Restaurant Review: Culinary Escapes

Travaasa Austin offers delicious relaxation

Travaasa culinary instructor Tricia Freeman in the demo kitchen for her Summer BBQ class
Travaasa culinary instructor Tricia Freeman in the demo kitchen for her Summer BBQ class (Photo courtesy of Will Larson)

One of the perks of a food writer's job is that we are often invited to attend events and visit special places. On a recent weekend, my husband Will and I headed to Travaasa Austin, about a 30-minute drive from our South Austin home. Set amid the landscape of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and minutes from Volente Beach, this unique spa resort blends well with its surroundings. Instead of grandiose Tuscan-style mansions, the ranch-style buildings are simple, modern, and comfortable, with a laid-back vibe rather than an air of stuffy luxury. The staff is friendly and professional, and the cozy accommodations are located in buildings spread out for privacy, connected together by paths amongst the cedars and oaks. Man-made landscapes feature native and xeric plants in eye-catching natural settings, and every effort is made to respect the environment. The canyon vistas are lovely, especially from the infinity pool, with a smidge of Lake Travis in the background. Although it's all familiar, visiting this peaceful retreat really makes you feel like you've traveled somewhere far away.

Travaasa seeks to enhance the stay with a daily program of "experiences" in categories that include adventure, fitness, wellness, cultural (region-appropriate activities like horseback riding and learning the Texas Two-Step), and culinary, which is why we came. We started with a hands-on grilling class led by the charming and knowledgeable Tricia Freeman, a Cordon Bleu Austin graduate who formerly worked at Ceja Vineyards in Napa. Nobody else signed up, so we had our own private class in the state-of-the-art demo kitchen, where we were set up with aprons and individual work stations with all the necessary ingredients and utensils. In the hour-long class, we made roasted veggie guacamole, Mexican street corn with ancho-yogurt-parmesan topping, miso-coated black drum with veggies en papillote, and bleu cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. A novice cook, Will learned proper knife skills, how to roast tomatoes, and how to julienne zucchini. We enjoyed the results of our labor on the patio with an ice-cold St. Arnold's Lawnmower.

Later that afternoon, we attended a wine class led by Sommelier Edward Morgan, director of the wine program for the resort's restaurant, Jean's Kitchen. The topic was Old World vs. New World, with a side-by-side tasting of one white and one red wine from each region, all excellent choices. Morgan has been teaching these well-received classes for seven months and is a natural at it, not just because of his knowledge, but for his fun personality and contagious enthusiasm. He graciously answered the attendees' many questions without a hint of snobbery. We enjoyed seeing him again at dinner, where he helped us choose the right wine from his carefully selected list to match our diverse entrée choices.

At Jean's Kitchen, San Francisco native Chef Benjamin Baker matches Travaasa's green culture by sourcing seasonal and sustainable ingredients from nearby farms and purveyors, listing the sources on the menu. We loved the peach and avocado salad, a sculptural study in color featuring red beets, fennel fronds, and paper thin slices of watermelon radish, simply dressed with herb­ed oil. Our entrées exceeded all expectations: a Broken Arrow antelope scaloppini with caramelized onions, candied pecans, fresh mint and balsamic reduction with a side of fluffy mashed sweet potatoes with goat cheese, and a black drum fillet topped with roasted oyster mushrooms and herb beurre blanc, which showcased Bak­er's experience with seafood in Hawaiian resorts. He served it over a slice of toasted homemade parmesan-sourdough bread with sautéed brussels sprouts on the side. After a nightcap at the cozy lounge, we retired, having thoroughly enjoyed our day of excellent culinary adventures.

Before heading back home the next day, Will enjoyed a self-guided bird-watching hike while I indulged in a Watsu, a must-experience treatment that's part body stretching and part massage, performed while floating in a heated private pool. For those not wanting to spend the night, all of Travaasa's activities and facilities are available via day passes, and are highly recommended.

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Travaasa Austin, Tricia Freeman, Edward Morgan, Hill Country, Jean's Kitchen, Benjamin Baker, Watsu spa

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