Dining del Lago 2010
What a difference some rain makes! The water is blue, the hills are green, and several new restaurants are cooking near area lakes.
Artisan Bistro, Patisserie & Boulangerie
900 RR 620 S. Ste. C-107, Lakeway, 512/263-8728
Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-3pm, 5-10pm; Sunday brunch, 10am-3pm
A shopping center at the entrance to a Central Texas lake resort might be the last place you would expect to find an authentic French bistro featuring fresh pastries and breads, but here it is. The Lakeway Commons spaces that formerly housed Expressions Fine Chocolate and the Vino 100 wine bar have been transformed into an inviting bistro with an open kitchen, decorative wine racks, and comfortable seating for about 50. French chef Cesidio D'Andrea and his wife, Laureen, moved to the lake area three years ago and partnered with wine bar owner Gloria Parker to create this new business this spring. Cesidio bakes bread and pastries fresh every day and serves them alongside the traditional bistro classics of his homeland. The neighborhood appears to have an enthusiastic response to his efforts. Our group of four showed up for brunch on a recent Sunday to find the dining room full and a two-hour wait for a table. The moral of this story is that reservations, especially for the popular brunch, are a good idea. Laureen sent us on our way that Sunday with a complimentary bag of croissants and genuine encouragement to come again another day. I eagerly returned for lunch a few days later.
Meals here begin with a basket of house breads and a simple black olive tapenade. The hearty Salade Niçoise ($12) features a bed of crisp local greens and crunchy haricots verts dressed in a simple vinaigrette; topped with good-quality flaked tuna, anchovies, and briny Niçoise olives; and surrounded by slices of tomato and boiled egg. It was lovely and satisfying. The quiche lorraine ($12) offers a luxuriously eggy custard filling encased in its own three-inch-deep pastry shell. The bouchées à la reine ($12) present a fluted puff-pastry cup filled with tender poached chicken and toothsome mushrooms in a light white wine cream sauce. Both of these delightful bistro staples were paired with dainty side salads. The crowning glory of the meal was one of the best fruit desserts I've had this year. The warm tarte fine aux pommes ($8) is whisper-thin slices of apple baked in a delicate pastry crust, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a generous drizzle of salted caramel sauce. That alone was worth the second trip!
The bistro's event calendar is packed with activities. If you're interested in a picnic for the coming holiday weekend, a traditional Bastille Day fete, group cooking lessons, or upcoming wine dinners, check out the website and sign up for the e-mail newsletter. Bon appétit! – Virginia B. Wood
The Grille at Rough Hollow103 Yacht Club Cove, Lakeway, 512/261-3444
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm
Lake-area dwellers suddenly have a relative embarrassment of dining riches. For several years, the best restaurant in the area had been Pao's. Ciola's added some class. Then the wave started with Zoot, then Mizu, and now the Grille at Rough Hollow – the centerpiece of a new development on the northwest side of Lakeway that includes a marina, yacht club, fitness center, and pavilion. The development is classy and casual: the type of place you can wear your shorts and order a $150 bottle of Constant Cabernet.
The food is much better than we normally expect around the lake, with quality ingredients like Niman Ranch meats, scallops from Georges Bank, and mussels from Prince Edward Island. Those mussels ($10) come in a delicious fennel broth with smoky prosciutto cracklings. The big hit of the appetizer menu are the crispy pickles ($7, $3.50 at happy hour) served with an intense Creole mustard sauce. On the Chef Selections menu, the delicate panko breading and crispy chicken made the chicken marsala pasta ($16) a standout, but the winner was the smoked double bone pork chop ($24) with slightly sweetened and mild blackening spices.
One bit of warning: Choose the hours from 4 to 6pm at your own peril. As at any retirement community, the residents here like to eat early, and there's both a happy hour and an early-hours discount menu. The place is hopping during those hours; folks happily wait in line for good food at rock-bottom prices. After about 7pm, the waits are far less egregious, and the combination of good food, a lake location, a well-equipped bar, and righteous prices make this one of the best choices in the Lakeway area. – Wes Marshall
Josey's Grill & Bar101 Lakeway Dr., Lakeway, 512/261-7323
Sunday-Thursday, 2-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm
Josey's recently announced a new chef and enticing menu, which encouraged us to pay a visit as it had been a long time since we were last there.
