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Undiscovered Jewels

Fine dining at Austin's Downtown hotel restaurants

By Virginia B. Wood, Gracie Salem, and Wes Marshall, Fri., Nov. 16, 2012

Trace
Trace
Photo by John Anderson

It's no secret that hotels in Central Texas are booked up for the Circuit of the Amer­icas Formula One race in Austin this weekend. However, the well-kept secret that international racing enthusiasts are about to discover is that Austin's premier Down­town hotels are home to some of our city's best fine dining venues all year round. Here, Chronicle contributors Wes Marshall, Gracie Salem, and I share our thoughts about the hotel restaurants we admire. If you're a guest at one of these hotels this weekend, we know you'll get exemplary food and service. And if you're an Austinite, we suggest you check out any or all of these establishments when there aren't 150,000 extra people in town for the weekend. – Virginia B. Wood

The W Hotel: Trace at the W

200 Lavaca, 542-3600; www.whotelaustin.com

The "whatever, whenever" service model for which W Hotels are famous is sure to be tested on F1 weekend, what with international jet-setters swarming Downtown. As always, Trace will be providing guests with an authentic taste of Central Texas, with many items of produce, meats, cheeses, condiments, teas, wines, beers, and spirits sourced from Austin area producers. In fact, the W is the only hotel in town with

a full-time forager on staff. When we spoke last week, Valerie Broussard was rounding up broccoli from three different farms and increasing her Zhi Tea order to accommodate more hot tea drinkers. Chef de cuisine Ben Hightower's Louisiana background is reflected in the new fall menu just now in place. Appetizers such as blue crab hushpuppies with remoulade ($15) and dirty rice stuffed quail ($15), followed by grilled whole fish paired with spicy broccoli, crispy shallots, and olive relish ($28) or a cowboy rib-eye ($35) are sure to satisfy. Pastry chef Janina O'Leary's breakfast pastries will be ready for guests to grab as they depart the hotel for a day at the track. And her irresistible fall desserts ($9) such as pumpkin whoopie pies, Drunken Doughnuts with chocolate tequila sauce, and banana pudding with salted peanut ice cream will be waiting seductively when they return.

The W's comfortable ground-floor patio dining area and sexy Living Room Bar are bound to be packed this weekend, because they're great places to hang out, Downtown-style, before or after concerts at ACL's Moody Theater, or any other evening on the town. Head libationist Joyce Garrison's custom cocktails are among the best in town, and we're told she's created some race-themed drinks in honor of F1 guests. However, Garrison and her staff would gladly whip up a Curva Grande, Green Hell, or Hairpin anytime you visit the W. All that's required is the request. – V.B.W.

Hyatt Regency Austin: Southwest Bistro

208 Barton Springs Rd., 477-1234; www.austin.hyatt.com

Over the summer, this international hotelier announced a new companywide food service initiative – "Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served." – that would encompass everything from planting herb gardens on hotel properties to reducing portion sizes, from local sourcing of seasonal ingredients to composting and recycling. Southwest Bistro introduced the local sourcing aspect of the program at a farmers' market-style cocktail party in late July, and Executive Chef Paul French is maintaining relationships with the vendors showcased at that party. That means the dishes on his fall menu feature vegetables sourced from Johnson's Backyard Gar­den and John Lash's Farm to Table, cheese from Brazos Valley and Pure Luck, pork from Richardson Farms, and Strube Ranch wagyu beef.

The Hyatt's Marker 10 bar overlooking Lady Bird Lake keeps Jester King beer on draft at all times and has added several more local craft brews for F1 guests. They're also featuring cocktails made with Texas distilled spirits, and they offer one of the best happy hour deals in town from 4-7pm Sunday through Thursday, with $3 drafts, $5 glasses of house wine, and half-priced appetizers. In addition, the sushi bar is open from 5-10pm Tuesday through Saturday with live jazz as an accompaniment. The coolest thing to look for at the Hyatt this week will be a custom chocolate race car created by Executive Pastry Chef Elisa Torres and her assistants Lyndi Modica and Liliana Toro. It will be on display in the lobby from Nov. 14-18. That should start a few engines! – V.B.W.

Stephen F. Austin: Stephen F's Bar & Terrace

701 Congress, 457-8800; www.austin.intercontinental.com

One of the best places to people-watch from above Austin's main thoroughfare is the bar terrace at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel. The second-floor outdoor perch wraps around the corner of Seventh and Congress, where activity should be in high gear from two in the afternoon until two in the morning all F1 weekend. The hotel reports that it is fully booked (no surprise), with most guests arriving Thursday and checking out Monday. The bar should be packed with guests diving into the recently revamped bar menu. Standout dishes include a hamachi crudo appetizer with cashews and a huckleberry gastrique, bison sliders with coriander mayonnaise, and truffled macaroni and cheese. A bar table can be covered with small plates to share, such as a cheese plate from Antonel­li's, roasted olives with thyme, and house-made charcuterie.

