Restaurant Review: Jasper's Gourmet Backyard Cuisine

The Dallas destination opens in Austin's domain

Jasper's Gourmet Backyard Cuisine

11506 Century Oaks Terrace #128, 512/834-4111, http://www.jaspersaustin.com
Mon.-Thu., 5pm-10pm; Fri., 5pm-11pm; Sat., Noon-4pm, 5pm-11pm
Chef Kent Rathbun
Chef Kent Rathbun (Photo by John Anderson)

Jasper's Gourmet Backyard Cuisine

11506 Century Oaks Terrace #128 in the Domain, 834-4111
www.jaspers-restaurant.com
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday 11am-9pm
Happy Hour: Monday-Friday, 3-7pm

When I heard that yet another upscale Metroplex restaurant was setting up shop in a swanky new Austin shopping destination, I was reminded of the three things I always associate with Dallas: big money, big hair, and big attitude.

However, chef Kent Rathbun's Jasper's opened in the Domain this spring with little fanfare and quietly began building a clientele with good word of mouth. The restaurant does indeed reflect some big expenditures, because the interiors are smashing, themselves establishing a chic yet casual setting for enjoying a meal. The well-trained staff creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere from the moment guests walk in the door. In fact, every time I've visited Jasper's, managers have been working the floor, greeting guests and making sure everyone feels comfortable and well cared for. Bills are presented with comment cards and notes advertising upcoming events, and waiters offer personal business cards so that satisfied customers can request their service on return visits. Every aspect of the restaurant is well-thought-out and finished down to the last detail.

It's an impressive place.

The comfortable, attractive interiors and genuine hospitality create just the right setting for Rathbun's self-styled "gourmet backyard cuisine," expertly prepared American regional classics with the chef's distinctive stamp. Our first visit to Jasper's was for a leisurely Saturday lunch. We started our meal with one of Jasper's signature appetizers, Maytag Blue Cheese Potato Chips ($9). The potentially addictive chips arrived hot and crisp in a paper-lined metal cone. One caveat here: Eat 'em while they're hot, because once they've cooled, the melted cheese crumbles render the homemade chips a soggy mess (more on this later).

Chronicle contributor Claudia Alarcón had raved about Gramma Minnie's Fried Chicken ($13) in her June 29 survey of Austin fried chicken so much (see p.TK) that I was not about to pass it up. The chicken is every bit as delicious as described, with moist, flavorful meat on the bone and a decadently crispy skin. One of my companions thoroughly enjoyed the Rotisserie Chicken and Spinach Salad ($12), an abundance of toothsome chicken chunks tossed with tender greens, currants, and goat cheese in a tangy vinaigrette. Our server emphatically endorsed a new weekend brunch item, Vanilla Crème Brûlée French Toast ($9), and my other guest eagerly took his suggestion. She was rewarded with luxurious slices of custard-soaked toast served with fresh berries and warm maple syrup. The divine French toast only appears on the weekend lunch menu, but a smaller version is offered for dessert.

For my second visit, three friends joined me for dinner at Jasper's on a Saturday evening. One of my guests was interested in the potato chips, and, based on my previous experience, I encouraged her to try them. I had my eye on the Prosciutto-Wrapped Shrimp & Grits ($13), and our companions opted for the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($15) and the Crispy Calamari ($10). The arrival of our appetizers signaled the beginning of our evening's problems. Jasper's take on Shrimp & Grits is truly marvelous, one of the best interpretations of that Carolina low-country standard I've ever tasted: Creamy stone-ground grits are dressed with a lemon-thyme butter sauce and crowned with two gigantic prosciutto-wrapped grilled shrimp. It was piping hot and deeply satisfying.

Unfortunately, my appetizer was the only one that arrived hot. The potato chips had cooled to the point of flaccidity: The cheese flavor remained, but the heat and snap had already departed. The excellent crab cakes had also lost their heat, but the dynamite tomatillo-serrano sauce and jicama slaw that accompanied them held flavor at room temperature. The calamari were disappointing. Everything tasted great, but three of the dishes were not presented in such a way as to maximize their appeal.

The time and temperature issues continued to the next portion of our meal. While tables that had been seated after us enjoyed their dinner and prepared to depart, we waited and waited for food, passing the time with several glasses of the nectarine-lavender iced tea, the best I've had all summer. When our entrées finally arrived, the Hickory Grilled Flat Iron Steak ($27) that had been ordered medium arrived blood rare, and the Roasted Halibut ($29) had cooled to the point that its tasty beurre blanc sauce was almost congealed. The steak was whisked away and quickly replaced with one that had been cooked exactly to order. The halibut, sauce, and truffle-whipped potatoes had great flavor but, once again, didn't show themselves at their best at room temperature. The Texas Peach Barbecued Pork Tenderloin ($25) that I'd ordered was a little on the rare side and could have used a bigger dose of sauce, but the bourbon creamed corn that came with it was outrageously good. The other stellar side dish of that meal was the Aged Gouda Mac and Cheese With Cured Ham my friend had substituted for potatoes ($3 extra) with her steak. The small molten-hot skillet full of orecchiette pasta slathered with an ultrarich cheese sauce is certainly not the kind of thing anyone could eat often, but it makes a wonderful guilty pleasure.

Desserts at Jasper's are $5 each and advertised as "minis." If you are curious about several and inclined to share, they offer a trio for $12. We chose the Butterfinger Crème Brûlée, the Cherry Limeade Pie, and the Rocky Road Ice Cream Sandwich. After such a big meal, the miniature desserts offered the perfect bite of sweetness to end the evening: the ice cream sandwich with a delightful contrast of crunchy and creamy, chocolate, vanilla, and caramel; the puckery tart pie filling encased in its own buttery graham-cracker crust; and the silky custard topped with its own tiny, homemade Butterfinger dipped in dark-chocolate ganache. (I want that candy recipe, even if there is arm-twisting involved.)

Despite the fact that my second meal at Jasper's was somewhat marred by time and temperature issues, I came away an unabashed fan. This Dallas-area transplant offers big hospitality and big flavors, and there's no big hair in sight.

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Jasper's Gourmet Backyard Cuisine, Kent Rathbun

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