Sipping Between the Lines
Reviewing the Wine Lists at the Four Seasons and the Driskill
Driskill Hotel604 Brazos, 474-5911
Built in 1886, the Driskill has seen its share of ups and downs. Some decades, it was the best hotel in town, sometimes it was a sad shadow of itself. What the Driskill has always had going for it is a sense of place, a unique Austin-ness that reflects our heritage in luxurious style. After a succession of owners and financial problems, the current owners decided it was time to make a statement: Their goal is to make the Driskill not just the best in Austin, but competitive with any other hotel anywhere in the world. They have set themselves a grand and honorable goal. To put some force behind their conviction, they hired manager Jeff Trigger from the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, consistently ranked as one of the best hotels in the United States. Trigger brought chef David Bull and maitre d'hotel Brian Allen from the Mansion. Since their arrival about a year ago, the wine and food operation has improved dramatically. Happily for us, Bull and Allen had already developed a working relationship that included matching food and wine.
Running down their wine list, I find some unexpected treasures. Caymus Sauvignon Blanc ($8 per glass, $35 per bottle) is an exceptional wine both for food and just for drinking. It is rich and viscous with a delightful acidity and some oak. This goes perfectly with the cream of corn soup with crab dumpling ($8), where the acidity gently compliments the sweet richness of the corn and crab. Continuing with Sauvignon Blancs, they also carry one of the wine world's great bargains, Casa Lapostolle from Chile ($25 per bottle). It is an even more acidic wine that brightens up many rich foods. Another uncommon find is the Chalone Pinot Blanc ($50), a rare Burgundian style wine that would go nicely with their Lobster Thermidor ($32).
The Byron Pinot Noir ($45) mated perfectly with the forest mushroom salad with fried green tomatoes, peppered arugula and creamy goat cheese ($9). Salads are always tough to match because the vinegar fights the wine. Here, the wine has an enormous kick of white pepper on the palette that marries cleanly with the arugula; then the earthy mushrooms set off a beautiful strawberry explosion from the wine. The dressing is very lightly applied, so the vinegar never has a chance to hurt the wine. This is an excellent, if unexpected, combo.
I am excited to see that the Driskill is carrying some French wines. A perfect combination is the Bouchard Pere et Fils Pouilly-Fuisée ($50) with the honey-soy-glazed salmon over pan fried rice with shrimp fire crackers, tempura broccoli, and carrot-wasabi emulsion ($24). Despite the long list of ingredients in the name, the dish was quite subtle, with the salmon predominating. The light touch of honey and soy harmonized very nicely with the crisp Chardonnay fruit. This wine is an education about the way winemakers should make a Chard to go with food. No big oaky, clumsy flavors to fight the food, but, instead, a trim, brisk wine to enhance the food.
My only caveat is this: The Driskill wants to be seen as a contender with any hotel in the country.
While their wine list is long, it is aimed directly at the California Chardonnay/Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot drinker, wines which make up almost half of the list. While this surely reflects the average buying public's biases, it is surprising in a hotel aiming at the top tier of sophistication and elegance. There are virtually no wines from Alsace, Australia, Germany, Italy, or Spain, and only a few from the Rhone and South America. The Driskill's wine list is one of the better lists in town, but it is not at the caliber they aspire to. Brian Allen is aware of the need to go to the next level, and I am confident they will achieve their goal.
Cafe at the Four Seasons Hotel98 San Jacinto, 685-8300
Dinner, Mon-Fri, 6-10pm;
Dinner, Fri-Sat, 6-11pm
Business travelers love the Four Seasons chain of hotels. They are consistently sumptuous, elegant, and comfortable. Condé Nast Traveller magazine has named the Austin site one of the top 40 hotels in North America (Four Seasons Hotels had 12 of the top 40 slots). Part of the reason for the award is the Cafe, which ranks 34th out of all the hotel restaurants in North America and behind only Dallas' Mansion on Turtle Creek and Adolphus for all Texas hotels. Very impressive, but what about their wine list?
