Restaurant Review: Many Happy Returns
New name, same quality at the Preserve
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., Dec. 26, 2014
Daily, Breakfast: 7-11am; Lunch: 11am-2pm; Dinner: 6-9pm
A couple of years ago, my husband and I enjoyed a very pleasant overnight stay and a great meal at Travaasa, the high-end spa resort at the gate to the Texas Hill Country. Earlier this year, I received news that the restaurant had changed its name to the more apt Preserve Kitchen + Bar, adding a new bar and an on-premise organic farm. Even with the new touches, Executive Chef Benjamin Baker has not veered from his goal to create cuisine that expresses a Hill Country aesthetic without being kitschy, that is healthy without being boring (the place is a spa), and that is simple and familiar with a dose of finesse. The restaurant and bar are now open to the public rather than just to resort guests, with advance reservations, so it seemed like the perfect time for a return visit.
The property is still as lovely and welcoming as we remembered. The restaurant itself hasn't gone through any major renovation, save the addition of the half-moon shaped wooden bar that serves as a partition between the main dining room and the lounge area. The floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a patio with a spectacular view of the Hill Country – perhaps one of the most romantic and serene spots for al fresco dining in the area.
Upon arriving, we informed the hostess that we'd like to have a drink at the bar before being seated for dinner, a request she gladly accommodated. A cheerful bartender welcomed us as we sat, and after a brief pause, he looked at me square in the eye and said: "I know you." His face looked familiar, but I meet lots of people, and I didn't quite remember. "Rusty Nail," he said. "You asked me to make you a Rusty Nail because your uncle or someone you missed likes to drink them." Wow. That was over two years ago, when we stepped into the old lounge for an after-dinner drink. That, my friends, is customer service. The bartender clearly loves what he does. To make it even more poignant, this was exactly the one-year anniversary of the passing of my dear friend Mic Carpenter, the reason for the Rusty Nail. I was floored.
The bar menu, like the food, is in constant flux – driven by available ingredients, seasonality, and weather. It includes local and craft brews, sipping tequilas, small-batch whiskeys, and excellent cocktails. Although making a choice was difficult, we enjoyed the Bourbon Bergamot (Knob Creek nine-year bourbon, Zhi Earl Grey Balcones Blend, St. Germain, allspice cinnamon dram) and the Flora and Fauna (Waterloo gin, St. Germain, Douglas Fir eau de vie, fresh squeezed lemon juice, local honey) before moving to the dining room.
We sat at the chef's counter which gave us another insight into the talent of the people working here. Three young ladies were running the show, searing meat on the grill, prepping vegetables, and making sauces to order in perfect coordination. Our server came to greet us bearing demitasse cups of warm roasted-tomato soup with garden basil and garlic croutons – simple, yet flawless in flavor and texture. We followed with the Travaasa seasonal salad ($9), an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blend of fresh corn kernels, crunchy green beans, watermelon radish strips, julienned carrots, and a blend of lightly dressed baby greens from their farm. The pepita-crusted scallop ($12) intrigued, and it delivered complexity with a taste and texture similar to a Mexican pipián. The accompanying pumpkin purée, grilled green beans, and sweet pea tendrils complemented the scallop's sweetness.
For the main course, we chose the Texas Wagyu top sirloin and the wild boar bolognese (both $26). The steak was perfectly grilled and rested, simply seasoned with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, and topped with a dollop of bright chimichurri. Creamy mashed potatoes, grilled broccolini, sautéed cherry tomatoes, and sprinkled fresh corn kernels balanced out the richness of the meat. The bolognese was unlike any I've ever had. Hand-cut chunks of wild boar Italian sausage stood in for ground beef, adding a toothsome texture. The simple sauce of stewed tomatoes, onions, and garlic was the perfect light counterpart. Dotted with goat cheese, and served over long, thin strands of zucchini "linguini," the dish was surprising and comforting at the same time. To complement our dinner we followed the local theme with a bottle of William Chris Vineyards 2012 Mourvedre, a spectacular wine that has garnered awards for the Hye, Texas, winery. If I had one complaint, and it's more like a suggestion, I would like to see more Texas wines on the list, and a few offered by the glass.
After dinner we returned to the bar for a nightcap. I had to have that Rusty Nail, and bartender Shawn Lujan obliged. Chef Ben and his wife sat at the bar talking to other guests while we struck a conversation with a fascinating couple from Iceland. It was as comfortable as our living room at home. Hospitality and a prevailing feeling of cozy comfort definitely set the Preserve apart. We loved it, and we will be back.