The setting at this Lakeway Resort restaurant and bar couldn't be more spectacular. Surrounded by panoramic windows and a superb view of Lake Travis, the bar and dining room are bright and airy, and the balcony terrace overlooking the pool adds the outdoor touch that screams "summer vacation." Despite the elegant setting, the atmosphere is very laid-back. The staff is young and friendly; the bar features TV screens tuned to sports, trivia stations and a pool table, and happy hour from 3 to 6pm with half-off all appetizers and $3 house wine, beer, and well drinks. Yet the ample dining room could use a good makeover: The dated furniture and old carpet detract from the resort experience. A bit more attention to detail would definitely improve the overall appearance.
We were seated promptly upon arrival, and the manager came out to greet us and offer us a glass of wine while we looked over the menu. It wasn't the one I had seen on the website, but I was assured we were ordering from the new menu. Perhaps the website could use an update as well.
Josey's fare is gussied-up comfort food with a Southern accent, appealing to the tourists and families that frequent the resort. Lunches include soups and salads, sandwiches, and burgers with interesting toppings for customization (fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, black pepper bacon, Veldhuizen jalapeño jack). For dinner, there's country-fried steak, fried chicken and waffles, barbecue ribs, grilled meats and fish, plus a variety of down-home sides. We started with an appetizer special of crisp flatbread pizza topped with local tomatoes and basil, which was very fresh and satisfying. For our entrées, we chose the 18-ounce T-bone steak ($22), served perfectly medium rare with red pepper compound butter and a roasted poblano stuffed with cheese and spinach polenta. This proved a delicious combination of complementary flavors that we absolutely loved. The juicy, double-cut Neiman Ranch pork chop ($17) came with a pair of grilled Texas peaches flavored with fresh rosemary, but we wanted to try some sides ($3) as well. The mashed potatoes came in a tiny cast-iron skillet with a dollop of butter in the center; the creamy and golden mac and cheese also came in a skillet hot out of the oven; the jicama-chayote slaw was crunchy and fresh, and the corn on the cob with maque choux butter was incredibly sweet with a hint of spice. The manager suggested a delicious Côtes du Rhône that was the perfect complement to our dinner, and service was courteous and efficient. We were way too full to try dessert, but next time we'll save some room for the lavender pound cake with fresh Texas berries and cream.
Our overall experience was very positive, though the decor and ambience should be updated to match the fine food and lovely view. We look forward to returning, and since dogs are welcome, we can make it a family "staycation" weekend by the fabulous pool. – Claudia Alarcón
Mizu: Prime Steak & Sushi
Lunch daily, 11am-2pm; dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10pm, and Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm
Lakeway and far West Austin – it is inexplicable that an area with as much disposable income has been largely ignored by high-end restaurateurs for so long. Mizu sparked big-time hopes when it announced gifted chef Chris Bauer would run the food operation. The owners also secured one of the most gorgeous building sites in Travis County and designed the ideal place for a romantic tête-à-tête (the main dining room and patio) and for a thirsty sports fanatic (the bar, with good drinks and plenty of hi-def TVs). Bauer left shortly after the opening, leaving questions about the execution of the menu he designed, but the location remains one of Mizu's strengths. The main room has a panoramic view over the Hill Country, toward Mansfield Dam. But you should go early or sit on the patio to see it. After dark, the glass in the main dining room reflects back so much light that the view is all but obscured.
Mizu describes itself as serving "Prime Steak & Sushi," so we tried both. We started with sushi. Uni ($5, all prices per piece) is a desert island dish for me. Mizu's was tired, not quite chemical-smelling, but definitely on the way from firm to runny. On the other hand, the tobiko ($3) was perfectly crunchy and sweet, and the added quail egg yolk ($1) stood tall in perfect freshness. We also tried the Fenix roll ($15), with crispy fried escolar, tobiko, a bit of raw tuna, cream cheese, and reduced balsamic vinegar. I usually don't order rolls, preferring to stay with sashimi- or nigiri-style servings, but I have to admit to being totally won over by this combo of crispy texture, rich mouthfeel, and tart finish.
