A Night Out
The elegant Aquarelle is all of that and more
There has been a French presence in Austin since 1840, when Monsieur Dubois de Saligny, chargé d'affaires at the French Legation, set up shop in the Texas Republic. Culinarily speaking, the legacy continues at Aquarelle, where chefs Teresa Wilson and Robert Brady offer upscale French cuisine in a little yellow house just west of downtown.
"Aquarelle" means watercolor, and the term aptly conveys the sensibility of the place decor, ambience, and food are calm, subtle, and elegantly understated, something of a rarity in the local restaurant scene. Everything is served on delicate sprigged china, and the staff replaces your utensils between each course.
By the light of tiny candle lamps, each meal begins with fresh house-made rolls and an amuse bouche a complimentary bite provided by the chef to stimulate the appetite. On both recent visits, mine was a simple white quenelle of cauliflower mousse perfumed with truffle oil.
In France, it's unthinkable to jump to the entrée without an appetizer, and Aquarelle offers some charming choices. I am quite taken by the warm pastry tart filled with creamy chèvre, surrounded by salad of frisée and roasted tomatoes ($10). If you're feeling decadent, a beautiful sautéed foie gras ($20) arrives with slices of lightly poached pear and an oddly endearing whole-blueberry gastrique. However, my first love is the perfectly crunchy soft-shelled crabs ($14) garnished with crispy fried onions, caper berries, and lemony dressing. It's a challenge to make steamed mussels interesting, but Aquarelle's deep bowlful is nicely prepared in a garlicky tomato broth that we finished with our spoons.
Seasonal entrées range from simple to spectacular, and preparations sometimes change from written descriptions due to availability of ingredients or the chefs' inspiration. Recently, hints of Italy seemed to be in the air and on the menu.
I can't resist rabbit when offered, and the tender slices of boneless roasted rabbit ($25) did not disappoint. They were accompanied by some unusual fried gnocchi and caramelized turnips so sweet that I first thought they were pears. I never tire of Texas' ubiquitous Gulf shrimp, but it's refreshing to have some prepared in a new way. The large sautéed shrimp ($25) come circling a tangle of house-made tagliatelle in brown butter sauce, brilliantly flavored with caramelized parsnips, crisply fried pancetta, and piquant red pepper.
Occasionally, sauces depart from subtle, and not always to the good. My tablemate opined that the rich port wine reduction with blue cheese overpowered the seared beef tenderloin ($28), but we agreed the walnut/parsley garnish was a nice complement. I'm pleased to see rare-for-here Loup du Mer (Mediterranean sea bass, $28) offered, but vanilla in the sauce stepped too strongly on the delicate fish.
Following the main course, expect a little cup of astringent citrus sorbet, designed to cleanse your palate (translation: rinse fat residue from your mouth) before dessert. And the desserts, ah, the richly delicate French desserts. Cherry Clafoutis ($8), traditionally a humble country pudding, is elevated here to a state of grace baked in a tart shell and adorned with cherry sorbet and sour cherry sauce. Sublime.
Dark, bitter, and hot, the chocolate soufflé cake ($10) takes 25 minutes and is well worth the wait. Profiteroles au Chocolat ($6) is less inspired, and the pastry puffs were a bit chewy. House-made ice creams and sorbets are terrific the strawberry ice cream is the best part of the rolled sponge cake, cream, and strawberry confection ($7), and the passion-fruit sorbet in a meringue shell ($6) is unusual, light, and tartly refreshing.
Whether or not you order dessert, you're ultimately served a complimentary plate of mignardise minuscule sweet bites (such as teensy fruit tarts and thumbnail-sized meringues) meant to punctuate the end of the meal and soften the blow of the bill. Très civilized.
The restaurant, with its intimate dining rooms and dim lighting, is clearly something of a special-occasion destination (understandable, considering the prices and calm elegance). On one Saturday evening, we spotted no fewer than five birthday celebrations (no singing waiters, thank you very much, just tiny flickering candles sprouting from one dessert or another).
Aquarelle isn't a place to eat as prelude to an evening's entertainment. With its leisurely pace, carefully crafted food, and quiet amenities, dining there is the evening's entertainment. Expect to linger over your dinner even on slow weeknights, and the busier the restaurant, the longer the interludes between courses. The waitstaff attired in black vests, bow ties, and long white aprons provides competent and unobtrusive service, but sometimes appears a bit stretched on busy nights. Nonetheless, it's an extremely pleasant place to while away an evening, dally over dinner and wine, converse, and flirt. Heck, it's French, after all.
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