Sophisticated Italian

Fine Dining at the Arboretum

Trattoria Grande

Renaissance Austin Hotel in the Arboretum, 343-2626
Lunch: Mon-Fri,11:30am-2pm; Dinner: Mon-Thu 6-10pm, Fri & Sat til 11pm

For me, the word "trattoria" -- a small family rest- aurant serving simple Italian fare -- conjures up a certain set of expectations: a bustling family restaurant with a casual atmosphere, carafes of country wines, simply prepared home cooking with bold, straightforward flavors. The local restaurant Trattoria Grande in no way fits the above description, though that is not necessarily a bad thing. Once I adjusted my expectations to fit the restaurant I encountered, I was ready for dinner.

Trattoria Grande is the fine-dining venue in the newly renamed Renaissance Austin Hotel. It occupies arguably one of the loveliest rooms in the city, a tri-level dining room with a two-story wall of windows providing a breathtaking view of the hills. The atmosphere is quiet and sophisticated without being stuffy, but casual clothing is discouraged. For several years, the restaurant was the only fine-dining option in the Arboretum area, developing a loyal following of Northwest business types at both lunch and dinner.

Dinner at Trattoria Grande can be an elegant, if pricey, affair. On a recent evening, two friends joined me there for the evening meal and our final bill was nearly $100 sans wine or cocktails. We were seated in the center of the restaurant with a great view of a lovely sunset, surrounded by crisp linens, gleaming silver, and glassware. The troubles of the day soon dissolved away amidst the pleasant, comfortable dining room, while the professional, well-informed waitstaff anticipated and attended to our every need.

Our meal began auspiciously enough, with zuppa di funghi esotici (cream of exotic mushroom soup, $4.75) and insalata di calamari fritti (salad greens tossed with fried squid, $5.75). The soup arrives at the table in a warmed gravy boat and is poured into a warmed bowl sprinkled with herbs. It is simply divine -- a rich, earthy velvet liquid with the musky overtones of wild mushrooms -- perhaps the best dish of the entire meal. The salad was a clever idea, but somewhat less successful. The waitress had made a special point of describing the calamari as fresh, hand-breaded, and lightly fried. But since they were scattered among chilled greens that had been tossed with a parmesan dressing, the lightly-battered squid pieces cooled off too quickly in the nest of greens and several of them had what for me was an unappetizing texture.

On the dinner menu, entree selections, including pasta dishes, range in price from $12.95 to $21. The best choice at our table that evening was a large pasta dish, penne con fagioli verde, pollo e formaggio (pasta flutes with baby green beans, grilled chicken and gorgonzola cream, $13.95). The perfectly cooked pasta was coated with a light, mild gorgonzola cream sauce and tossed with tender vegetables and moist strips of grilled chicken. A special for the evening featured sautéed frog legs in a lemon butter, white wine sauce with linguine and steamed vegetables ($17.95). The coating on the frog legs vaguely resembled the batter on the calamari, but did not adhere to the meat while it was being cooked. The dish was ambitious but on the whole, had very little flavor. I chose a lamb dish, rotolo de agnello con spinaci, pinoli, pomodiri-secchi e cipolla affumicata ($21) which had mixed results. The lamb loin was rolled with sautéed spinach, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and smoked onions, and set atop a sweet, smoky sauce that perfectly complemented the tender meat. However, I specifically ordered the meat medium rare and the serving arrived almost well-done. The dish wasn't ruined but it was not cooked to order.

The true excellence at Trattoria Grande can be found on the dessert cart. We had a very difficult time making choices because there were six items ($4.95 each) and we were embarrassed to order two selections apiece. We finally settled on a lemon curd tart, a fresh raspberry tart, and a Florentine cup filled with white chocolate mousse and fresh berries. The tarts were based on crisp sweet-dough crusts. The lemon curd filling was light and creamy with a refreshing astringent tang. The raspberries were nestled atop a pastry cream and glazed to look like jewels. Each tart was surrounded by a painting of three sauces (raspberry, creme anglaise, mango) and garnished with a scoop of fresh strawberry sorbet. The dainty chocolate and almond Florentine cup filled with silken white chocolate mousse was a special dessert for the evening and a memorable choice.

Trattoria Grande was not at all what I expected but I will keep it in mind for special occasions and hectic days when a superb dessert and a cappuccino served in a comfortable, relaxing setting would make a much-deserved reward. n

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