A House Afire

The Skyline Grill Is up and Smoking

by Virginia B.Wood

Skyline Grill

801 S. Congress 443-3700

Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10:30pm

Friday and Saturday, 11am-11pm

Bar until 12am every night

This classy little spot sits on a hill overlooking Town Lake and downtown Austin. Skyline Grill joins several local eateries (Zoot, the original Kerbey Lane, the Paggi House, Brio, Hyde Park Bar & Grill) that have found success by turning older homes into small, charming restaurant venues. Skyline operators John Thorsen and John Woolsey (two of the former Los Tres Bobos) did much of the work on their new joint themselves, so they are justifiably proud of the positive response they're getting to the arches, the sponge-painted walls, and the custom-rusted metal ornamentation in their smallish dining room. The main dining room and bar at Skyline Grill are very comfortable with black tables, booths, and comfortable, dark-stained teachers' chairs. Though there is no formal waiting area, expectant diners can sit at the small, well-appointed bar and sip top shelf martinis and margaritas while waiting for a table. The bar is also open 'til midnight for those who need a new South Austin spot just to hang. Thorsen and Woolsey plan to enclose the two-level deck just out the restaurant's back door to expand their year-round seating. Plans to extend more outdoor decking on the long property behind the restaurant should become reality before spring.

The eclectic Skyline menu features regional Texas dishes and makes frequent use of a stove-top grill smoker that Woolsey invented specifically for the restaurant. Several meats are rubbed with herbs or marinated and then smoked over fruit woods (apple, pecan, cherry, peach) to add distinctive flavor. The menu is an interesting mix of game meats, seafood and vegetarian dishes, and salad and sandwich offerings. Side dishes such as cascabel garlic mashed potatoes, smoke corn pudding, twice-stuffed sweet potatoes and smoke-grilled vegetables serve as accompaniments.

On my first Skyline visit, the menu offered so many attractive choices that I had a difficult time deciding which to order. I finally opted for the Venison Chicken-Fried Steak ($7.95), curious to see how the J*ONE*S Ranch venison from nearby Driftwood would fare in the traditional Texas preparation. I was not disappointed. The venison was tender and succulent in a light, crackly crust, napped with a tangy cream gravy. The cascabel garlic mashed potatoes were golden and creamy (Yukon Golds, perhaps?) with the occasional zing of the little red peppers, but I didn't detect much garlic. The sweet corn flavor in the smoked corn pudding was really good but I was hoping for a creamier texture.

The most intriguing side dish at our table that evening was the twice-stuffed sweet potato, so we ordered one out of curiosity. A whole baked sweet potato arrived standing up on the plate with a crispy crown of brown sugar and nuts. I was fascinated and couldn't wait to find out how they had scooped out the potato and re-stuffed it without damaging the skin, and still gotten it to stand on end. Alas, the potato we had was not once or twice stuffed, it was just an erect baked sweet potato with a sweet, crunchy topping.

Twice now I've had dining companions who only wanted a small meal and the Skyline had plenty of options to satisfy them. One friend chose the Smoked Onion and Garlic Soup au Gratin ($3.50) and a small House Salad ($2.25) and was very pleased. The soup is cheesy and hearty, a very substantial small meal. The crisp, fresh salad is a melange of young greens; radicchio, arugula, frisee and lettuce augmented with exquisite little yellow tear-drop tomatoes which may have come from the small garden out back. Another good light meal featured the Smoke-Grilled Vegetable Sandwich ($4.75) with melted fontina cheese and avocado aioli paired with the same small salad and a choice of one of the five homemade salad dressings.

Two burgers are offered here: The Certified Angus Beef Burger ($4.95) with your choice of American, Fontina, or Texas chevre cheeses and a South Texas Venison Burger ($5.95). Either one should cure your craving. The venison shows up again in the popular Game Ravioli ($5.50 as an appetizer, $8.50 as an entrée) with a choice of two sauces, gorgonzola cream sauce on the appetizer, and a smoked tomato basil cream sauce on the entrée. The large pasta pillows are perfectly finished with creamy sauce and herbs but the filling was a little on the dry side the evening I tried them.

After only a few visits, I've yet to find something on the dessert menu here that really sends me, but the restaurant is young and things are still evolving. There are many more items on the appetizer and entrée menus that have caught my eye such as the Apple Pecan Smoked Rabbit and Black Bean Tostada ($6.50), the Shiner Bock Honey Roasted Chicken ($7.75), and the Cherry Pecan Smoked Quail ($8.95). Near South Austin has long been in need of a comfortable neighborhood restaurant with interesting food and it looks as though Skyline Grill will fill that niche perfectly. n

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