Mizu's main menu is broken into small and large plates. From the small side, we chose the bouillabaisse ($15) and Niman Ranch short rib ($13). Bouillabaisse is a deceptive name for a dish which is actually a Thai-styled soup of coconut broth, pickled carrots, cucumber slivers, mussels, and scallops. It was just slightly picante and richly aromatic. The rib was a generous portion of intensely flavored beef with the correct ratio of fat to lean, accompanied by a delicious wedge of sweet cornbread.
From the large plates, we ordered a double-cut Berkshire pork chop ($35) and a 14-ounce prime rib eye ($38). We were expecting a Flintstone-sized pork chop after the description from our server. Instead, after a sizeable portion of fat was removed, it was just enough for a small woman who had already eaten sushi and short rib. The rib eye was cooked perfectly, but its marbling resembled USDA Select more than Prime. The yummy side of cauliflower-golden raisin gratin arrived in a tiny hot cast-iron pan but was icebox cold in the middle. Our server quickly rectified the problem and returned with a delicious dish.
We also had a bottle of Château Graville-Lacoste Graves ($56/bottle), a mineral-rich, tart wine perfect for the opening foods. We switched to a Domaine de la Janasse Côtes du Rhône Rouge ($10/glass), which was served too warm to drink. Our server was cordial, interesting, attentive, and new. He hadn't had a chance to taste the entire menu but was able to make several proper recommendations.
It's impossible to give an overall recommendation to Mizu right now. It's in need of someone to take the reins and pay greater attention to details. The recipes and concepts are excellent, but issues with freshness, food temperature, and quality of raw ingredients need to be corrected. It has good servers and a gorgeous location. The prices are high, but if everything else were fixed, people would be willing to pay. – W.M.
Two Hot Mamas Grill2418 RR 620 S., Lakeway, 512/992-2136
Monday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday, 7am-11pm; Saturday, 8am-11pm; Sunday, 8am-9pm
Two Hot Mamas has been one of Austin's premier condiment companies since 2002. Salsa partners Genevieve Thompson and Paula Bryant's delicious line of Latin-inspired sauces and dips are for sale at stores all over the area. Fans of The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival will recall their multiple awards at the annual end-of-summer salsa celebration. Though the two women are still partners in the condiment business, Thompson embarked on a solo restaurant venture in November 2009 and Two Hot Mamas Grill was born. It offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a full bar.
The menu reflects some of the same Latin influences as the popular line of sauces and dips, and all the tasty condiments are available as enhancements to the menu items. The concept at lunch and dinner is "build-your-own" – choose a base item (burrito, tacos, tostadas, torta, etc.) plus a filling such as steak, chicken, or shrimp, add four toppings (rice, beans, grated cheese, sour cream, etc.), and finish with a salsa or dip. I chose a grilled torta ($6.50) with grilled skirt steak, rice, black bean and corn relish, chile con queso, and guacamole garnished with a dollop of creamy chipotle dip. The component parts of the sandwich that were made in-house were all very tasty and satisfying. The bun, on the other hand, had all the taste and texture of cotton balls, and the sandwich was not grilled as described on the menu. I had the same problem with side orders of chile con queso and guacamole with chips ($3 each). The house-made dishes were fine, but the chips were tough, stale, and tasteless. Food this good deserves better support vehicles. – V.B.W.
Spicy Parrott Diner & Tavern2422 RR 620 S. Ste. A-100, Lakeway, 512/373-8515
Tuesday-Friday, 11am-9pm; Saturday, 7:30am-9pm; Sunday, 8am-9pm
Brenda Parrott's friends like the spicy flavors of her cooking, so they christened her newest business the Spicy Parrott in her honor. Many aspects of this comfortable little diner and tavern reflect the involvement of friends – artist friend Susan Parks decorated the walls with colorful parrot murals, and all the friends who invested in the venture are recognized with brass nameplates on the backs of the tall stools lining the bar. The friendly spot offers a little something for everyone – breakfast on weekends, live music four nights a week, a flat-screen TV for sports fans, karaoke on Thursdays, and bar-tab bingo coming soon – and it attracts a diverse crowd as a result.
