Defining World-Class

Getting Reacquainted With the Driskill

The Driskill Grill
The Driskill Grill (Photo By John Anderson)

The Driskill Grill

The Driskill Hotel, 474-5911

Sixth & Brazos

Breakfast daily: 6:30-10:30am

Sunday brunch: 11am-2pm

Lunch daily: 11am-2pm

Dinner nightly: 5:30-10:30pm

I have to confess right up front that I approached this review with a certain bias. I love the Driskill Hotel. You just have to respect an old dowager that's survived and flourished against such tremendous odds. When I moved here 30 years ago, the Driskill was a run-down, pitiful shadow of a formerly grand hotel threatened with foreclosure and destruction, the subject of a "rummage sale" where all the antique furnishings were sold off. In the mid-Seventies, she dodged the wrecking ball when the heroic efforts of a determined group of hometown supporters kept her open. But she was to suffer the indignity of several garish, tacky makeovers that destroyed any sense of actually being in a Texas hotel as the property repeatedly changed hands over the next 20 years.

Like so many Driskill admirers, I was thrilled when the property was purchased by Great American Life Insurance Company in 1996 with the express purpose of restoring the lovely old hotel to her former grandeur, treatment that befitted such a Texas historical treasure. During the restoration by Austin's Home Health Community Construction (HHCC) Inc. and the Bommarito Group with a build-out by Frank Seely, efforts were made to relocate some of the Driskill's original furnishings and to use the skills of Texas artisans for many design elements. The result is stunning. The Driskill is once again a grand hotel, with her spirit of Texana restored.

When it came to personnel, Great American Life raided the staff of the elegant, highly regarded Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, a five-star hotel. They hired away an even dozen executives with expertise in everything from human resources, finance, and marketing, to resident management and security. Longtime Mansion sous-chef David Bull was enticed to Austin as was dining-room manager Kevin Phenager. The marketing team announced that it was their goal to turn the somewhat lackluster Driskill Grill into a world-class fine dining facility. As someone who loves nothing better than a great restaurant, I was pleased to hear that news and curious to see just what they meant by "world-class." I gave the new team plenty of time to get acclimated to Austin and then dropped in for two different meals to evaluate whether or not they're reaching the stated goal.

My dining companion, my sister, and I had forgotten that the Old Pecan Street Festival necessitated blocking off Sixth Street, making access to the Driskill's valet service difficult and street parking just about impossible, but we persevered and were the first diners to arrive when the Driskill Grill opened for brunch on a recent Sunday. Although the dining room was empty and we were the only patrons at the reception area, the staff member who greeted us made a big production out of the fact that we had no reservations. He scanned the empty dining room nervously, referred back to a less-than-filled page in the reservation book, checked the dining room again, and finally agreed to seat us at a small corner table where two leather banquettes came together, mumbling something about a crowd expected anytime now. This ungracious behavior and the fact that no crowd ever materialized in the hour and a half we were there made us feel very unwelcome; that should not have happened.

Brunch at the Driskill is a $29 prix fixe affair with a four-course meal consisting of a mimosa starter, a selection of six or eight appetizers and/or salads, a choice of entrées, and an elegant dessert buffet with several inviting choices. This puts it in the upper echelon of local brunch prices, more than the renowned buffet at Fonda San Miguel and on par with the brunch at the Four Seasons. For openers, I chose a field green salad with toasted pecans and Texas Feta cheese and my sister had a baby spinach Caesar salad with Gruyère crostini. This is where the real problems started. The salads were attractive enough but were not exactly presented as advertised. The pecans on my salad were ground finely but certainly didn't taste toasted and there was no discernible cheese on my salad. When I questioned our server about the cheese, she wheeled around, placed her lacquered fingernail on the edge of my plate, pointed at a little white speck, and said, "Here it is, the cheese is the garnish around the plate." I explained that I had expected more Feta cheese and to her credit, she eventually returned with a small bowl of cheese for my salad. To my sister's distress, the "Caesar" salad was chock-full of mushrooms not mentioned on the menu and the crostini, a term used to describe dry, crisp croutons, were deep-fried and very greasy.

