The Austin Chronicle

Prix-Fixe Primer

Eating Well in Austin Without Breaking the Bank

By Rachel Feit, March 2, 2001, Food


606 Rio Grande, 479-8117

Mon-Thu, 6-10pm; Fri-Sat, 6-10:30pm

This young restaurant revisits France's second empire with its classical, sybaritic cookery -- aged steaks capped with miniature chapeaux of marrow gelatin, foie gras and bacon-wrapped quail peeking out of a delicate puff pastry, or towering salads of fresh field greens, artichokes, eggplant, gravlax, and foie gras. Aquarelle offers some of the most decadent dinners in town. Its elegant, formal dining room, and a troop of well-trained staff remind us that in France the restaurant business is a metier -- a profession, not a job. Chef Jacques Richard recently arrived fresh from Aix-en-Provence, where he served as sous chef at Les Frères Lani, and has been inspiring Francophone diners with his Provençal-influenced cuisine for almost a year now. With a seasonally changing menu, Aquarelle is one of a handful of restaurants bold enough to offer rabbit, sweetbreads, and other organ meats to the sometimes squeamish Austin palate.

In addition to their ever-rotating bill of fare, they regularly feature three fixed-price menus -- a $40 four-course Menu du Marché, a $50 five-course vegetarian menu, and a six-course $75 Menu Gourmand; all of them change according to season. Last season's four-course menu was a steal with its warmed roasted tomato and goat cheese torte for starters; a choice of pastry-wrapped sea bass gently kissed by lemongrass oil, or mushroom-stuffed chicken breast accompanied by cauliflower gratin; a cheese course, and finally a warm pear tart for dessert. The six-course Menu Gourmand was equally tantalizing. Beginning with a racy pressed duck foie gras and veal sweetbreads wrapped in potatoes, the meal accelerated with a choice of sautéed sea scallops in tomato vinaigrette or lobster fricassée swimming in court-bouillon crème. The main course featured an herby rack of lamb dressed by a fussy vegetable pinwheel and cracked black olives. Cheese, sorbets, and a choice of desserts formed the dénouement.

Vegetarians were no less wooed by a rare five-course menu without a trace of flesh. Lovely items such as creamy pumpkin soup garnished with fried onions and pumpkin seeds, mustardy green lentil salad supporting a delicate poached egg, mushroom-stuffed cabbage bathed in saffron emulsion, or winter vegetable lasagna are among the types of dishes that will tempt vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. The portions of most items are significantly sized and little amuse-bouche offered between courses ensure that no one leaves Aquarelle hungry. Although both food and service have been known to falter, this young restaurant is only beginning to reach its stride, promising a bright future among Austin's upscale eateries.

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