A friend joined me for breakfast here on a recent Saturday morning, and we overheard a table of regulars discussing their favorite dishes, usually a good sign. I opted for the Hangover Helper ($7.99, and cheaper with proof of last night's bar tab), which is a steaming bowl of green chile pork stew and cottage fries, topped with melted cheese and a fried egg, with the house salsa verde on the side. I substituted a big, flaky biscuit for the tortillas and had a hearty, satisfying breakfast, even without a hangover. The three-egg omelets come with a choice of three ingredients from a list of meats, cheeses, and vegetables, plus one of four optional toppings for an extra buck. My friend's bacon, Swiss, and spinach omelet ($8.99) was perfectly respectable, complemented by another of the big, flaky biscuits. The weak link in our meal was the bowl of jalapeño cheddar grits ($2.99) we shared. The bland gruel bore no flavor of chile, cheese, or even salt – which is a crucial spice element. Still, I wouldn't hesitate to drop in again, maybe check out the karaoke. – V.B.W.
The Market at Steiner Ranch4300 N. Quinlan Park Rd. #120, 266-8808
Sunday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm
The Market at Steiner Ranch is tucked away on Quinlan Park Road, and from the outside it looks like nothing more than a neighborhood convenience grocery. But inside, there's a chef-run delicatessen specializing in premium quality hot and cold deli sandwiches, soups, deli salads, catering, and gourmet meals-to-go. The two chefs, Warren McDonald and Morgan Fulbright, oversee all the delicatessen operations and create the daily specials and gourmet take-home meals. Everything served is top-notch in freshness and quality, and word of mouth is bringing in new customers at an exponential rate.
Cold sandwiches include the Reale Italiano (Italian dried salami, prosciutto, capacolla, Provolone, pepperoncini, onion, sun-dried tomato, lettuce, oil, vinegar, and oregano, $6.99), the Longhorn (roast beef, sharp cheddar, horseradish sauce, onions, and lettuce, $6.49), and the Steiner Smoker (ham, smoked Gruyere cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and spicy mustard, $5.99), as well as a signature chicken salad and tuna salad. Hot sandwiches include the Capitol Reuben ($6.49), the Southside Philly – Way South cheesesteak ($6.99), and Momma's Meatball ($6.49). They're all made to order, served on fresh gourmet bread (marble rye, hoagie rolls, sourdough, and paninis are available in addition to wheat, white, and multigrain), and come with a bag of chips. Deli salads include pasta salad, roasted corn salad, potato salad, and two kinds of chicken salad.
"The gourmet meals-to-go have really taken off in the last year," says Fulbright. They include entrées such as grilled mahimahi with mango-jalapeño pico, grilled squash, and Hatch corn pudding; chicken enchiladas with black beans and cilantro chile green rice; and grilled chicken with basil pesto over angel-hair pasta. Entrées are all $8.99, or $12.99 for a family pack. "We try to keep at least five different meals and four or five different sides available at all times," says Fulbright, "The daily specials are posted on our website, and we don't change them often so that our customers know that they can rely on being able to pick up their favorites."
In addition to the delicatessen, the market itself specializes in local and organic products and produce, and the meat counter cuts its own meats. "It's grilling season, and the meat counter is hopping!" laughs Fulbright. The Market at Steiner Ranch is an absolute gem and well worth taking the short side trip up Quinlan Park Road. – Kate Thornberry
Ski Shores Cafe2905 Pearce Rd., 394-7511
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-10pm
Ski Shores was closed for a few months earlier this year and underwent quite a bit of renovation: The entire place has been cleaned, straightened, painted, and expanded. There's now a full bar, and the boat slips are improved. The seating has been doubled, the bathrooms have been upgraded, and there's a new playscape for the kids. There's plenty of shade, and everything is well maintained. It is obvious that a lot of money went into the upgrade, and the place really looks great.
