Restaurant Review: Big Doings in Oasis, Texas
These two new spots do impressive work considering their volume
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., July 1, 2011
Mon.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:30am-11pm; Sun., 10am-10pm
Soleil6550 Comanche Trail, Ste. B-101, 266-0600
Monday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-11pm; Sunday, 10am-10pm
Soleil is a venture by Houston-based chef/restaurateur Robert Del Grande, who began his career at Cafe Annie and has become something of a restaurant mogul in recent years, being involved not only in his signature eatery RDG + Bar Annie, but also with Rio Ranch, Taco Milagro, and Cafe Express. At Soleil he is joined by Executive Chef George Thomas, lately of Paggi House, Truluck's, Maiko Sushi Lounge, and Imperia. Located in the new Oasis, Texas mixed-use development, Soleil enjoys the same lake view, balconies, and towering height as the Oasis but offers a completely different experience. Although the restaurant seats 500, the atmosphere is calm, cool, and posh. The color scheme is pure Aegean: deep blues and whites that give an impression of otherworldly luxury, as though you've been transported to a private Greek island. The balconies are shaded by enormous, sheer screens that accentuate this effect, and there's a slight nautical dash to the upholstery that brings to mind blinding white private yachts on deep-blue water.
All this Mediterranean imagery is intentional, for it harmonizes with the menu perfectly. The fare is best described as Mediterranean with an emphasis on seafood, and though this is definitely an upscale place, there's a surprising amount of popular, affordable items on the menu, such as pizzas, burgers, and salads. The roasted red pepper hummus with kalamata olive puree and toasted pita ($8) was superb, deeply flavorful of red peppers and garlic, and a very good value. The special of the day, Hawaiian blue prawns, at the other end of the price spectrum ($22), was equally good: six jumbo prawns floating in drawn butter and herbs – garlicky and luscious. The stone oven pizza with Roma tomatoes, basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella ($11) was perfect, larger than most individual pizzas and perfectly free of excess moisture, which can be a problem with fresh-tomato pizzas. Many nearby diners, in fact, were enjoying the heavenly atmosphere while having a light dinner of pizza or salad and sipping sophisticated house cocktails.
The seafood entrées seem almost disingenuous, because, despite the sight of all that blue, blue water, it's Lake Travis not the ocean, and the seafood is shipped in just like anywhere else in landlocked Central Texas. Somehow, it's a bit jarring – possibly because the decor is so convincing! The sea scallops with polenta, wild mushrooms, and prosciutto broth ($28) were good but not perfect. The polenta was a bit rubbery, and the scallops were fraying and a bit rubbery too, as though they were improperly seared and the dish had been sitting a while: quite tasty but not up to your usual fussy-chef-in-a-small-bistro standard. The iceberg salad with bleu cheese, tomatoes, and bacon ($6) was workmanlike and acceptable as well.
We finished the meal on a high note with dessert: The key lime pie ($8) was fluffy, tart, and wonderful, topped with candied lime peel, and the chocolate sundae ($7) was made with Blue Bell ice cream that harmonized exceedingly well with the warm breezes off the lake. All in all, Soleil offers a unique, dazzling alternative to the usual lakeside experience. It's well-made food in an exquisite atmosphere, no doubt prepared just about as exactingly as cuisine can be when working on so large a scale. (On a completely different note: The management may want to rethink dressing the servers in full-length black outfits with long sleeves when they're working in 105-degree patio temperatures. Just sayin'.)
Uncle Billy's Brew & Que6550 Comanche Trail Ste. B-201, 266-0111
Sunday-Thursday, 11:30am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-11pm
This second location of Uncle Billy's is next to the Oasis on Comanche Trail, and like the Oasis it is oriented toward the lake view, with tiers of balconies fitted out for patio seating and air-conditioned dining rooms looking out over the balconies. The restaurant is palatial, just immense, seating nearly 1,000 people on two floors. Like the original on Barton Springs Road, the windows are industrial glassed garage doors that can be opened to the lake breezes when the weather permits and closed when temperatures soar. The decor is mainly wood and distressed pressed tin, and the atmosphere is rowdy, as one would expect at a brewpub serving Texas-style barbecue.
The menu is essentially the same as the original location, with just a few refinements (only one style of fried chicken sandwich, house-made potato chips instead of chips and salsa, etc.) and just a teeny bit pricier (around a dollar more per item). Salads, sandwiches, and bar snacks are all available, but the big draws remain the barbecue and the beer. And you've got to hand it to them: It cannot be easy to deliver a consistently good product when you're doing this kind of volume. Somehow, they manage. The beer, brewed by master brewer Brian Peters, is outstanding, and the barbecue and sides are surprisingly good.
Billy's beer-battered onion rings ($6.99) arrived at the table quickly, crisp and malty and made with actual rings of onion. The veggie burger ($8.99), a thoughtful nod to vegetarians, not a typical move for barbecue joints, was big and tasty. It came with a choice of one side, in this case the white cheddar mac and cheese, which was absolutely top-notch: creamy and cheesy and topped with toasted bread crumbs. Barbecue is sold both family-style (by the pound) and by the plate. The three meat plate ($16.99) sported tender, moist beef brisket; a savory and smoky quarter-chicken with delightfully seasoned skin; and several rather fatty pork ribs, the only imperfect item in the meal. All the sides show a lot of effort and thought; the cole slaw is outstanding, crisp and zesty with just a hint of apple cider vinegar. The potato salad is straightforward without being bland: potato cubes, mayonnaise, celery, and onion, a good foil for the sweet and spicy barbecue sauces. All the food shows a real commitment to quality. It could probably churn out substandard fare and still make a fortune, but happily Uncle Billy's has chosen instead to aim high and make an effort to surpass expectations.