Finn & Porter
Finn & Porter
Photo by JOHN ANDERSON

For dinner, a Texas Kobe burger with brie would hit the spot after a long day, as would a risotto with rock shrimp, English peas, and sea urchin, or a fun and simple grilled sandwich with provolone and Gruyère cheeses paired with a creamy cup of poblano bisque.

Full lunch and dinner service is available downstairs at the Roaring Fork, but be advised, as with anywhere else in Downtown Austin this weekend: If you're not a hotel guest, trying to elbow into this crowd for one of those divine "Big Ass" cheeseburgers is best reserved for another day. Solid food and a fun drink list will be there after our F1 visitors have gone. – Gracie Salem

Four Seasons Hotel: TRIO Restaurant

98 San Jacinto, 685-8300; www.triorestaurantaustin.com

The Four Seasons Hotel will be another of the busiest places in Austin this weekend, and the lakefront Trio restaurant will surely be packed around the clock, from breakfast (starting at 6:30am on weekdays) to late-night dinner (until 11pm). Get up early and choose from a menu broken down into cute categories: Complete, featuring simple fare; Classic, including omelettes, pancakes, eggs Benedict, and waffles; Local, with enchilidas de migas and the farmers' market breakfast; or Healthy, with plenty of oats and egg whites. Lunch features soups, chilled seafood appetizers, and salads, with the steak salad being the standout, featuring arugula, roasted pumpkin, a house-made cheese, and a chile vinaigrette. Sandwiches include the TRIO BLT on brioche, a prime beef burger, or a salmon burger with grilled onions. The Power Lunch is intriguing, with healthy proteins such as grouper, snapper, or lean steak, all served with a light starch and local vegetables. New chef de cuisine Grant Macdonald's dinner menu is decidedly dressed up, with a mixed chilled seafood appetizer, pork terrine, a trio of wedge salads with different dressings, and many main course offerings: from as simple as a locally sourced Dewberry Hills Farms chicken with lemon and thyme, to as complex as braised beef cheek with roasted and crispy onions. Sides are chosen individually; think olive oil mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, creamed spinach, or broccolini.

Keep in mind – the beloved and affordable happy hour in the lively Four Seasons bar will not be offered F1 weekend; just the regular three squares will be available. Call ahead for hours and availability; visitors will need a reservation and should be prepared for a stiff penalty for cancellation. However, the food and service are always top notch. Trio gives you every reason in the world to take a table. – G.S.

Hilton Austin: Finn & Porter and Liberty Tavern

500 E. Fourth, 482-8000; www3.hilton.com

We've never had anything but delicious meals at Finn & Porter, the Hilton's fine dining establishment. From the very start, the Hilton has combined two restaurants in this space, one for sushi and the other for cutting-edge American cuisine. Sushi chef Triet Huynh creates fascinating signature dishes like Lobsteryaki, a lobster tail poached in vanilla butter with cucumbers, dried cranberries, and foie gras, then rolled in rice suffused with saffron ($28.25). While he has invented a fascinating group of rolls, his nigiri and sashimi versions show his abilities best.

Chef Peter Maffei runs the main restaurant, and he is going an extra step to prove to the local community that he's more than just a corporate chef; he works with the Go Texan program and includes several dishes utilizing ingredients from Texas producers. One of our favorite creations is the Thai-spiced jumbo lump crab cake with a jicama and red pepper slaw and a mango coulis ($15.25). The wine list is short but nicely chosen, including delightful bargains like the Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio ($32) and Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava ($28).

The Loft Bar is normally a quiet, elegant place, but depending on the time of year, it can be as loud as a Friday night at a frat house, especially during Longhorn home games. The Hilton also has a casual dining outlet called Liberty Tavern – mainly a soup-salad-sandwich spot with some added entrees, such as a roasted chicken and a flat-iron steak. Their most interesting dish is the Lone Star Burger, with smoked Fredericks­burg sausage, red chili barbecue sauce, topped with fried jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, and chipotle ketchup ($15.25). Liberty Tavern's new focus is on craft beers, and they feature a generous selection of fine Texas brews. You can wash your burger down with a (512) Pecan Porter ($6), an Austin Beerworks Pearl-Snap ($7), or any of a dozen other Texas beers. – Wes Marshall

The Driskill Hotel: Driskill Grill and 1886 Cafe & Bakery

604 Brazos, 474-5911; www.driskillhotel.com

Since 1999 and the arrival of David Bull as executive chef, the Driskill Grill has had a national reputation as a destination restaurant. When Bull left, Josh Watkins took over and maintained the high standards. Both are now running world-class restaurants – Bull at Con­gress, and Watkins at The Carillon Res­tau­rant. The current chef, Jonathan Gelman, has a brilliant background working in some of the top restaurants in the western U.S.