The menu appears to have changed only a little, however. All the old favorites are here – the Border Burger ($9.25) and the Scooter Burger ($11.50), the pizzas ($13-20), the "famous" fried okra and onion rings (each $6.50), the chicken and catfish baskets ($9.95), and children's items ($4-6). But although the menu is familiar, the food itself has changed: Everything is now quite solidly ... mediocre. The burgers look right, and the toppings are fine, but the beef patties themselves are shockingly flavorless (despite appearing to be charcoal-broiled). The fried items (onion rings, fries, okra, chicken tenders) suffer from the same problem: perfect-looking but so lacking in flavor that no one at my table cared to finish them.
The new operators of the cafe, Rick Engel and Mark Turner, who run Austin Java, Little Woodrow's, Uncle Billy's Brew & Que, and area Texadelphia shops, set out to both preserve and improve Ski Shores Cafe. Unfortunately, it appears that along the way, they're compromising food quality. Another change: Ski Shores now has table service, complete with a host to seat you and a server to take your order. In theory, this would eliminate the long line at the ordering window and long wait times to get your food. In practice, it isn't working out all that well yet: The wait times are significantly longer, and the formality in this setting seems ludicrously forced. But this new version of Ski Shores has only been open a few months, and the new management has faced a lot of challenges; with more time and effort, they could very well get these problems solved. It remains a wonderfully relaxing spot for lakeside refreshment. – K.T.
Buster's BBQ2125 Lohmans Crossing Rd., Lakeway, 512/263-2340
Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-9pm; Sunday, 11:30am-8pm
In midlife, native Texan Tim Cook found himself living in New England, far from any decent barbecue. Taking matters into his own hands, he opened a Texas-style barbecue joint in chilly Stamford, Conn., which quickly became a success. But it didn't satisfy him; it only made him want to come back to Texas and see how his barbecue stood up against the ambrosia of famous Texas pit masters. So he and his wife, Marilyn, and young son, Grant, returned to the Lone Star State.
In 1995 they opened Buster's BBQ on Ranch Road 620, and within a year it was named one of the three best in Central Texas by Statesman writer John Kelso. In the 15 years since, Buster's has changed locations twice, first moving to the area VFW Hall and now operating out of its own brand-new, roomy location at Lohmans Crossing, which seats 70 people inside and can seat 80 outside under the trees on the breezy deck, where it offers live music Thursdays through Sundays.
Buster's meats are smoked over green pecan wood in a custom-made smoker. Tim Cook grew up in Beaumont, and he brings some East Texas barbecue traditions with him, serving fork-shredded pulled pork, as well as brisket, Elgin sausage, chicken, ribs, and turkey breast, plus two items of his own creation: the Garlic Bomb and the Garlic "H" Bomb. The Garlic Bomb is pork shoulder, studded throughout with garlic cloves prior to smoking. The Garlic "H" Bomb is studded with garlic and jalapeños.
"I didn't know how it was going to turn out the first time I tried it," recalls Cook. "Pork is one of my favorite meats to barbecue; it's so flavorful and tender. But it turned out that the garlic cooks evenly with the pork and slices beautifully. And the flavor! There's nothing like it."
The barbecue here goes for $6.65 a half-pound, wrapped in butcher paper. Platters run $8 to $10, and sandwiches are $6. Buster's offers eight different sides (available by the serving, pint, or quart), Frito pie ($7.99), and stuffed baked potatoes as well. Many customers call ahead to order family-style meals for pickup, to take home on weeknights or out on the boat on the weekend. – K.T.
Baguette et Chocolat12101 Bee Caves Rd., 263-8388
Monday-Thursday, 6:30am-6pm; Saturday, 7am-4pm; Sunday 8am-2pm
Baguette et Chocolat has only been open a little more than a month, and already this authentic French bakery and cafe is an assured hit. Its proprietors, French couple Chi-Minh and Anne Lise Pham-Dinh, fell in love with the Texas Hill Country while visiting Austin a few years ago and decided they wanted to open their dream business here. Originally from Versailles, Chi-Minh is a classically trained French baker. He graduated from the French National Institute of Bakery and Pastry, then put the polish on his craft working at a celebrated patisserie in Versailles.
There's no doubting the authenticity of the French baked goods for sale here; every baguette, croissant, eclair, cream puff, raisin roll, meringue, chonquelle, tart, and pain au chocolat is made according to established French standards. It is pure delight, and in spite of ever-increasing production, the bakery case often sells out by early afternoon.
