The Bounty of Erin

The Emerald Restaurant

13614 Highway 71 West, 263-2147
Daily, 5-11pm

photograph by John Anderson

With its dark wooden beams, flowery wallpaper, aged china, and gentle waitstaff, the Emerald Restaurant, tucked into a stone cottage on a hilltop along Route 71, gives sanctuary from both the radiant heat of the pavement outside and the heat of our own indigenous cuisine. Over the course of two three-hour meals, we discovered that a visit to an Irish inn, quietly dignified in most respects, is a mere 20 minutes away.

On our first visit, a weekday evening, we were surprised that we had one of the four rooms in the house entirely to ourselves. Even on a weekend evening, members of the Kinsella family -- the matriarch of which is from Ireland -- make a point of not rushing their customers. Most are couples out to absorb one another's company and the airy harp music as they relax into their dinner, which might be Irish Stew, poached salmon in saffron sauce, or quail in Irish whiskey sauce with brandied peaches and currant jelly.

We began the meal by ordering Escargot de Bourguignonne ($8.50). While we awaited the appetizer, we snacked on fresh slices of Irish soda and treacle bread, which we slathered with pinwheels of strawberry champagne butter and plain, whipped butter. All breads and butters are made by the family, exclusively for the Emerald.

Six snails housed in special shells arrived, along with a tangle of tools for gripping and extracting the delicious bites. One of the high points of having such a private dinner is sipping herbed butter from spoons when the waiter leaves the room.

Though you can order individual entrees, the Emerald's menu is geared toward romantic dining. For a prix-fixe of $110, a couple can choose a complete dinner for two: Pork Loin in Pastry, Chateaubriand in a Madeira Mushroom Sauce, or Roast Leg of Lamb.

Trying an Irish version of lamb seemed like the thing to do, and since the restuarant was out of the stew, the waiter let me order half of the Roast Leg of Lamb dinner for two. For $55, I had bread, salad, Shrimp Imperial (a sweet, heavy appetizer involving cream, sugar, herbs, and mushrooms), the Roast Leg of Lamb, and a slice of Irish whiskey cake for dessert. My friend ordered the Pride of Erin Roast Duck, Irish Style ($28.50). (All entrees include bread, salad, and the accompanying potatoes and vegetables. A well-appointed wine list is also available.)

The salads were fresh lettuce leaves sided by carrot shreds perfumed with an essence of rose. They were dressed in what appeared to be a tomato jam, which the waiter informed us had 22 herbs and spices. The most notable was the welcome bite of fresh black pepper which he ground in abundance over the greens.

By the time we moved onto our entrees, we realized that more than an hour had passed, but we were so enjoying our own company and that of our waiter David that we weren't concerned. If we'd been in a hurry to get back to town, we might have been anxious, but as it was we enjoyed the fact that someone was back in the kitchen steaming new potatoes in court bouillon, glazing carrots, and roasting portions of duck and lamb, just for us. And at one point, we discovered the novelty of the women's bathroom and the jade-green claw-foot tub that's played host to the likes of Willie Nelson and Morgan Fairchild. The tub (not to mention the toilet paper) is loopy Irish kitsch. It reminded me of similar things I'd seen in Ireland and that, regardless of prices and atmosphere, the Irish are still a warm-hearted, down-to-earth people.

I hate to say that the leg of lamb was a disappointment, but I'm afraid I found the sauce -- a combination of Guinness, sugar, and creole and dijon mustards -- cloyingly sweet, the overcooked lamb unfortunately tough, the buttery crumbs atop the meat an unnecessary excess. On the other side of the table was the duck -- a whole half of a roast duck, garnished with a tiny tuft of a chef hat and resting on a bed of savory stuffing. Its glaze of brandied cherry sauce complemented the richness of the flesh and the saltiness of the stuffing, and I wished I was in charge of eating the whole thing. (It's best that I wasn't; as it was, I was saddled with a dairy-fat hangover the next day from eating so much rich food.)

On my return visit, I took another friend for company. We each began the meal with a soup; she tried the Potato Soup ($6.50), and I ordered the Flambéed Onion soup ($7.50). Each was a success in its own way. The velvety potato soup, garnished with an X of paprika, was smooth and mild but rich enough that my friend chose not to finish it, for fear of being full for the rest of the evening. The presentation of my soup illustrated the Emerald staff's proclivity for setting things on fire: Cooking brandy was poured over a towering earthenware crock stuffed with Irish soda bread, with an enormous hollowed-out onion balanced on top. The walls of the onion itself were filled with a rich beef stock and translucent slivers of onion, and the whole of it was blanketed by a mild melting cheese. When the cooking brandy was lit, the cheese browned and softened, and once I figured out the mechanics of eating the soup, I thoroughly enjoyed it, although Irish soda bread certainly would not have been my choice of crouton. The flavor of sweet soda bread, so welcome on its own, became a nuisance as crumbs of it kept cropping up throughout both meals, in stuffing and toppings and even scattered atop some new potatoes. I didn't come close to finishing my soup, but even though I pushed it away from me on a number of occasions, I continued to pick at it since our plates weren't cleared for some time after they should have been, although the restaurant was not overwhelmed with business.

The special dinner-for-two that night was a combo platter, if you will: an array of lobster tails in puff pastry simmered in heavy cream and whiskey, roast leg of lamb, and chateaubriand (an extremely tender fillet of beef).

The presentation of this meal is what sets the Emerald apart from other restaurants. The meal is brought to the couple on a silver platter, after which the waiter engages in an elaborate ritual of preparation. He flambés this and sauces that and serves it with style. Our neighbors at the next table chose this dinner and when it arrived during our soup course, I stared with such apparent glee and greed that the man at the next table hollered over, "Do you want a bite?" I did, of course, very badly, but I wouldn't admit it. He instructed the waiter to take our table a plate of their food anyway, to our great embarrassment and delight. The woman with whom he was eating dinner was a vegetarian, and he was having second thoughts about his ability to finish the enormous portions of lobster, lamb, and beef on his own. (As an uncle of mine once said after ordering himself a pound of shrimp and a 32oz steak, "It's a lot of food, but somebody's got to eat it.") I admire people like that, especially when I'm around to reap the benefits.

Although I ordered the twin medallions of tenderloin prepared with mushroom and shreds of truffle ($29.50) and was far from disappointed, the chateaubriand we ate that night was like butter, blood red inside, and in a sweet wine sauce that I continue to crave.

My friend ordered a red snapper fillet ($29.50) with the same sweet sauce that dressed my leg of lamb, but she enjoyed it overall. Again, by the time our entrees arrived we were full, but we took home swan-shaped foil packets of leftovers -- two apiece, in fact.

For dessert, we chose to share a chocolate mousse, which tasted suspiciously like a combination of Hershey's chocolate syrup and Rich's whipped topping. It confirmed my skepticism about the topping on the dense Irish whiskey cake during the previous visit, listed as "cream" but something altogether different.

Sweets seem to be the weak point at the Emerald -- from the recurring soda bread to the cloying sauces to the tricky desserts -- but overall, the strength of service, character, and attention to detail makes the Emerald feel precisely like an Irish bed-and-breakfast, magically plunked into the middle of Travis County, Texas. It is an experience not to be missed.

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