City Grill: New Owners, Same Classy Style
City Grill401 Sabine, 479-0817
Sun-Thu, 5-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5-10:30pm
Some images become so seared in the collective mind, they are indelible and instantly recognizable. Many years ago, I read that more people were familiar with the white-goateed Col. Sanders than with any other American image. Austin has its own collective images. The Stevie Ray Vaughn statue at Auditorium Shores? The State Capitol? The UT Tower? Any of them might be contenders for most ubiquitous sight. I have a nomination, too: the stole-clad gal with the dangling ball earrings kissing the fish flung over the chef's shoulder. You know that shot, right? It's been around as long as I can remember; it's the image in the ad for City Grill. It's rare enough for a non-chain restaurant to survive for a decade or more, but it's rarer still for such a restaurant to remain viable. City Grill has managed to do all of that and retain the same print ad image. We decided to see recently how the downtown destination is holding up.
City Grill changed hands in January. This transition may have been overlooked by most visitors, even regulars. What wasn't broke wasn't fixed, and whatever changes may have occurred are not reflected in the décor, menu, or even much of the wait staff. Located over Waller Creek, City Grill used to feel like it was a classy oasis in an otherwise dubious neighborhood. But the downtown boom is about 10 minutes away from erasing all signs of the train track district surrounding the restaurant. The cool white, spacious structure feels like some chic, renovated upstate New York barn. Much of the duct work is exposed and ceiling fans gently keep the air moving. A long bar runs the length of one wall, while the dining area is in one large room. The feel is stylish and surprisingly intimate. The coolness of the room is further enhanced by the white linens that grace the tables.
Befitting its fashionable ambience, the bar features several swanky martini specials. There is even a featured martini of the night ($6). We partook and, being somewhat picky about our martinis, were delighted at the frosty stemmed glasses that arrived holding deliciously mixed libations. It's a cool beginning in such a setting.
To accompany the drinks, we had a longtime favorite: besotes calientes ($7.75), jalapeños stuffed with jack cheese and shrimp, then wrapped in bacon and grilled. It's hard to mess up something that's wrapped in bacon and grilled unless you blow it on the grilling, but these folks have considerable experience at the grill. It is equally hard for any flavor to compete with bacon, but the jalapeño has a fighting chance due to its fiery nature. The shrimp, though, is completely lost except for the texture it lends to the dish. Still, it's a delicious, hearty beginning.
In a slightly lighter vein, we also had the baked chevre served with roasted garlic and kalamata olives on a pool of gutsy tomato-caper sauce ($5.50). It's a sauce that is almost puttanesca-like in its boldness. The tangy, smooth goat cheese is a sharp contrast to the sauce. The appetizer comes with an unusual assortment of breads on which to transport the cheese and sauce: stone wheat crackers, party-sized pumpernickel bread, small slices of a miniature loaf of bread. While not objectionable, it's unique in this world of artisan breads.
The salad choices are limited to Caesar, spinach, and green, but they are constructed with the same attention to detail as the other offerings at City Grill and are available in half sizes, making them more manageable when accompanying a dinner. The green salad ($5.50/ $2.75 half) is particularly noteworthy as it comes with your choice of a liberal sprinkling of either Parmesan or bleu cheese. The vinaigrette is mild, and the crisp dark greens are scattered with small, tangy bits of deeply veined cheese.
As the familiar ad suggests, City Grill features fish. As the name suggests, grilling is the preparation of choice. The menu also offers meat that can be thrown on the grill and several pastas. But fish is the name of the game. It is simply grilled over mesquite wood and served with a choice of sauces: cocktail, tartar, lemon herb butter, horseradish cream, tomatillo, dijon brandy, Szechuan, bernaise, Provençal, and aioli. Actually, the sauces are available with all of the grilled entrées, which include filet mignon, rib eye, NY strip, and a kabob of jalapeños, onions, and peppers with beef tenderloin cubes.
With preparation this straightforward, it is imperative that the raw ingredients are fresh and that the person manning the grill knows when enough is enough. And that's where these folks hit it in the bull's-eye. Our party's fish choices included yellowfin tuna ($18.75), rainbow trout ($15.75), and the nightly special of mahi mahi ($19.95), and just to throw in a curve ball a ziti pasta with a kabob of mixed seafood in a roasted tomato sauce ($16.75). These entrées require a keen eye, as their thickness and firmness vary considerably, but each was grilled perfectly. The tuna, offered medium but requested medium rare, was just that: pink in the middle and seared nicely on the outside. The mahi mahi was grilled just to the point of providing a slightly resistant crust while revealing a milky, silky inside. The trout flaked beautifully without being dry. The kabob, featuring shellfish and fish, had a crusty exterior and tender interior. The superior flavor and textures of each of the items revealed the freshness of the fish.
The entrées came with either rice pilaf or garlic new potatoes and sautéed vegetables. The rice pilaf was not Uncle Ben's, and that's saying a lot since many restaurants rely on that old standby in the pilaf section. It was a medley of various rices with a couple of herbs in the mix and was nice and fluffy. The vegetables, too, were nicely cooked; as with the fish, they were simply, yet correctly, prepared.
The wine list is almost exclusively Californian, with lots to choose from among chardonnays, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, cabernets, merlots, pinot noir, zinfandel, and sparklers. There are some 20 or so wines available by the glass. We had narrowed our bottle selection down to two, when our waiter helpfully and knowledgeably listened to our preferences and made an informed suggestion of the Hanna Sauvignon Blanc ($26). It turned out to be exactly to our liking. Which makes this a good time to comment on our waiter, Denise Lavender. She struck the right note between attentiveness and discretion. She didn't hover, though everything happened in the correct order that it should. By paying attention to the degree of conversation that was occurring, she allowed the meal to progress at an appropriately civilized pace. And while she didn't attempt to strike up some phony friendship, her pleasant overtures and timely inquiries had a pleasant effect. Another thing: At the meal's end, she presented us with her personalized City Grill business card inviting us to come back. Now, how many restaurants can keep good wait staff long enough to get them outfitted with business cards? It's a testimony to the professionalism of the management and service that this practice exists.
The meal wasn't a heavy, leaden affair, but all we could muster for dessert was one sampling of the chocolate cake ($4.75). It was dense, dark, just this side of bitter, and covered in a chocolate ganache. The type of dessert that makes chocolate lovers sigh.
City Grill hasn't lost its stride. On a Tuesday visit, the place was full. In its early days, it was one of a few spots in Austin that offered good dining in a sophisticated atmosphere. These days, the competition in that arena is considerably more intense, and yet it remains popular and perfectly in style. It's not an easy trick.
The fish-kissing girl can still be found in a variety of publications. Not only is the ad familiar and engaging, it often comes as part of a complimentary entrée coupon (with a value up to $12.50), which makes that familiar girl a bargain beauty and gives you every excuse to visit this reliable, likable, and smart dining destination.