The Austin Chronicle

Prelog's European Kitchen

Dazzling technique and missed potential

Reviewed by Brandon Watson, July 10, 2015, Food

For chefs, ego is often a very good thing. It would be crippling for them to send out plates to a very particular public were it not for a conviction in their craft. That goes double for fine dining, where chefs ask folks to forgo a new Kenzo backpack for a couple of hours of choreographed bonhomie. We buy into the image of a chef like we do a designer. Self-assuredness, if not arrogance, surely erases some of the intrinsic weirdness of people wanting to fetishize their name.

I wouldn't accuse the folks at Prelog's of arrogance – there's too much honest hospitality to say that – but there is definitely some ego involved. For one, the dining room includes a giant mural that details chef Florian and wife Romana Prelog's journey from Austria. And the open kitchen, no novelty in Austin, was one spotlight short of staging the musical adaptation.

Of course, it's natural that the Prelogs would want to put their own stamp on the place, especially since it housed a popular restaurant with another chef's name and an entirely different concept. Garrido's, the former occupant, tailored the space to Shoal Creek, keeping the warm interior neutral and textural. Garrido's doors remain, but the rest of the interior gets a smear of black eyeliner. It's a glitzier place now, although that's slightly undermined by fussy place mats and the large TV tuned to sports at the bar. The patio thankfully is largely unchanged – the lush Shoal Creek plant life is still the star, and it is still one of the nicest spots in town to sip a mimosa.

The offerings, however, have changed from Garrido's everyman affordability to fine if not altogether formal dining. But like the servers' wooden bow ties, the eatery seemed to aim for a little bit of both. There are craft cocktails for the chattering set (the mezcal-based Smoky Spring, $12, was a highlight) and a surprisingly accessible wine list. Dinner started simply enough with fish and chips ($12) – plump nuggets swaddled in thin batter and served with thick pomme neuf. Those titular components held up, but the whole dish turned out to be capricious. The journey from land to sea was waylaid by an inexplicable green pea island. The purée wasn't bad per se, but added nothing to the dish.

The same was true of the dusting of coffee grounds on the beef tartare (we ordered the $65 tasting, but it's available for $15 à la carte). The dish was one of the most beautiful of the evening, two circles of beef with revolving satellites of avocado and sour cream. And save for the unnecessary bitter of coffee, it was also one of the most delicious. The egg yolk confit may have lacked the traditional ooze, but it did add uncommon voluptuousness.

The tendency toward ornament continued throughout the meal. It's clear that chef Prelog has technique. There's no floating spoonful of cream in his green pea soup ($9); there's an unsettling pink of frankfurter froth. The trout ($25) is rolled into a cigar, festooned with microgreens and shaved radish (Prelog's sprinkles those like pixie dust), and set just so in a shallow pool of bacon broth (a bit of fried skin has some "me" time on the corner of the plate). The Fig Newton dessert ($10) flourishes the cookies with candied prosciutto, Brie ice cream, and pistachio purée. And the veal (only available via prix fixe) presents Pollock splashes of sauce with cucumber-soaked polenta rounds and sweetbreads on an actual ceramic palette. One half expected the kitchen to wear berets.

I don't begrudge the back of house for wanting to show off. At this price point, everything has to be beautifully plated and the chef has to use a full volley of ingredients that can be paraded on the menu in lowercase. But those flavors and textures should serve the whole, and that wasn't always the case at Prelog's. And the array of techniques used on each plate also significantly slowed down service. It's not uncommon for dinner to take two or three hours in Austin, but the key is that the patron should never notice.

Our second meal moved a little more quickly by dint of being a buffet. The "bubbly brunch" was a $60 indulgence, but came with an unlimited pour of Cava and the full arsenal of à la carte dishes made to order. The basic spread had Vegas flash; there were oysters and mozzarella salad and Danishes – all plated as beautifully as the dinner items before. Although my companion ate hers up, I found the baby shrimp cocktail a little perplexing. One might euphemistically call it iceberg-forward. But the pastries more than made up for that, including a croissant good enough to put an end to Austin's biscuit obsession.

The made-to-order items had a couple of missteps too. The fatty pork belly (served with shaved radishes) welcomingly enriched the potatoes, but the egg was over hard, not easy. The French toast ($14) was lovely and classic, and the prosciutto-thin bacon served alongside delighted, but the breakfast sausages seemed a bit Jimmy Dean.

Chef Prelog definitely has the talent (and the CV) to warrant the "P" logo on the door, but his restaurant is also an example where assuredness can slide into hubris. Most of the dishes would benefit from one less ingredient, one less preparation, one less shaved radish. We would like to see technique used with a little less flash and a little more heart. Stumbles aside, the takeaway from Prelog's is potential. We'll be watching.

Prelog's European Kitchen & Bar

360 Nueces, 512/350-2895
Lunch: Tue.-Sat., 11:30am-2:30pm; Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 6-11pm;
Brunch: Sun., 11am-2:30pm

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