Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Feb. 4, 2000
3801 Capital of Texas Highway N., 347-1000
Mon-Fri, 10am-9pm; Sat, 8am-9:30pm; Sun, 8am-3pm
Hungry inhabitants of the hills take note: What once seemed like an exotic species in the Loop 360 biotic province is now breeding at record rates. Restaurants are popping up like weeds along the Balcones Escarpment. There's the Canyon Cafe, Pacifica, the new upscale Bellagio, and then there's the Thistle, that pretty and prickly little plant that has sprouted within the stylish Davenport Village strip mall. Opened by restaurant veteran Herman Von Hapsburg, who formerly managed the kitchen at the Austin Country Club, this elegant little cafe definitely fills some empty space in the stomachs of West Austin's family diners.
Lunchtime usually bustles at Thistle, when restaurant-starved employees of Capital of Texas Highway's commercial corridor order at the counter and then find their own seats around one of the dining room's spare yet elegantly dressed tables. Additional tables set up on the balcony offer a nice view of the hills stretching west beyond the highway. The lunch menu features mainly sandwiches and salads. The grilled pastrami Reuben ($7.50) I ordered stole the prize for best lunch at our table. Abundant slices of pepper-spiced grilled meat set between crispy rye with sauerkraut and melted swiss cheese passed the sandwich test with an "A" score. Salads are fresh -- the one we ate consisted of crisp romaine lettuce, thin-sliced red onion, tomato, and kalamata olives.
For dinner, the kitchen offers perennial crowd pleasers such as ceviche ($8.95), crab cakes ($13.95), grilled beef tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes ($17.95), and rotisserie chicken ($9.95). Their extensive menu will even please the little people, with make-your-own-creation pastas and toppings-to-order pizzas.
Thistle Cafe calls itself a bistro, which suggests that it imagines itself as something other than a sandwich shop. And although it makes pretensions to something grander, it seems as though the kitchen does better with the short order than with more complex entrees. On a recent night, for instance, my dining companions and I were disappointed with the steak au poivre ($16.95), which we agreed lacked the signature poivre, showcasing instead a very large mass of mushrooms and caramelized onions. Not a bad topping, but not what we ordered. To add to our frustration, the meat itself was flavorless, as if someone forgot to spice it. The grilled pork tenderloin ($14.95) also missed its mark with similar flaws. The mushroom wine sauce that on paper made velvet promises of meaty mushroom jus, was in fact bland and uninteresting. And, like the beef, the pork tenderloin medallions were lamentably underspiced. Both dishes that night were served with a large quantity of a somewhat overcooked and, here again, underspiced vegetable medley.
Pastas, though, can be a good choice at the Thistle Cafe -- if you choose the right combination of ingredients. I was thoroughly satisfied by the bowtie pasta with olive oil, garlic, smoked salmon, artichokes, and parmesan ($11.95), which was generously piled with smoky bits of fish and artichoke. However, I can imagine that newcomers to Thistle Cafe might mistakenly opt for disastrous combinations from the list of choices and then feel betrayed by their own selection.
Still, for busy families who want a wholesome meal without the hassle of cooking and cleanup, the Thistle Cafe just might be sized to fit. The kids will love inventing their own pizzas, pastas, and sandwiches, while moms and dads will appreciate the convenience of a restaurant that offers fresh food, available not just for dining in, but also for takeout. For those of you with incurable sweet tooths, don't forget to order some of their chocolate chip cookies for dessert. These spotted beauties are simply some of the best I've tasted -- bursting with dark chocolate chunks, crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. It's clear that the Thistle excels at comfort foods such as these, meat loaf with mashed potatoes or rotisserie chicken. And though the Thistle Cafe could improve when it comes to more ambitious dishes, let's hope that this pretty little flower can ultimately take root in the bedrock of West Austin's palates.