Restaurant Review: Restaurant Reviews

Along with a name change, TRIO at the Four Seasons on Lady Bird Lake has reinvented itself in ambience, decor, menu, and wine list

TRIO at the Four Seasons

98 San Jacinto, 512/685-8300,
Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 6:30-11am; Sat., 7-11am; Sun., 7-9:30am Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11am-2pm; Dinner: Sun.-Thu.,6-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 6-11pm; Sun. Brunch: 10am-2pm
Restaurant Reviews
Photo by John Anderson

TRIO at the Four Seasons

98 San Jacinto, 685-8300;
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Sunday brunch, 10am-2pm

The Four Seasons Hotel, strategically situated smack between Downtown Austin and the lake formerly known as Town, has been a local institution from its inception in 1987; it was Austin's first grand hotel. And 20 years hence, a signature part of that institution is re-created in a new image – what was formerly the Cafe at the Four Seasons on Town Lake is now TRIO at the Four Seasons on Lady Bird Lake. But while the lake changed in name only, the hotel's flagship restaurant has thoroughly reinvented itself – ambience, decor, menu, and wine list.

To begin with, the new interior space is both less formal and more elegant than its former incarnation – now it's all about the light, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across the stone-and-wood Terrace outdoor dining area to the sloping green lawns and the water. This bath of natural light is enhanced by the color scheme; tones of pomegranate, pumpkin, and wine on walls and light fixtures change throughout the day – the space seems quite golden in daylight but is rosy into the evening. Sort of like a Texas sunset, and I don't think it's an accident. There are lots of clean lines, warm burnished woods, and large, vaguely wine-themed paintings.

A fundamental factor in the restaurant's reputation and success has been its beloved executive chef, Elmar Prambs, at the helm since the hotel's beginning. Happily, he remains integrally involved in the new world order at TRIO; he is joined in the kitchen by new chef de cuisine Todd Duplechan, a Dallas native who brings impressive credentials from New York, where he worked with Daniel Bouley, Floyd Cardoz, Danny Meyer, and Tom Colicchio.

The name TRIO refers to steak, seafood, and wine, and that more or less says it about the restaurant's current culinary focus; however, we are definitely not talking about your grandparents' steak house. Yes, everything at dinner is à la carte, and yes, there is an impressive list of prime-grade beef, ranging from a flat-iron steak ($25) to the whopping 22-ounce bone-in Cowboy Steak ($39). The Niman Ranch Natural Beef Strip Loin ($44) is chewy and flavorful, served in a spare pool of dark bordelaise sauce. My rack of Colo­rado lamb ($35) was big, beautiful, and cooked a perfect medium-rare with a nice exterior char. Fans will be relieved that chef Prambs' popular pork-tenderloin schnitzel ($23) remains on the menu. To accompany meat entrées, you can choose any selection of side sauces from a list of seven – classics like béarnaise or peppercorn or not quite so classic options such as chili-crab and red-eye gravy. (Red-eye gravy? For the Cowboy Steak, I guess.)

On the seafood side, you'll find diver scallops ($28) and the ubiquitous steak-house standard Maine lobster ($44). But there are also some less common offerings, such as Dover sole ($39) and a sustainably farm-raised Scottish salmon ($28), which is moist and subtly delicious. I look forward to trying the monkfish wrapped in prosciutto ($30).

Big meats and fishes aside, it's the appetizers, salads, and side dishes where TRIO's dinner menu really gets interesting, busting way out of steak-house mode into inspired creativity. One of the best dishes I've laid lip to this year is the squid appetizer ($14). Americans are used to eating deep-fried calamari rings; TRIO's stellar dish elevates the humble squid to new heights. Generous flat pieces of lemon-scented squid are momentarily griddled (à la plancha) to perfect fork-tenderness and served in a salad of yellow fingerling potatoes, pickled fava beans, and tiny pieces of paprika-laden Spanish chorizo. It's an amazing combination.

Another winning appetizer is the pot of crab fondue ($16, more than enough for two) – big lumps of sweet crabmeat in a mild Swiss cheese matrix laced with brandy and a bracing bit of cayenne. It's served with toasted, herby bruschetta, but I'd prefer some plainer bread to contrast with the rich sauce. (Bits from the enormous crusty popovers served at the table do the job nicely.)

A playful nod to the steak-house thing is the salad "trio" of little iceberg-lettuce wedges ($10), each with a different dressing (green goddess, blue cheese, creamy onion). The beet salad ($10) is the classic combination of roasted beets, Stilton, and bacon, but it's an exceptionally tasty version, with succulent, tiny red and yellow beets. Of the vegetable sides, sweet-corn crème brûlée ($8) is exactly that – a caramelized brûlée with crunchy corn kernels within a sweet, rich corn-cream pudding. It sounds a bit over-the-top but is absolutely addictive, and it pairs beautifully with charred beef. A fairly plain but nicely nutty farro risotto ($7) is another inspired complement to most of the entrées. I heartily recommend the simply sautéed hen-of-the-woods mushrooms ($12), with a delicate feathery texture and robust, earthy taste.

After such a fine repast, I confess that dessert left me scratching my head. What I ordered was pineapple beignet with coconut and passion fruit pot de crème and vanilla granite ($8). What I got was a plate containing a little dish of silky tropical pudding, a large spoon bearing some mildly flavored ice crystals, and three tall cylindrical glasses, each with a tablespoon of caramel sauce in the bottom and supporting a column of battered and fried fresh pineapple. While the pot de crème was just delicious, I still haven't figured out the rest of it. I think it's good news that the just-hired pastry chef, Naomi Gallego, will be introducing a completely different dessert menu in January. (However, at a lunchtime meal, I enjoyed a charming candied whole lemon, hollowed out and filled with lemon curd and capped by a swirl of meringue. It was a like a happy marriage between lemon meringue pie and a tart marmalade.)

Along with steak and seafood, TRIO's third focus is on wine, and that is now in the capable hands of newly hired sommelier Mark Sayre, who was recently awarded Texas' Best Sommelier of 2007 by the Texas Sommelier Association. This personable and hospitable young wine host has reworked the 24-page wine list to accompany the new menu; along with the selection of some 300 wines, there are about 60 wines by the glass.

In addition to dinner, TRIO is open for breakfast and lunch every day, as well as for a formidable Sunday brunch ($55 for adults, with bottomless pours of bubbly and mimosas). Lunch is a more casual affair, offering lots of salads and sandwiches. The Lobster Grapefruit Salad Sandwich ($25) is just terrific – a filling lobster salad whose sweetness is beautifully tempered by essence of grapefruit, served open-faced on a slice of toasted brioche. It's a surprising combination of flavors that really works.

A really nice touch at lunch is the perfectly brewed iced tea and hibiscus iced tea, both of which are served over tea ice cubes and accompanied by little vials of simple syrup instead of sugar. This kind of attention to detail is so representative of what has always made a meal at the Four Seasons something special. TRIO has a new look, a new menu, and lots of new ideas, but it carries on the tradition of dining both well and graciously. It's all in the details.

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