The Censure of Attention

Coyote Cafe's High Profile Cuisine

by Patrick Earvolino

Coyote Cafe

612 W. Sixth, 472-0612

Dinner daily 5:30-10pm

Type. Chile head and renowned chef Mark Miller created plenty of it when he brought his Santa Fe-based Coyote Cafe to town last year. The decision of one of America's premier restaurateurs to test the Austin market brought national attention and underscored the local fine-dining boom that has seen the recent success of restaurants like Louie's 106, Zoot, and The Bitter End. But unlike these upscale Austin upstarts, Coyote's Dallas-sized prices (entrées average $5 more than at the three restaurants mentioned) and formal glitz seemed unabashedly targeted toward tourists, wealthy natives, and relocated Californians. For some, Miller's venture became a high-profile harbinger of the capital's future.

The public's reaction to the restaurant was predictable. Many Austinites were too accustomed to casual dining to embrace paying through the nose to see and be seen. What's more, the fanfare surrounding Coyote only seemed to fuel hearsay, the popular opinion being that dining at the restaurant was not worth it. And to the extent that Coyote had become a victim of its own noise, even Miller had to admit that perhaps his restaurant had started off "a little too elegant." Commendably, Coyote's owner spoke of changes to be made in an effort to better please his new market.

So after six months of fine tuning, does Austin's Coyote Cafe live up to its celebrated arrival? On the plus side, the restaurant's ritzy attitude seems to have been toned down. The valet parking has disappeared in light of public disfavor; you won't feel overly uncomfortable in casual dress; and the free-standing fireplace in the main room actually makes the restaurant's interior kind of cozy. Even the cow-hide chairs, leather booth cushions, and Taos-toned interior are forgivable.

The food, described as "modern Southwestern cuisine," boasts a wide variety of chiles and an interesting assortment of game. The menu changes every 4-6 weeks, and best of all, the sauces are flavorful but light, without the excessive cream and butter of haute cuisine. But just how much you enjoy your meal at Coyote Cafe will likely depend on whether or not you can swallow the bill.

Coyote's defenders will tell you that a big reason for the restaurant's steep prices is the cost of the esoteric ingredients used there. One such ingredient is the Mexican delicacy huitlacoche, or corn fungus (mushroom, for those who feel uncomfortable with the "f" word). Combined with corn flour and steamed inside a corn husk, this earthy treat made a delectable though diminutive tamale appetizer ($6.95). The accompanying wild mushroom salsa and roasted tomatillo sauce also shone. Fresh gulf crab meat made the crab cake appetizer ($8.50) a nice treat as well, though dressed with a fresh tomato and basil sauce, it hinted more of southwest Italy than of southwest United States.

Although mild cross-bred forms of the increasingly popular chile habanero are commonly available in Austin, finding a pure, full-fire strain in town remains difficult. Coyote apparently has a quality chile-pepper connection, though, as evidenced by the habanero infusion vodka martini ($5.75) and the habanero-peach glazed quail salad ($7.95). The martini, which came with an appropriate warning from our waitress, was three ounces of delicious fury -- a must for fans of the hottest chile in the world. Only slightly milder was the quail, which was served atop a bed of red oak lettuce and accompanied by chiles serranos, red bell pepper, and pineapple. Although the pineapple was a bit abundant for my taste, the dish exemplified Coyote's penchant for complementing hot and sweet flavors.

The restaurant's finest mating of these sensations paired an ancho chile sauce with a sun-dried cherry chutney to accompany a plateful of red tail venison ($23.50). The cooperation of the rich chutney, rustic sauce, and tender meat was a delightful example of the Southwestern cuisine for which Coyote Cafe is famous, and the steamed white beets and pecan wild rice on the side added nicely to the meal's presentation -- an area in which Miller's chefs consistently excelled.

Equally as attractive but not quite as exciting as its menu description was the grilled filet of ahi tuna ($17.95), served with a side of jícama slaw. The dish's tomatillo-avocado salsa was tasty but it did not quite counter the sweet pineapple-mango salsa, giving the fish a Pacific rim feel that didn't really take with me (though my dinner partner seemed to enjoy it). The slaw, however - a crunchy salad of fresh jícama and tomatillo, corn tortilla strips, roasted peppers, and mango -- was worth ordering in its own right.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the lemon torte dessert ($3.75), a scrumptious creation consisting of layers of tart lemon torte covered with a fine sauce of blueberries and red raspberries. Served with a delicious cup of coffee (the truest reward of fine dining), my meal ended on a high note, at least if you don't count paying the bill.

Perhaps harping on the expense of dining at Coyote Cafe is gauche. After all, the prices are only moderately expensive by Dallas standards. But the fact is that Austin is a casual, grass-roots dining town, and Coyote's cost makes its food inaccessible to many local chile freaks and others who would otherwise be into the restaurant's creative cuisine. (And, unlike in Miller's other markets of Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Washington D.C., there is not enough upper-income volume here -- yet, anyway -- to afford Coyote the luxury of ignoring the average diner.) Much of the public would forgive the loss of a few of the restaurant's exotic ingredients for a cheap, innovative enchilada or chile relleno plate. They might not forgive a restaurant they can eat at only once a year.

Mark Miller has built a reputation as a savvy restaurateur who's willing to take chances. To his credit, he passed up Dallas and Houston to try to sell his chile-based cuisine to Austin, recognizing that "there [has] never [been] a dominant high-end food culture" here. But Miller may not have realized just how foreign expensive dining is to the Austin public. Coyote Cafe started the new year by closing its lunch service for the winter season, and rumors have been flying about the restaurant's demise. But with summer plans to promote the rooftop bar, deep pockets, and surely some more tricks up his sleeve, perhaps Mark Miller can convince capital diners that Coyote Cafe deserves a spot in Austin's dining future. n Blanco River
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