Restaurant Review: Apis Restaurant & Apiary
Dining away from the hive
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., May 29, 2015
Wed.-Thu., 5-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-10pm; Sunday brunch, 11am-2:30pm
Any small-town florist who has draped a fellowship hall with camouflage tulle can tell you: A theme can be a dangerous thing. It's a quick dive from simply being inspired by the beach to hot-gluing seashells on every surface. In dining, that excess is everywhere – from the Cheesecake Factory's corpulent columns to the clunky innuendo of breastaurants. It's why fine-dining hot spots tend to pour on the greige and shop from the same midcentury catalogs. Using bland signifiers of good taste is better than risking kitsch in today's "weird" Austin. Runway models, after all, are not allowed to smile.
It's probably a good thing that Apis Restaurant & Apiary is a good drive down Highway 71. It doesn't let Austin dictate the rules. And it definitely never lets one forget that they are all about bees. The dining room and bar has more hexagons than a David Hicks apartment – in a ceiling, as inlay on the dining tables, and filtering light. Honey tones predominate, the steak knives are Laguiole, and there is a framed honeycomb behind the bar. That's just the decor. Honey is drizzled throughout the menu, appearing in both obvious (a whiskey-based cocktail) and surprising (a pork tasting) places. But where most restaurants use themes as flimflam, Apis uses theirs as a riff. And there is plenty of subtlety to keep things from being a Blind Melon video, like the abstracted hives of the central fixtures, the geometric wallpaper used in the restrooms, and the trumpet vine orange and turquoise upholstery breaking up the more sallow tones. Apis has a theme, and it can smile, but it is not about gimmickry.
That's clear enough in the stridently untrendy menu. A few plating flourishes aside, Apis is classicist – at peace with the ever-broadening tastes of the Hill Country and in touch with global culinary influences. A great deal of chef/owner Taylor Hall's POV can be summed up by his crowd-pleasing amuse-bouche. Golden biscuits, served with honey butter (natch), could give those other cult Austin biscuits a nervous tic. A spiral brioche roll was spread with truffle paste and lavished in tallow. And a small toast was smeared with a fiery 'nduja (more on that later).
There is challenge and comfort in those first few bites, supplemented by the three-item snacks menu. From that section, the small wild pork salumi ($12) board pleased, but the meats would have had to have been cut like papel picado to be more memorable than the egg toast ($12 fully loaded). That canapé – a brioche toast topped with a drift of dry-aged beef tartare and a burst of caviar – did exactly what a starter should. Instantly, cocktails tasted better and conversation grew more animated. It has the kind of vavoom that Playboy and Cosmo would have recommended in their Sixties entertaining guides. Perhaps fittingly, beverage director Jose Sapien's cocktails are essential to the Apis experience. They range from the heady, rye-centric Wryer ($11) to the herbal, gently sweet Wildflower ($10) to the dangerously good Apiary ($12) – made an easy sipper by honeycomb-infused Texas bourbon.
If none of the small plates packs the hedonistic flavor of that toast, they do seamlessly never allow the palate to dull. The same 'nduja tortelloni ($17) rids the devil with a baptism of sweet corn butter. It's as summery as Hamilton Pool. The Marfa tomatoes ($18), the first beauties of the season, promised sunnier weather too. They were accented with a burrata-like fresh cheese and Meyer lemon blossom. Simple grilled lettuce threatened to steal the show from the Wagyu crudo ($18). The horseradish was perfect with the blue slices, but the lettuce's shallot, pepper, and caper topping was a lightning bolt. The perfectly tender octopus ($18), charred for depth and salted by Castelvetrano olives, similarly electrified. There were no major misgivings about anything on the menu, but some swans didn't need gilding. The sweet rhubarb distracted from the foie gras terrine ($18), not really allowing the tartness of green strawberry to play against the butteriness of the protein.
After years of gossamer, it is nice that some contemporary chefs are no longer afraid to use some weight. Apis is definitely not afraid to get fatty. All the entrées carry some oomph, even the seafood. Atlantic halibut ($34) for example, a take on fish stew, is grounded by chorizo. The Ora King salmon ($34) was lacking a similar anchor, but still swims in whey butter. The thistles and nettles were a clever nod to pollination. Overall, the land proteins had surer footing. Roasted chicken breast ($31), usually a menu's afterthought for less adventurous eaters, was no less populist in its use of morels (stuffed with foie) and Carolina rice. With the white wine sauce, it was like a haute cuisine version of condensed soup chicken and rice casserole (to be clear, that's not an insult). The veal ($38) and yearling pig ($34) dishes were outrageously indulgent. The pig was a summit of pork chop, chicharrón, blood sausage, rillette, and pork belly. The veal managed to edge even that out with addictive creamed ramps and sweetbreads. Paired with a side of Savoy cabbage ($8) luxuriating in cider hollandaise, it was an embarrassment of riches.
Because of that, their signature honey bun ($9) dessert, served with creamy horchata ice cream, was a little too much, if still delicious. Perhaps knowing that we had gone too deeply down the rabbit hole on that visit, our server brought out a blood orange dessert topped with mini meringues, a terrific reviver. Glasses were clinked all around.
That generosity of spirit seemed ingrained in Apis. We noticed the kitchen sent out soup to another table as a thank you for braving a rainy night. The catchy story was plenty enough for Apis' initial round of (apologies) buzz, but that sort of hospitality is what will keep people making the long drive in from Austin. It definitely seems to be a recurring theme.
Apis Restaurant & Apiary23526 Hwy. 71 W., Spicewood; 512/436-8918
Wed.-Thu., 5-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-10pm; Sunday brunch, 11am-2:30pm
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com