Driskill Grill
Driskill Grill
Photo by John Anderson

The Driskill Grill is a quiet, elegant place to dip into cutting-edge cuisine. Their best value is the nightly, four-course, farm-to-table meal ($55 or $95 with wine pairing). Wine lovers will find a well-stocked cellar with prized wines such as Château Cheval Blanc, Château Mouton Roth­schild, and several vintages of Ridge Monte Bello. The list isn't aimed at the impecunious; prices start around $35 and escalate rapidly. But the list of Old World wines is one of Austin's heftiest, and it also offers quite a few of Texas' best wines.

Food at the Driskill was famous all over Texas long before chefs Bull, Watkins, or Gelman were bringing honors to the institution; its first brush with fame came when the legendary Helen Cor­bitt reigned over the kitchen. Sadly, by 1969, the hotel had seemingly seen its best days; furnishings had been sold, and it was scheduled for demolition. The Heritage Society of Austin raised over $500,000 (about $2.5 million in today's money) to stop the wrecking balls. At the same time, they established the 1886 Lunch­room and began serving weekday lunches to Downtown business types. Now known as the 1886 Cafe and Bakery, it is downstairs on the Sixth Street side of the building. Ms. Corbitt's Cheese Soup is still on the menu, and one taste reveals why her food was famous. The more recently celebrated dish here is the Hangover Burger, a cross between breakfast and lunch that includes a thick slab of beef, a slice of cheddar cheese, brown sugar and chili-rubbed bacon, a sunny-side-up egg, and a crispy sheet of hash browns, all served on a whole wheat bun. Since you've already blown any semblance of a diet, might as well finish it all off with a dulce de leche milk shake ($6). – W.M.

And for the Big Day ...

The Downtown hotels, of course, are also a prime destination for holiday feasts. Here's a sampler of what's on tap for Thanksgiving this year; for many more options, see our Thanksgiving Feasts page at austinchronicle.com/thanksgiving.

The Driskill Dining options include the Driskill Grill for an inventive, multicourse dinner menu in a distinctive setting; a classic all-day Thanks­giving menu at 1886 Cafe & Bakery; and, of course, the well-loved Thanks­giving Family Feast held on the famous mezzanine. Hermits can order from a multicourse menu available for pickup on Nov. 21. Reserve ahead for any venue. Grill: 1-6:30pm. $85; kids $35. 1886 Cafe: 11am-10pm. $25. Mezzanine: 10am-3pm; $65; kids $32.50. 604 Brazos, 474-5911.

Finn & Porter (Hilton Downtown) For Thanksgiving, chef Peter Maffei has created a fabulous three-course, prix-fixe holiday menu. 2-8pm. $45; kids $20. Finn & Porter, 500 E. Fourth, 493-4900.

Omni Hotel Downtown serves a traditional Thanks­giving brunch in Ancho's: all of your favorites – plus bottomless mimosas for a small extra charge. Call ahead, as this one is almost sold out. 10:30am-5pm. $42; kids $16. 700 San Jacinto, 476-3700.

Southwest Bistro at the Hyatt Regency is planning a feast with flowing champagne as well as contemporary cuisine and traditional favorites. This place draws rave reviews for its commitment to local produce and meats. 11am-4:30pm. $58; kids $27. 208 Barton Springs Rd., 477-1234.

Threadgill's has a special holiday menu, featuring roast turkey with cornbread dressing for $13.95, and other traditional favorites. 10:30am-10pm. 6416 N. Lamar, 451-5440; 301 W. Riverside, 472-9304.

Trace at the W Hotel may be a chic, clubby environment, but they bring Thanksgiving to you family-style this year: a four-course dinner, with soup, salad, and choice of main. 3-9pm. $55; kids $15. 200 Lavaca, 542-3660.

Trio at the Four Seasons offers a bountiful all-day repast in the lake-level foyer. Omelette station, corn and sweet potato pancakes, cold shrimp and crab claws, turkey, short rib ragout ... need we say more? Yes, we do: Also a great kids' buffet. 11am-8pm. $88; kids $32. 98 San Jacinto, 685-8300.

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