Room With a Vista

New Brio Overlooks Hills, Not Adventure

photograph by John Anderson

Brio Vista

9400 Arboretum Blvd., 342-2642
Open daily: 11am-3pm, lunch;
3pm-5pm, appetizers; 5-10pm,
Sun-Thu; 5-11pm, Fri-Sat, dinner

Like its sister restaurant Z-Tejas, Brio, one of West Sixth Street's successful food ventures, has multiplied, providing Austin residents parallel cuisine in a Northwest location in the burgeoning Arboretum complex. The new Brio, aptly named Brio Vista for the unobstructed view it affords of the surrounding hills, possesses an inordinate amount of style. Equal parts Tuscan villa and Mexican hacienda, the vast restaurant effectively uses muted earth tones, natural woods, and vaulted ceilings to transport diners to a decorator-inspired otherworld. Heavily draped windows lend drama and elegance to the dining room, and a covered patio bordered by a sturdy, but aesthetically pleasing wall allows for outdoor dining with a touch of class. Stone trivets occupy the center of every dining table and become home to warm loaves of bread delivered to the tables by uniformed waiters. The only appointment that feels glaringly out of place in this stylish oasis is the television hung thoughtlessly over the otherwise agreeable bar. The incessant TV drone does more to distract bar patrons than entertain them. Brio bills itself as a "spirited" restaurant, one "full of life, vigor, and vivacity," and its varied menu does not belie it this appellation. Fans of fusion cuisine will be particularly satisfied by the restaurant's selections, which resist culinary boundaries, often combining several cooking traditions from around the globe in a single dish. For starters, diners can travel to Indonesia, Japan, or Mexico via appetizer plates such as a Beef Satay ($6.95), Tempura Tuna Sashimi ($7.95), or Chicken Posole soup ($2.50, cup; $4.25, bowl). Even Brio's versions of more ordinary dishes, like spinach salad ($7.25), elaborate on culinary practices from abroad. The salad, a heaping plate of crisp baby spinach leaves and poached pears cloaked in a smooth, slightly sweet port raspberry vinaigrette, arrived at the table crowned with a warm round of walnut-encrusted goat cheese and was reminiscent of France's salade au chevre chaud, a sidewalk cafe favorite.

In a similar manner, the shredded duck and scallion pancake starter ($7.50) proved to be a more sophisticated version of a Chinese stand-by. The hefty portion of duck was moist, its sauce pleasingly thick and piquant, and in a nod to healthfulness, the "pancakes" exited the kitchen as ultra-light, scallion-flecked crepes. One luncheon appetizer, the lamb tacos al pastor ($7.95) also stood on equal footing with its authentic Mexican counterpart. In the dish, a spicy smattering of meat (the pronounced flavor of lamb was not easily distinguishable), nested atop six miniature corn tortillas. Chopped cilantro and red onions were abundant. Guacamole, a fiery pico de gallo, and wedges of lime served as accompaniments. Rustic and bold in flavor, yet "dressed up" in presentation, the tacos elevated this south-of-the-border street favorite to new heights.

With regard to entrées, Brio Vista relies on a repertoire of diverse, international flavors as well, although some creations are decidedly more successful than others. On my first dinner visit, a miso-glazed salmon ($15.95) balanced on a bed of julienne vegetables and surrounded by a blood orange port sauce turned out to be a disappointment. The salmon was overcooked and thus dry, and the pallid miso glaze was of little consolation. While the orange sauce was tasty (blood oranges, incidentally, are red, and this sauce was strangely golden), that alone was not enough to redeem the dish. At a later meal however, the restaurant's namesake muffaletta ($7.75), proved to be a treat. The huge, meaty affair, an exclusive to the restaurant's lunch menu, artfully expanded on the Louisiana classic: a colorful relish of olives, artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, mushrooms, and a generous helping of herbs, a worthy addition.

A subsequent dinner visit found me sampling the smoked and grilled pork rack ($14.95) because the tempting spit-roasted leg of lamb ($17.95) stuffed with feta, arugula, and sundried tomatoes was sold out. The pork, a gargantuan cut large enough for two, possessed an earthy quality resulting from smoke, but it, too, had been cooked too long for my liking. What I expected to be a bold sauce of cascabel chiles, tomatoes, and cream failed to grab the spotlight, and the accompanying crawfish tamale, onion rings, and corn salsa also lacked harmony. The salsa, a colorful confetti bursting with flavor, was indeed an ideal match for the meat, but the onion rings, a trendy "comfort food" touch, tasted ordinary at best and the crumbly crawfish tamale also lacked pizzaz.

Just as I was becoming discouraged with the restaurant, a luncheon entrée, the provocative grilled vegetable Napoleon, buoyed my opinion. A veritable bouquet of vegetables, the dish echoed the restaurant's theme of high-spiritedness and fun. In it, an architectural stack of eggplant, portobello mushroom, yellow squash, zucchini, red onion, carrot, and ratatouille lounged on a vivid tomato coulis in which grilled asparagus spears swam. The vegetables were cooked to perfection -- the shaved carrots tender, the squashes al dente, and the red onion, eggplant, and portobello pliant and unctuous. While pretty on the plate, the dish was more than merely ornamental. Flavors were fresh and straightforward, with the smooth ratatouille providing that extra dimension so often missing from vegetarian options.

Those who appreciate rich endings will delight in Brio's dessert possibilities, but be prepared to ask your waiter about the pricing of the treats as the menu strangely keeps them a mystery. The creme brulée with its ginger-almond biscotti ($5) was of sinful proportions and as rich as expected. Its velvety texture and luscious dairy quality made it the ideal match for a cup of dark coffee ($3). But the top mark in the dessert category went to the Berry Buckle ($5), a cobbler-like creation of spiced apples, blueberries, and raspberries complemented by a scoop of Mexican vanilla ice-cream. The delectable blend of warm fruit was pure heaven, sweet, but not sickeningly so. Berries and their thickened juices flooded a dinner-sized plate, and the pastry-like "buckle" provided texture beyond that of your standard fruit cobbler.

Despite the inconsistencies, Brio Vista holds true to its name by approaching food with verve. The restaurant's menu at both lunch and dinner is undeniably full of life and illustrates a spirit of culinary adventure. Yet as my experience confirms, globe-trotting does not come without its risks. Pitfalls mar most journeys somewhere along the way. Real brio comes in bouncing back with passion, a quality this trendy new establishment has proven it is capable of handling.

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