"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." You said it, Bardo. Downtown, we call it Castle Hill; in Northwest Austin, it's Mirabelle Restaurant, but either way it's a haven of outstanding and creative dining. And like the fragrant rose that can come in various hues and sizes, these sister restaurants, too, have their variations. After all, the goal isn't to create identical, chain-restaurant homogeny, but to maintain imaginative and affordable dining.
The long history -- well, really ancient history by restaurant standards -- of Castle Hill Cafe hardly needs recapping here. Mirabelle, the northern suburban endeavor, has had five years since its 1998 opening, and in that time has walked that difficult tightrope of remaining true to its roots and carving out an identity of its own. In this particular case staying true to its roots would be difficult enough, considering that the roots consist of a commitment to innovation. How do you hold to that particular course while staking out your own path?
In this case, you start by not fixing what ain't broke. Pulling up to the nondescript strip mall reveals nothing about what's inside: the downtown location's familiar amber hues, sconce lighting, even the divider wall separating the main dining area from the waiting section. Since its inception, the menu has retained some of the more stalwart favorites, like Lucinda's Basil Cheese Torta and Spicy Duck and Sausage Gumbo. But chef David Apthorpe doesn't need a template to carve out his identity. He has charted his own course with a menu that relies less heavily on Southwestern and Asian influences and draws more on Continental and Provençal inspiration.
Recent visits reveal just how successful Mirabelle remains. Our dinner party began with a Mushroom and Duck Liver Pté ($4.50) and Blackened Shrimp With Gorgonzola Cream ($7.95) with roasted pecans, bock beer glaze, green onions, and leek hay. It is almost possible to re-create these dishes thanks to the menu, which favors listing ingredients over fanciful names. Almost. While most skillful home cooks could come up with a pretty tasty set of appetizers given the menu's description, there are precious few whose end result would come close to the caliber of these beauties. The pté's voluptuous texture approached butter, and the rich flavors were perfectly balanced. And the shrimp were a revelation: generously seasoned without overwhelming the snapping fresh shellfish and nicely balanced with the deep, almost sweet beer glaze and a frizzle of ultra crisp, ultra fine leek. It was all we could do to refrain from licking the plate.
Our entrées for the evening included Sea Bass With Shitake & Pinot Noir Sauce ($19.95), Linguini With Garlic Grilled Shrimp and Crab-Brie Cream, and Grilled Beef Tenderloin With Exotic Mushroom Bordelaise ($21.95). There was concern that the mushroom-wine sauce might have been too robust for the bass and better suited to beef, but the match proved to be made in more celestial environments. The pasta dish would have been impossibly rich if not for the balancing act that the pistachio/chile pesto and roasted red bell pepper puree provided. And the neoclassic beef nicely updated the old-world French style tournedos bordelaise. One minor complaint: The green beans were barely blanched and retained their toughness in a preparation that seems to infect many fine establishments. It can only be an overcompensation for decades of green beans boiled beyond taste and recognition.
We paired two of our entrées with delightful and different wine selections by the glass from their deservedly famous and extensive wine list: a Clos du Bois ($7.75/glass) and a Lolonis ($6.50/glass). Not only are there copious wine choices, they are also accurately described in detail, which allows a wine lover to zero in on the style and texture of the wine they're seeking, even if they're not familiar with the dozens of vineyards represented. You could do worse than to throw yourself on the mercy of your server, too; they are well versed at the selection and pairing. Our significantly under-21 diner wasn't ignored, either. While her first choice of ginger ale wasn't available, our server whipped up his secret recipe for his homemade ginger ale, and the results were a complete success.
We were all satisfied, but managed a sampling of two of the dessert offerings: a Lemon-Orange Country Tart ($4.75) and the Mocha Toffee Torte ($5.75). I'll take their word on the orange component of the citrus tart, but it wasn't missed in the classically styled lemon curd-type tart. The torte was impossibly dense and rich and delicious to the degree that it satisfied two diners completely. Throughout the meal, the service was attentive, professional, unobtrusive, and casual -- all at the same time, which is no easy feat.
A lunchtime visit was equally rewarding. We began with Poblano and Corn Chowder ($3.25/cup, $4.95/bowl). I prematurely assessed that the soup wasn't hot enough (I like it piping), but I was too hasty in my judgment: It was perfect. The base of the soup was silky smooth, with just a handful of kernels providing a contrasting crunch. The slow, patient, and gentle burn of the mild peppers also played off the sweetness of the corn. I could have made a meal of the soup. But we decided to venture further into the menu and opted for the Enchiladas Suizas ($8.95) and Cornmeal-Crusted Salmon With Southwestern Salsa Verde ($9.95). For our salad offering, which is included in the price of all dinner and lunch entrées, we went for the Caesar option (an extra buck), and were rewarded with a tangy and rich version paired with a dainty and slightly sweet miniature biscuit-type muffin.
The enchiladas have been a fixture on the menus of both locations for a reason: They're sumptuous and rich and comfortingly familiar yet somewhat adventurous all at once. The lime chicken interior isn't lost despite the super tangy and creamy sauce that tops the corn tortillas. The black bean puree was served in a bowl constructed out of blue cornmeal, which made for a presentation that befitted the detailed but not fussy atmosphere. The salmon entrée proved that the kitchen's success with fish is complete: It was nicely crunchy on the exterior, thanks to the cornmeal crust, and almost buttery moist in the interior. The accompanying green beans were perfection this time out, too: cooked long enough to lose that squeaky sound and not so long that they lost their beautiful color and flavor.
As impressive as the inventive menu and its execution are the prices for cuisine of this caliber. It's the kind of place to which you can't wait to take your New York friends so their jaws can drop in wonder and appreciation. And you'll be able to take your friends, because it won't require refinancing your house (despite favorable interest rates) to do so. A rose is a rose is a rose, and this golden plum (the English translation of "mirabelle") of a flower is an American beauty.
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