Even above the din in Eberly's wood-paneled dining room, it was hard to escape the bluster of the red-faced old men ordering bottle after bottle for their much younger dates. Sitting in the velvet banquette adjacent, I could hear everything from the alpha's clumsy mansplanation of appellation to his even more clumsy invitation to "look at that ass." At one point, the two women tittered nervously as the men passed around iPhone porn.
I mention this not because restaurants can choose their patrons. The server approached the table with gracious exasperation, doing nothing to egg on the display. But there was something about that group that captured the soullessness of Eberly's operation. Here is a restaurant that seems to care little about the actual connection that should happen at the table. Instead, it substitutes the forced conviviality of bottle after bottle – the thrill of night, the brass flash of display, the dazzle of surface.
But oh what surfaces. Michael Dickson of ICON Design + Build, Clayton & Little Architects, and interior designer Mickie Spencer have created a showstopping dining room that seamlessly travels decades, using the deep pockets of owners Eddy Patterson and John Scott to create a space that ignores Austin's interior groupthink. I'll forgive the theme-parkishness of bringing in a section of a famous Greenwich Village bar, if only because it would be the sort of thing I would buy if I made millions selling off a barbecue sauce line.
Unfortunately, the drinks served at the bar did not inspire similar sympathy – most using far more sugar than necessary. The entire program seems to have been reworked since my last visit, so I won't lambast any by name. Hopefully, they have worked things out. The bar snack menu from chef Jim Tripi (formerly of the Spanish Oaks Golf Club) could use a rework too. I wasn't offended by any of the offerings (except perhaps for the purist offending pimento cheese – $11 – the dictionary illustration of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it.") The town doesn't need another brassica dish (here brussels sprouts and cauliflower – $9) that combines heat and sweet. Or another fancy interpretation of poutine (here duck fat fries in duck gravy – $10). At least a few drinks in, you will likely be numb enough not to notice.
But lacking that anesthetic, things fall apart. The tuna tartare ($18), really a molded poke, was agreeable enough alone (even if the dabs of froth were the culinary equivalent of jazz hands), but the gaufrettes were overly salted, the sharpness overwhelming the otherwise well-balanced dish. No such balance was found in the crab and cornbread ($16), an overworked jalapeño rectangle spread with underdeveloped caramelized onions, sweet lump crab, and a drizzle of syrup in case none of that was cloying enough. The wood-roasted oysters Angelina ($38 for a dozen) were oysters Rockefeller reinvented for the Trumpian age – vulgarly confusing abundance (the eight ball of Parmesan flung on top) with taste.
The main entrées suffer too. With its clotted streak of huckleberry jam and dollops of assertively pickled red cabbage, the venison and quail ($35) had the dusty mauve colors of a small-town "Victoriana" boutique – even as it puffed its chest with all the signifiers of expense account masculinity. Strip it of its frippery, and the dish could have come out of Dean Fearing's the Mansion on Turtle Creek. That's not necessarily a bad thing – 1980s Southwestern cuisine is due for a considered comeback – but the venison medallions were dry, and the thin slice of Ibérico bacon wrapping added scant succulence. Broccolini slumped over the braised short ribs ($25) like a defeated adolescent, adding no snap to the flaccid protein or the celeriac puree (Eberly calls it a fondue, inexplicably). The Louisiana-inspired redfish ($27) fares only slightly better, but the kitchen takes a heavy hand with the cream in the maque choux, compounded by the butter cracker crumble.
There is a smattering of successful dishes. The farm vegetables ($9), a simply dressed blend that combined beets, broccolini, and early-season tomatoes was a respite from the heaviness of the rest of the menu. The Eberly green salad ($11), though using a tad too much dressing, played tart green apples against prosciutto and butter lettuce. And pastry chef Natalie Gazaui's banana mousse with butterscotch ice cream ($12) may be the best interpretation of the currently voguish Southern classic, even if the squares of gold leaf were unneeded glitz.
But ultimately, none of these things were enough to save a series of meals that may not have been truly disastrous, but were deeply mediocre. And that's even worse. A complete failure implies a risk, that a menu was not developed with a magpie's eye. Eberly as it stands is a demographic chart, a sought arrangement between Austin's moneyed experience seekers and a corporatized hospitality industry. And yes, in this buzz buzz buzz dining scene, that's enough to fill it with crowds now. But like those lecherous old men in the next booth know, that relationship is fraught. You can't stay young forever, even if you can afford something pretty.
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