Solid as a Rock
Casual reliability at Stone House Grill
Stone House Grill6701 Burnet Rd., 452-1400
Monday-Friday, 5-10pm; Saturday, 11am-10pm
Sometimes going out to eat is more challenging than dining at home. At the end of a long workday, when the children are cranky and blood-sugar levels low, the last place most people want to visit is a trendy high-toned restaurant with two-hour waits and triple-digit bills. In Austin, the affordable, casual yet reliable meal has become something of an endangered species amidst all of the glam new eateries spreading like body glitter across the city's surface. And just when you thought that independent restaurateurs had given up offering hearty comforting foods, enter the Stone House restaurant, located in the old farmers' market on Burnet Road.
Hard-core foodies may find the fare at the Stone House a little pre-packaged, and culinary adventurers may find it a tad too pedestrian. Meanwhile, weight watchers will certainly want to avoid a kitchen that makes such liberal use of bernaise sauce, and cream gravy. However, the thousands of hungry Austinites who feel abandoned by the restaurant industry's love affair with architect-designed spaces, showy flavors, and tiny, sculpture-like presentations will find the Stone House comfortably familiar -- the type of place you'd take your parents to, or the type of place you'd bring your kids.
Owner Russell Engleman has converted what was once the keeper's house located in the old Travis County maintenance yard -- better known now as the "Austin's Historic Farmers' Market" and onetime home of The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival -- into a charming, homey space that reflects his commitment to Texas-friendly foods. The decor is nouveau rustic, featuring stripped juniper timber supports, tile floors, and exposed limestone walls. The actual dining area is the enclosed front porch of the house, and the low ceilings and big glass windows facing out into the farmers' market courtyard do conjure up the shady verandah of an old-style Texas ranch home. When the weather is pleasant there's an outdoor patio shaded by live oaks, next to which is a huge sand pit crammed with playground toys.
Engleman's original concept for the restaurant was to offer upscale yet homey Southern-style favorites. Like so many ambitious restaurateurs, he sought to take advantage of the sophisticated new dining public flowing into Austin. However, during the Stone House's two and a half years of operation, Engleman has adapted his vision to meet the needs not only of his existing clientele, but also of the type of diner he would like to attract. And what Engleman wants his restaurant to be is the type of place where people can take their families two or three times a month for a reliable, affordable meal with no bells and whistles attached. In my opinion, he is on his way.
The menu at the Stone House is contemporary, but not intimidating. Pork chops with whiskey cream sauce ($8.95), fish with artichoke dill sauce ($13.95), or chicken with a tequila-lime sauce ($8.95) are a few representative items. "We're all about sauces here," says Engleman of his cuisine concept. Loosely translated, this means that the Stone House's fare features some highly caloric ingredients. Butter, cream, cheese, and plenty of it, are the main components that give the foods flavor here.
The trout with crab-cream sauce ($13.95), I ordered one night, was luscious in that heavy, Southern sort of way that can be both blissful and wicked. Cream lovers can sympathize with my attraction to this Cajun-inspired dish, the idea of which makes one salivate with anticipation, but the actual consumption of which can be an arduous experience once past the first tasty morsels. Another visit's well-seasoned chicken fried steak ($10.95 full order, $7.95 half order) was smothered with a large quantity of very bacony cream gravy. It was definitely one of the more skillful versions of this legendarily rich Texas classic I have encountered.
Steaks are also a good choice here. Engleman loves steaks, and believes that his are some of the freshest, best-butchered in Austin (he poo-poos the idea of aging beef). The 12-ounce ribeye we ordered one night was cooked a perfect medium-rare, flavorful and tender, yet full of body. For $19.95 (plus a plate overflowing with sides) it is one of the more reasonably priced steaks in town.
My one disappointment at the Stone House was the shrimp étouffée, which was a bit too salty, even for my sodium-craving palate, and smacked of powdered bouillon. Otherwise, its overall effect was not bad, featuring celery, red peppers, and a good-sized portion of moist, tender shrimp.
Appetizers and sides are equally fattening, but like most of the fare at the Stone House, they generally deliver in terms of both portion size and taste. The mashed potatoes veritably overflow with butter and are smothered in a somewhat gratuitous cream gravy. What can I say? I gobbled up every bite. I was delighted by the sautéed zucchini (again in butter) which was still a vibrant shade of green when it arrived as an accompaniment to my fish. Their Caesar salad features homemade croutons, and a zingy, anchovy-tinged dressing with real integrity. People who can't decide what to order as a starter should be encouraged to try their PuPu Platter -- a Texas take on what was my favorite Chinese sampler as a child. The PuPu platter ($7.95 for two people) comes with old-fashioned crab-stuffed mushroom caps, a cream-cheesy crawfish dip, and freshly made masa empanadas stuffed with crab and shrimp.
Engleman has applied the recipes and menu ideas he learned working at various midpriced chain eateries around Texas to this independent business venture. He knows that the way to succeed in the restaurant business is to offer people plenty of choices. Like the highly successful Mason Jar, or the ever-popular Luby's, the Stone House menu encourages diners to personalize their plates. All entrées come with a choice of two sides. Choices include French fries, mashed potatoes, salad, sautéed vegetables, Cajun corn, sautéed mushrooms, or green beans. All fish entrées ($13.95) -- either salmon, trout, or snapper -- can be had with artichoke dill sauce, ponchartrain, or herb crab cream sauce. Or for a flat price of $8.95, you can order one of six different preparations for a boneless chicken breast. Predictably, the menu also offers several pasta dishes, four different steaks, and kids' menus.
Service at the Stone House is hit-or-miss. Like many casual restaurants, the waitstaff at this establishment are not professionals, but mainly kids working to make a bit of extra change to help support that nasty CD habit. Untrained and largely unfamiliar with the business of fine dining, the staff cannot necessarily be counted upon to replace the cutlery if they take it away, to bring a glass for that bottle of beer, or even to pay attention to you when the golf game is on TV. Still, there are times when the service at the Stone House can be remarkably attentive and friendly.
The Stone House is not the kind of place that will redefine the culinary map of Austin. But then, that's not owner Russell Engleman's goal for this unpretentious restaurant catering modern, Southern-style cuisine. Rather, the Stone House is welcoming and relaxed. It serves good food at reasonable prices.