Unfortunately, I didn't fare much better with my entrée choice. The sage biscuit with ham and poached eggs sounded great but what arrived at the table wasn't too appetizing. The biscuit was split and covered with many long matchstick-thin strips of ham and surrounded by a large pile of shoestring potatoes. The two poached eggs were nestled on top of the pile, creating the overall effect of a nest of twigs into which eggs had been laid. It would have been fine as a performance-art piece but as a meal it was difficult to approach and very messy to eat. I would not order it again. The petit sirloin with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled onions was a much better choice. We proceeded to the dessert buffet and were rewarded with many tempting choices, including tortes, bombes, fruit tarts, mousses, and chocolate truffles. Unfortunately, by that time we were aware that after totalling our parking fees, bill, and tip, we'd spent nearly $85 on what was at best an unremarkable meal. I was so disappointed. The only thing "world-class" about the experience was the very steep price.

Even after that disappointment, I was determined to give the Driskill another chance to impress me and returned for dinner with some friends the next weekend. This time reservations were made in my friend's name and we were seated in the center of the beautifully appointed dining room amidst hotel guests, local diners with theatre reservations, and a bevy of prom dates. (Note to style avatar Stephen M. Moser: Prom fashion this year was all about backless; it was 17-year-old shoulder blades and big hair for days!) What a difference the choice of day made. That evening, we had one of the best meals any of us had experienced in Austin in quite some time.

My dinner began with a tasty duck burrito ($12), a tender flour tortilla stuffed with well-seasoned duck resting on fiery corn cakes and surrounded by brightly flavored sauces. The shrimp cocktail ($12) chosen by my companions was even more impressive. Two gigantic Gulf shrimp arrived nestled in a crisp, edible cup filled with field greens and buttery hearts of palm, and once again, piquant sauces were painted around the plate. The most remarkable aspect of the dish, however, was the fact that the cup holding the cocktail was both sweet and crunchy, adding two extra layers of texture and flavor to the overall dimension to the dish. It was a risky choice, but it made for a very memorable appetizer.

Our entrée choices were stellar, as well. The lobster tail ($38) with mushroom and lobster polenta was divinely rich and elegant, arriving with the perfectly grilled lobster turned out of its shell, resting in a bed of sumptuous soft polenta surrounded by a truffled cognac beurre blanc sauce studded with crisp asparagus spears. It was well worth the price. The duck confit ($26) with huckleberry sauce was moist and toothsome with the sweet/tart sauce the perfect foil for the rich meat. The real revelation of this meal, however, was the vegetarian entrée choice for the evening. One of my companions ordered the crêpe duo ($18) and was rewarded with two lacy saffron chive crêpes with different vegetable fillings, one with sautéed artichoke hearts and leeks with garlic and shallots napped in a delicate cream sauce and the other with roasted wild mushrooms and asparagus spears in a rich vegetable broth dusted with Parmesan cheese. This subtle, sophisticated entrée would make any vegetarian take notice. We would return for a meal of this quality time and again.

The service at our dinner visit was first-class, attentive without being intrusive, friendly without being overly familiar. Both the maître'd and the assistant dining-room manager unobtrusively worked the room, making sure everyone was satisfied and things were running smoothly. The dark, wood-paneled dining room is bathed in soft light from antique wall sconces, and each table is graced with a lovely single silk rosebud. Place settings are simple and elegant. The only minor flaw was badly wrinkled tablecloths, an easily overlooked but necessary problem to correct in creating an atmosphere of refinement. As an admitted fan of the Driskill, I was greatly relieved to have such a wonderful and satisfying dining experience on my second visit to the Driskill Grill. I have no way of knowing if we just happened to hit the brunch crew on an off-day, but I may well steer clear of the pricey brunch altogether in favor of chef David Bull's dynamic dinner menu, now that I've had a taste of what "world-class" means to him.

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