Fortunately, in addition to a full espresso bar and bakery, Baguette et Chocolat has an extensive menu as well. It offers 13 sweet crepes, from plain sugar to the relatively fancy almond cream and pear ($3.50-5.40), and 10 "salty" crepes, such as pancetta, goat cheese, and tomato ($6-7). Five different omelets ($5.50-6.50) and three breakfast croissant sandwiches ($4.29-5.50) are listed, as well as the breakfast sandwich (essentially an omelet in a baguette) for $6.50. Quiche lorraine and quiche Florentine and croque-monsieur and -madame are all available for around $6 each, along with four salads (Mediterranean, Niçoise, Parisienne, and Texane) for about $7 each.
And then there are the sandwiches! Available as paninis or on a fresh half-baguette, 14 different sandwiches are made with combinations of fresh ingredients such as mozzarella, basil, tomato, bacon, cucumber, lettuce, goat cheese, salami, French ham, Brie, tuna, and smoked turkey ($5.50-7). Always busy and often packed, this little bakery and cafe is already a neighborhood favorite and a perfect place to stop on your way out to the lake. – K.T.
Ilsa's Kitchen Bavarian Restaurant20700 Hwy. 71 W., Spicewood, 512/494-4270
Monday-Thursday, 9am-9pm; Friday, 9am-10pm; Saturday, 8am-10pm; Sunday, 8am-2pm
Who needs Fredericksburg with Ilsa's Kitchen located on Highway 71 near Spicewood? Or, at least, that's the response owner Joel Rodriguez is aiming for. Enchanted by the flavors of southern Germany, Rodriguez, his daughter Marisela, and son-in-law Chad initially teamed up with longtime Austin fixture Achim Thiemermann (aka Chef Keem) to craft a menu of Bavarian classics, such as goulash, schnitzels, bratwursts, German potato pancakes, spaetzles, and kartoffelknödel (potato dumplings). Chef Keem has since moved on to new projects, but the owners still offer many of the same dishes.
The characterless prefab building has all the ambience of a bingo parlor and belies the undeniably family-oriented restaurant within, decorated a bit like Grandma's kitchen nook; its friendly staff makes diners feel like part of the brood. An accordionist plays on weekends to remind everyone that in heaven there is no beer. Luckily, Ilsa's has plenty of it: The selection of both German and domestic artisanal brews is excellent. You can't go wrong if you order a Paulaner or Spaten on tap here.
Soft pretzels definitely star on the menu. These can be ordered in a variety of permutations – on their own ($3.50) or accompanying soups, dips, and even salads ($6.95 for a combo plate). The pretzels come to the table soft and hot, with a flutter of sea salt dusted atop them, like you'd get at a beer hall in Munich, though I suspect these may have come frozen from a wholesale distributor; they lack the yeastiness of a real homemade pretzel. Nonetheless, they make a satisfying snack to nibble on before the main course arrives.
We ordered a beef goulash ($4.95), and to be frank, it was nothing like I imagined. Rather than the thick hearty stew described on the menu, the soup we sampled tasted more like someone simply added chewy chunks of meat to watered-down soup from a can. The rouladen (thin sliced beef rolled with pickles, bacon, and mustard, $13.95) seemed like flavorless boiled beef sweetened with pickles, and the accompanying kartoffelknödel, which should be light and delicate when done right, were as dense as baseballs. By contrast, the schweinebraten served with spaetzle ($13.95) was definitely a success. The roasted pork was briny and tender, accented by a muscular brown sauce redolent of meat juices and perhaps a little red wine. The homemade spaetzle was light, yielding tamely to the tooth, though I prefer mine with a trace of nutmeg. Both the cooked red cabbage and the Bohemian sauerkraut had the sweet and salty bite of genuine German kraut.
Ilsa's prepares beef sauerbraten every other Saturday, and this usually draws a crowd. Specials such as a 22-ounce sirloin steak (Wednesday) and all-you-can-eat schnitzel (Tuesday) are featured on other nights. Don't miss the desserts, which include Black Forest cake, hazelnut torte, cheese-filled German crepes, and strudels. Ilsa's is now open for breakfast weekdays and weekends. – Rachel Feit
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