The Austin Chronicle

Western Zing

Chef Robert McGrath's trailblazing blend of the robust and bold

By Virginia B. Wood, July 18, 2003, Food

One of the major tenets I follow when reviewing restaurants is to consider just how well the restaurant actually does what it sets out to do. On rare occasions, all the various elements of a restaurant, everything from the name to the concept to the location to the décor and, finally, to the food and service, are so well conceived and carefully executed that a very good restaurant emerges. It's a pleasure to dine in such places and exciting to review them. The Roaring Fork, an American Western bistro developed by chef Robert McGrath, is a very good restaurant indeed.

McGrath named the restaurant after Colorado's Roaring Fork River near Aspen, an area that's dear to his heart. The rustic décor -- all stone, metal, leather, and antlers -- evokes images of a comfortable, upscale hunting and fishing camp somewhere in the Rocky Mountains -- the kind of place where you'd grill steaks outside in the waning daylight and spend crisp mornings fishing for trout in a crystal-clear mountain stream. The menu completes the picture with a list of hearty Western entrées and side dishes that are innovative and packed with robust flavors. It's a carnivore's dream. The saloon serves good drinks, and the staff is friendly and eager to please. In short, the Roaring Fork delivers on the overwhelming number of the expectations that its image creates. I predict it has a solid future in Austin.

Locals may remember chef Robert McGrath from his long-ago tenure at the local Four Seasons Hotel. From Austin, he moved to the Four Seasons property in Houston and then achieved national acclaim as the chef at the luxurious Phoenician resort in the Arizona desert. The Roaring Fork is McGrath's first independent restaurant venture, and he has joined forces with longtime local restaurant developers Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso. The original Roaring Fork is in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Foles and Villavaso have also scored with Z Tejas Grill. The Austin outlet is the partners' second joint venture, located in the prime Congress Avenue corner spot that formerly housed the ill-fated Star Canyon. Chef McGrath divides his time between Austin and Scottsdale while chef Brian Krellenstein is on the range here regularly. The restaurant has a good pedigree and, based on my experience, is in very good hands.

On a recent Monday evening, some girlfriends joined me in the Roaring Fork saloon. We'd been enticed by an ad touting the special summer prices on their happy-hour appetizers. Bypassing the tall, spindly bar chairs (note to restaurant designers everywhere: Most bar chairs are hideous and absolute torture to sit in for any length of time -- burn 'em all), we settled ourselves comfortably on some very attractive leather couches and ate off a low trestle table. The happy-hour menu here is made up of a couple of items from the lunch menu, as well as some of the dinner appetizers, and, at $6 per plate, some of the deals are unbeatable! The Big Ass Cheeseburger is a moist patty topped with melted cheddar cheese, crisp peppered bacon, grilled onions, roasted poblano peppers, and a thick slice of garden tomato on a toasted bun slathered with chipotle mayo. The huge burger comes with a mountain of fresh-cut, crispy fries dusted with a tingly house spice blend. It's a mess to eat, but it's also one of the best burgers in town at any price.

Also impressive are the fish tacos: warm, homemade flour tortillas chock-full of delicately battered, lightly fried chunks of halibut dressed with a zingy cabbage slaw. Another winner was a skillet full of fall-off-the-bone tender pork ribs in a sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. And don't get me started about the house beef jerky, the perfect Atkins appetizer, so I'm told. With the $6 deals available all summer, the saloon should be a busy place.

A group of old friends joined my sister and I at the Roaring Fork for dinner to celebrate her birthday. We enjoyed another stellar meal with only a few minor glitches. We ran the table that night, with five appetizers, four entrées, and three desserts, scoring 10 hits and only two misses. Among the appetizers, we were particularly impressed by the Spinach and Smoked Ruby Trout Salad ($8.75), which offered a flaky trout fillet atop a towering pile of greens with matchstick strips of crisp green apple and sweet red onion dressed in a tangy cider-bacon vinaigrette. It's a refreshing appetite enhancer.

My personal favorite, which I was loathe to share around the table, was the New Mexico Fondue Pot ($10.50) with little lamb chops, toasted bread cubes, and roasted squash to dip in a small, cast-iron pot of zesty cheese dip. Another sure winner. Our only disappointment in this course was the Tortilla Soup ($8.75), a thick smoked-tomato broth poured (at the table) into a flat bowl around a tower of grilled chicken and guacamole. There were two problems here, the first being an issue of accurate menu description. If the menu had said the soup base was a thick tomato broth, the diner who isn't overly fond of tomatoes probably wouldn't have ordered it in the first place. The second problem was a flavor issue in that the smokiness of the broth was so overwhelming, the blander chicken and guacamole had no chance of balancing it out.

Our entrées, however, were winners all the way around. Each was paired with a well-conceived side-dish casserole, such as McGrath's signature Green Chile Macaroni and Cheese, as well as crisp seasonal vegetables. One standout is the divine Pork Porterhouse ($22.50), a cut that's showing up on more restaurant menus all the time. At the Roaring Fork, the moist, juicy slab of pork is rubbed with zesty spices and napped with a red-bell-pepper ketchup. It's served with a pot of roasted potatoes in the same cheese sauce that accompanies the lamb fondue, plus spears of bright green broccoli rabe.

The Pan-Seared Halibut Filet ($19.50) was a firm, flaky piece of fish with a delicate, gold-top crust, served with a mild rock-shrimp remoulade, a pot of hearty, smoked tomato grits, and crunchy sugar-snap peas. (In this second appearance of the smoky tomato broth, some of its power was soothed by the grits themselves, and there were several other flavors on the plate to create a balance.) The 22-ounce Bone-In RibEye ($28) is the best example of that particular cut I've eaten in Austin. The Roaring Fork dry-ages their beef, and the resulting flavor is remarkable. Ordered "Pittsburgh medium rare," the flavorful steak arrived at the table with a dark, caramelized exterior and a center that was red to pink. Paired with a delicate sweet-corn casserole, it's a marvelous piece of meat.

The entrées had raised our expectations, and we went boldly on to desserts, ordering some to share around the table. The Devil's Food Cake ($7.50) with pecan cream Anglaise, caramelized bananas, and vanilla ice cream offered delightful contrasts of flavor, texture, and temperature. The Seasonal Individual Fruit Pie ($7.50), fresh peach in this instance, was a woefully underdone, doughy disappointment rather than the homey, comforting dish we were expecting. Perhaps next time I'll stick to sorbets and ice creams after such hearty meals.

Though I'm obviously now an unabashed fan of the Roaring Fork, the one improvement I'd like to see is in the service area. The entire waitstaff should be well versed in the ingredients of each dish, and some of the more inexperienced staffers could use instruction in the area of food-and-wine pairing if they intend to enhance their check averages with wine sales. Considering how much I liked this restaurant, these are relatively minor quibbles. Overall, the Roaring Fork comes through in a big way. end story

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