executive chef Rene Ortiz creates complex sauces using citrus and peppers that bring out the best in familiar Mexican dishes.
At dinner, taquitos come with half a dozen fillings, including rotisserie chicken, shrimp, cheese and chorizo, beef, pork, vegetarian and, the very popular, Tecateño with Tecate flavored, battered fried white fish.
The Tecate batter is tempera-light and crunchy. The accompanying slaw is made with charred corn, chipotle peppers, tomatillos, and salsa arbol. Perfect as an appetizer to enjoy with beer, wine and cocktails.
Speaking of cocktails, the specialty cocktails are exotic. The Alma Blanca is a good example of an unusual mix of ingredients: "habanero-infused siembra azul blanco, domaine de canton ginger liqueur, agave nectar, pineapple juice, fresh corn, hoja de hierba santa, hibiscus-rose infused salt rim." A mouthful of improbable ingredients (corn?), but the mouth-wateringly delicious cocktail is layered with sweet-heat.
LA CONDESA: 400A West 2nd Street Austin, TX 78701 | (512) 499-0300
- By David Latt