Jeffrey's New Partner at the Dance
Will a new culinary concept keep the venerable eatery in step?
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., July 26, 2013
Dinner: 5:30pm, Daily; Bar: 4:30pm, Daily
Jeffrey's1204 W. Lynn, 512/477-5584
Dinner daily, 5:30pm; bar opens at 4:30pm
A 37-year lifespan for a restaurant is a rare and remarkable accomplishment. Jeffrey's established itself as Austin's premiere fine dining venue in the Seventies, offering one of the city's first chef-driven, blackboard menus in a charming and historic setting. Locals embraced it as their special occasion venue of choice, and Jeffrey's reigned for years as one of Austin's top restaurants. However, the local scene has undergone rapid and dramatic changes in the past five years and Jeffrey's needed an infusion of what co-owner Ron Weiss described as "youth, energy, and cash" to maintain its position of culinary prominence. Enter energetic young chef and restaurateur Larry McGuire and McGuire Moorman Hospitality, a group of homegrown entrepreneurs with the business savvy and financial backing to repurpose existing buildings and restaurants in new and inviting ways. They bought a majority interest in Jeffrey's and spent an entire year remodeling the venerable eatery, lavishing much needed attention on the funky old building's crumbing infrastructure, creating a workable, open kitchen, and adorning the original footprint with a comfortable and attractive new interior design.
McGuire reimagined Jeffrey's as an upscale steak house featuring dry-aged steaks as the centerpiece of a daily-changing, ingredient-driven menu. The restaurant quietly reopened in May with some former members of the front of the house staff returning, albeit now attired in suits and uniforms. Aside from gasps about the heart-stopping prices, most of the response has been positive. The place was full on a recent weekend visit, with longtime customers being greeted warmly at the door, a marriage proposal taking place in one of the smaller dining rooms, and one of the Bush twins dropping by. Revitalized Jeffrey's appeared to be back on the dance floor without missing a beat. With the familiar ambience providing a reliable framework, will McGuire's new culinary concept prove to be the appropriate dance partner?
My plan for this review was to surround myself with dining companions who were not familiar with the original restaurant because, in order to succeed, Jeffrey's must attract new diners in addition to maintaining the established clientele. The restaurant offers dry-aged steaks from three ranches: Angus beef from Niman in the Midwest, an Akaushi-Angus cross from Beeman Family Ranch near Yoakum, and Angus beef from Branch Ranch in the Panhandle. The specific cuts of meat being offered were different on each visit, with prices ranging from $50 to $90 on one version of the menu and $55 to $120 on another. I chose an 8-ounce Beeman Ranch filet ($54) with a ramekin of roasted marrow bone butter and received a fist-sized piece of perfectly seared, well-seasoned beef, sitting solitary and proud in the center of a huge white dinner plate. There was a nice char on the exterior while the medium-rare interior was moist and juicy – a truly sublime steak. Side dishes are available à la carte in the $8-10 range. The velvety Yukon Gold potato puree ($8) admirably kept the delicious beef juices on my plate from going to waste and wood-roasted carrots ($10) on a bed of cardamom-spiced yogurt were an appealing vegetable companion.
If the idea of paying so much money for a solitary piece of beef is just too daunting, it's entirely possible to make a meal out of appetizers and salads or the menu's other worthy protein options. A salad of fresh peaches and sweet lobster meat ($18) in a light vinaigrette shot to the top of my list of Favorite Plate contenders, with the roasted crab cake ($22) in a pool of elegant sauce Paloise and a tangle of arugula and fresh corn kernels not far behind. One evening we enjoyed whisper-thin slices of Akaushi tenderloin tartare ($22) and on another, slices of cured American heritage pork with honey-butter, fresh bread, and radishes ($18). The warm spinach salad ($14) with chunks of fingerling potatoes, bacon lardons, and young greens in a sweet-tangy dressing topped by a soft-poached egg could certainly make a meal enhanced with servings from the bread basket. Flaky halibut is served on a bed of roasted vegetables ($38) and crispy-skinned snapper filet ($38) comes with a black-eyed pea ragout, and they paired exceptionally well with a wine, a Favaro Erbaluce from Piedmont, suggested by sommelier LeeAnn Kocurek. Toothsome slices of a brined and wood-roasted Niman Ranch pork chop ($36) are complemented by Maytag blue cheese grits and roasted cipollini onions.
Jeffrey's new dessert attraction is made-to-order soufflés ($12) that take 20 minutes to prepare. The wise servers are careful to mention this possibility when you're ordering dinner. On our recent visits, the offerings were espresso with dark chocolate sauce and whipped cream, goat cheese with lavender honey and lemon ice cream, and chocolate with ice cream. These impressive little feats of culinary expertise are worth the wait. Another favorite was the Baked Alaska ($10), the interior of which can change according to the whims of pastry chef Alex Manley. Ours was based on a pistachio cake brushed with thyme syrup and topped with buttermilk ice cream and blueberry sorbet under a toasty cloud of creamy meringue.
Success for the new regime all comes down to execution. With an investment this large and prices this high, young McGuire is walking a tightrope that offers very little margin for error. The building looks wonderful and has a new lease on life, the well-trained staff is eager to please, and the potential for success is there. Our two groups enjoyed exceptionally good meals with a few flashes of culinary brilliance and a few minor service glitches. Only time will tell if providing near-perfect dining experiences will keep Jeffrey's relevant in Austin's new culinary landscape.