Danielle Smith is the director of food and beverage, which means she oversees anything that involves eating or drinking at the hotel. Originally from Paris, she has owned and operated a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe as well as run the food and wine operations in the U.S. for her own restaurant in Santa Barbara and for other Four Seasons Hotels. Her sensibility about wine is quite French: Drink it with food only. "It is too valuable to drink alone! The nuances and aromas must be enjoyed with food," she says. Elmer Prambs, the chef at the Cafe, is an imposing and gifted colleague to help achieve some stunning food/wine combinations.
It is always interesting to compare different wines with the same dish. You can taste how the food effects the wine and vice versa. After looking through the list, we chose the Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc ($48) and the Jordan Chardonnay ($58) to support our appetizers. The Maine lobster chowder with roasted corn, chives, and diced potato ($12.50) is extremely rich with a very concentrated stock and delicious flavors. The Duckhorn, which is not too grassy or oaky, melds perfectly with the soup. Fruit and acid from the wine open the palette, cut through the cream, and leave the sweetness of the lobster and corn as the main aftertaste. After a piece of bread, the Jordan tastes wonderful, lightly oaked but not overdone. However, after the chowder, the Chardonnay simply tastes rigid and bland, fighting with the food. The prosciutto d'Parma, white asparagus, and Italian parsley salad with marinated mission figs ($10) is an inspired dish. Four different but complementary tastes coalesce perfectly. Again, the Duckhorn wins with foods. This time, it is the acidity of the wine against the sweetness of the figs that gives life to both the food and the wine.
We decided to add a Rhone wine, a Côte Rôtie from J.M. Gerin ($68) plus an Oregon wine, Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir ($85), and move to the entrees. Cajun spiced snapper with basmati-zucchini cake and crawfish hollandaise ($24) is my favorite dish of the evening. Given the heavier spicing and the sauce, the pinot is a little overwhelmed, but the peppery, plummy Côte Rôtie goes perfectly. Not quite as good, but still exceptional is the Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, still matching wonderfully and showing more of its character as it warms up. The Chardonnay is completely buried.
Finally, we tried the roasted veal loin with pearl onion confit, sage apple stuffing, and Tuaca veal jus ($28). Tuaca is a blend of brandy, vanilla, and citrus fruit essences that has a very distinct flavor. Apples can sometimes fight with wine but the Pinot Noir fits it. Imagine a fruit salad of apples, blueberries, plums, and cherries. This is a hint of the combined flavors. Adding the sage, Tuaca, and the onion confit gives a complex flavor burst. Again, the food supports the wine, which supports the food and on and on. A lovely combination. The Côte Rôtie is just slightly less inspired. In the imaginary fruit salad, take away the blueberry and cherry but add a stiff jolt of black pepper and you have an idea of what awaits.
The Cafe at the Four Seasons has more than 200 wines. Ms. Smith, who in the past was a sommelier, recognizes the reality that the American hotel market for wine means mostly California Chardonnay/ Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot. Nonetheless, the Four Seasons is a world-class chain and the Austin hotel ranks very high among their efforts. I wish for more white wines from Bordeaux, Alsace, Germany, Italy, Australia, and South America. There are two full pages of Chardonnays, yet just a handful of Sauvignon Blancs. Concerning red wines, there is a delightful selection of Cabernets and Merlots, but a small Bordeaux section and even smaller Burgundy and Rhone selections. The list features only one Australian and a few Italian red wines. The ability to balance commerce and creativity is difficult, but in a hotel like the Four Seasons, I wish Ms. Smith would allow her broad knowledge of the wines of the world to take a more commanding presence on her wine list.
But this is just fussing, wishing the list would move from excellent to brilliant. The juxtaposition between the menu and the wine list here is accomplished and frequently inspired. Chef Prambs seems incapable of putting out a dish where you wish for a different ingredient or style; it is authoritative. Add to this a very high level of service and an elegant room (with outdoor dining available overlooking Town Lake). It all adds up to a sublime dining experience.