Tasty Wake-Up Call

The Range Restaurant

101 Main St., Salado, 254/947-3828
Wed-Sun, 5-9pm; Sat & Sun, 12-3pm

yummy food and drink
John Anderson

Katie and Dave Hermann are an enterprising pair. The thirty-ish couple, recent parents of twin boys and graduates of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), opened their own restaurant at the stage when most young chefs accept a hotel or big-city dining apprenticeship. Also, they picked a locale for their haute cuisine that has never been a haven for savvy eaters: Salado, Texas.

Salado is a small town, 60 miles north of Austin on I-35. It's known for its bed-and-breakfasts and quaint Main Street shops. It's home to folks repelled by Austin's population boom and, for almost two years now, fine dining.

At first glance, the Range Restaurant is a huge success. Regulars include people that come from as far away as Georgetown. It's easy to sense a certain pride from a country community that will support upscale food at city costs. The restaurant's walls are covered with articles from Temple to Killeen that exalt the couple's small-town Texas birthplace and extol the virtues of these entrepreneurs "coming home."

Once back in Central Texas, the Hermanns located a smart spot for their venture in historic Barton House. Their careful conversion of this quiet residence into a modest-sized restaurant is worth comment. The renovation includes a brand-spanking new add-on dream kitchen, which is tremendous considering the restaurant's mere 25 tables. The charm of this stately yet unimposing home is a huge draw. The house sits far back from the main street. You pull into a parking spot on the front lawn and gaze serenely upon a building that reminds you of many Texas guest inns. You note the standard front porch and graying stone. Entering the house, you take in understated furnishings devoid of cutesiness. A survey of the staff's easy flow, under Katie's guidance, confirms that this is a professional establishment, not some steaks-on-Saturday spot.

Arts and crafts-style wood tables and chairs fill the three spacious dining rooms, and the restaurant's other wooden accents, such as its hardwood floors and wooden salt-and-pepper mills, keep the room comfortable. The floor-to-ceiling window drapes, the linen-paper menus, the classic white porcelain plates, and the occasional candle on the windowsill add a finished look. Other welcome guest courtesies include two sets of silverware and easy-to-grip tumblers. Pulled together, this space just feels right. It offers some personal touches with smart, decorative restraint.

The menu is similarly composed, where the occasional culinary flair offsets a classic style. The dinner entrees owe more to Chef Dave's traditional tutelage (Duck With Orange Sauce, Grilled Center-Cut Pork Rib Chop With Caramelized Apple Jus) than the appetizers, where you'll find a tortilla chip-topped chowder. But generally I found that the best menu items were the innovative ones and the ones less bound to the French sauce tradition. A warm appetizer Salad of Field Greens, Goat Cheese, and Port-Soaked Cherries in a Pancetta Vinaigrette ($6.95), for instance, is pure inspiration. Every bite offers a potent taste of things warm and cool, bitter, salty, sweet, tart, tender, crispy, and chewy. It has body, in other words, which fills the mouth. It is, indeed, the finest thing on the menu that I tasted.

Some of the dishes I sampled on my visits pointed toward an inhibition with finessing sauces and soups, as well as to a brute hand with cooking meat. A recommended Tortilla Soup ($4.95), for instance, was, in effect, a bowl of bland corn purée. In what might have been an effort to thicken the soup, the kitchen lost sight of building flavor; the pulp of fresh corn tasted like mashed bread. The Roast Breast of Duck over Braised Savoy Cabbage with Fresh Corn Fritters and Orange Sauce ($18.95) also fell short. The duck arrived, seemingly cooked to a pink perfection, its medallions hugged by a crispy skin. However, the duck was tougher to cut and chew than low-grade roast beef and tasted about the same. I couldn't fathom how a piece of such resistant meat passed by the line cook who first sliced it for the plate. My waitress politely accepted my complaint about the dish and unhesitatingly deducted it from my bill. I was heartened to learn later that the chef agreed with my observations, even canceling all remaining duck orders for the night. I overheard from an adjacent table that the duck was an untested specialty item purchased from a trusted purveyor. Though I was impressed with the servicing of my complaint, the purveyor excuse didn't fully appease me; after all, the accompanying duck sauce was also wrong. In effect, the orange sauce tasted like crudely thickened meat stock but for the garnish of a few citrus pieces. I liked the braised cabbage, although it and the plump corn fritters could have stood a seasoning boost.

Thankfully, the Pork Rib Chop with Roasted Vegetables, House Fries, and Caramelized Apple Jus ($17.95) was much better. True, the sauce here was as undistinguished as that for the duck, and the meat was grilled slightly overdone, but it remained quite tender. The dish was further redeemed by a smattering of sweetly roasted baby carrots and pearl onions, and a heaping mound of candy-cigarette-thin fries. To my delight, there were a few pieces of something like stewed pear, in a classic tourné cut (like a football), tucked away on the plate.

The creme brulee, speckled with vanilla bean ($6), was good. It was refreshingly straightforward, thick, and smooth. The coffee service, too, was just lovely. Even decaf drinkers get treated to individual French presses of strong, fresh coffee, accompanied to the table by a complete porcelain coffee set. This arrangement and the option for a Coffee and Cordial Combination ($5.25) invite you to stay a while. Like the recommended apéritifs which top the dinner menu, the list of cordials offered with dessert encourages a leisurely meal.

I had better luck with subsequent trips to The Range. Although I did face similar inconsistencies with the seasoning of soups and sauces, I am pleased to report improved results overall. I began my next meal with a Range success: a Spinach Salad in a Honey Citrus Vinaigrette With Fresh Orange and Grapefruit Segments ($6.95). It was a beautiful salad, heaping with the biggest spinach leaves I have ever seen and delivering a precious harmony of citrus and sweet. A Wild Mushroom Pizza appetizer with roasted garlic, provolone, and mozzarella ($8.50) was terrific. The crust was Boboli-doughy, the cheese surprisingly light, and the mushrooms big. For a simple pizza pie, it had gusto. An appetizer of Grilled Quail over Marinated Mushrooms and Greens in a Creamy Garlic Dressing ($8.95) lacked dimension, though I was still happy to eat the whole piquant thing. I took a chance on the Ossobuco ($23.95) and Salmon ($18.95), and was glad I did. The veal was braised to such incredible tenderness that it nearly peeled itself from the bone. The salmon came with crusty skin and silky flesh over a bed of warm, pungent potato salad awash in mustard seeds and frisee. Although the dessert was a disappointment -- a warm chocolate pudding cake that oozed an unremarkable bittersweet chocolate sauce ($6.50) -- it came with yummy banana ice cream.

To be sure, this is a restaurant with ambition; it challenges an otherwise food-sleepy town with unexpected standards of service and taste. Plus, it goes out of its way to engage the community. Small, informal cooking classes bring to the restaurant budding home cooks (many of them retired men), and a partnership with a local grower shapes the menu's seasonal changes. Although the kitchen is at times a little uncertain with the execution of some food ideas, The Range has all the trappings of fine dining that, when they come together, justify the hourlong trip from downtown Austin.

The Best of Austin: Restaurants ballot is here! Nominations can be made now through Monday, August 22, at midnight. Vote now at vote.austinchronicle.com.

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