Being part of the city's biggest big food bash is all well and good, but none of the four places in this report gave us an Austin Restaurant Week menu until we asked for it. Still working things out in the opening hours, I imagine.
It's a big undertaking: For eight days, more than 60 restaurants got together with Rare magazine to set up special menus, most of them with an appetizer, main course and dessert for set prices of $10-$15 for lunch and $25-$35 for dinner. The first four-day stretch just finished up (the thing goes Sundays through Wednesdays; the other days are prime calendar spots and no time for door-buster deals). The second half starts this Sunday. See the restaurants and menus at www.restaurantweekaustin.com.
I get the sense that this is a great week to be a restaurant customer, but a hard week to be in the restaurant business. It's a chance to show off and generate repeat business, sure, but it's also a time for owners to absorb some food cost and for waiters to grit their teeth against busier nights with smaller checks, ergo smaller tips. It's a passive-aggressive paradise for every hostess, line cook and waiter who gets stuck working the 'amateur night' extravaganzas: the apostrophic days of mothers, new years and valentines. And now Restaurant Week.
You might argue that an event like this works against its purpose, from a business standpoint. 'Nobody has a good week during Restaurant Week,' one holdout owner told me.
Not nobody. Last year, Green Pastures put on its best cotillion gown and laid down fried lobster tail (they call it 'Breakfast in Vegas'), flat-iron steak and bread pudding for $25 without skipping a white-shirted service step. They're doing it again this time. Garrido's lunch is downtown's best $10 deal. And I'll argue that I haven't had County Line barbecue this good in 10 years.
So go ahead, ask for the Austin Restaurant Week menu. Ask politely. We want the good ones to come back.
County Line on the Hill
• 6500 Bee Cave Road. 327-1742, www.countyline.com. Also at County Line on the Lake (5204 RM 2222, 346-3664).
• Restaurant Week pricing: $35 for dinner for two
Here's the thing: The County Line on the Hill is like the late Soap Creek Saloon in some ways: Once an outpost in the boonies off Bee Cave Road, it's being folded into civilization one development at a time. The difference being that nobody's smoking brisket - or anything else - at the Soap these days. Suburban encroachment aside, the County Line's back-porch view of the deep valley floor invites philosophical expansion the same way the general-store cheesiness of the inside invites expansion of the physical sort. The Restaurant Week deal is a straight-up Cadillac Platter for two for $35, with six kinds of barbecue plus sides and dessert. Usually, it's $24 a person, all-you-can-eat. For this event, two people share a plate with no refills (like you'd have room anyway). Then again, you've never seen my oldest kid eat barbecue.
Appetizers: Dill potato salad, wide-cut cole slaw, campfire beans and freshly baked white or wheat bread.
Mains: Beef and pork ribs, sausage, lean and fatty brisket, chicken.
Desserts: Plain vanilla or fancy vanilla-bean ice cream, icy and sweet like the home-cranked stuff.
Pros: If this isn't the walk-off deal of the week, it's close to it. The plate counts as a gym membership, but the sheer quantity isn't the whole story. This was County Line like the first time I had it in Lubbock in the '80s: tender, smoky, intense. I'd fallen out of love with the Austin shops awhile back after a few too many tired bouts. But now it's on like a rib bone, as my East Texas cousin would say. Two hammer-sized beef ribs blended a crust of pure char-noir with meat that pulled off the bone and tasted like steak. A rack of pork ribs came right out of central casting: short, fat, a little sweet. Sausage with snap and heat, golden-skinned chicken in thick butcher cuts, a wide fan of thin brisket slices. Even the sides had purpose and personality. You might save the meat for later and just eat some good bread and beans.
Cons: Something negative ... something negative. OK: The neon sign out front? The word 'bar-b-q' doesn't light up. Oh, and another roll of paper towels, please, plus maybe a firehose. I think there's brisket in my hair.
The line: Flintstone, party of two. Your table's ready.
360 Uno Trattoria
• 3801 Capital of Texas Highway N. (Loop 360), No. G-100. 327-4448, www.360uno.com.
• Restaurant Week pricing: $15 for lunch, $25 for dinner
Here's the thing: At first, I thought the racket at Davenport Village was coming from 360 Uno, but it was the brunch crowd on the upstairs patio at Maudie's Milagro. 360 Uno is a quieter place, part coffee bar, part cafe, with walls of blue and red, with wine bottles on every flat service. A deli case holds tiramisu, skewers of olives and prosciutto, a tortellini salad. The ubiquitous black-and-red Segafredo logo gives the place the air of an Italian Starbucks. We ordered lunches from a menu with four appetizers and four main courses.
Appetizers: Tuscan white bean soup with chicken. Four meatballs with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Mains: Pizza margherita with basil, mozzarella and tomatoes. Lasagna with sausage and beef.
Desserts: One dish with banana and raspberry gelatos, another with strawberry sorbetto and chocolate gelato.
Pros: Let us now praise the waitress-in-training, because we got twice the service at a place where the staff couldn't do enough for us. Our main waiter, thinking we'd left without our take-home box (we were looking at the deli case in the next room), hit the door at a trot, scanning for us in the parking lot. Lasagna - a castle-sized piece in a moat of tomato sauce - was abundantly layered with meat and cheese and baked to a firm bite, with some crispness along the ramparts. At the gelato bar, the barista gave us samples, then indulged our indecisiveness by packing two flavors into each small cup. I liked the icy brightness of strawberry sorbetto and the smooth creaminess of banana gelato.
Cons: That sharp staff is in service to food that doesn't do them justice. The pizza crust was spongy, barely crisp at the edges and fully soggy in the center. Shredded basil didn't meet the aromatic demands of the humble margherita pie. Cafeteria blandness underwhelmed the meatballs and soup, punctuated only by Italian herbs in the broth.
The line: Feels more like a coffee and dessert shop than a living, breathing cafe. The food is a side benefit, but not a main attraction. At $15, the fixed-price lunch didn't save much off the a la carte prices.
Finn & Porter
• At the Hilton Austin hotel, 500 E. Fourth St. 493-4900, www.finnandporter.com/austin.
• Restaurant Week pricing: $35 for dinner
Here's the thing: Hotel restaurants cater to captive audiences, but they have to work harder to bring people in from the streets. The Restaurant Week menu feels like Finn & Porter's Hail Mary loss-leader to do exactly that. Sushi, sea bass, a double bone-in pork chop - a collection of dishes with a street value way past the $35 price tag.
Appetizers: A sushi sampler with four pieces of Sea Dragon roll, plus tuna, salmon, hamachi and escolar nigiri. Crab cake with jicama slaw and mango-coconut sauce.
Mains: Steamed Chilean sea bass with truffled tarot root puree, snow peas and mushrooms. Smoked and honey-cured Niman Ranch pork chop with Swiss chard and roasted fingerling potatoes
Desserts: A crème brûlée trio: cappuccino, Gran Marnier and vanilla. Sweet potato cheesecake.
Pros: The food, pure and simple. The Sea Dragon sushi roll was a mélange of macadamia nut (texture), chopped tuna and serrano (flavor), green apple (for zest) and tiny fish roe (because why not?), and each piece of nigiri was fresh and cut well over firm fingers of rice. Crab cakes are a tough sell for me, but this one drew character from a crunchy jicama slaw and a mango sauce with a dusky coconut undercurrent. The pork chop? Smoked and sweet, with the hint of a honeyed crust, fragrant and juicy over tender Swiss chard and potatoes roasted crisp on the outside, feather-soft inside. The sea bass worked as a unified dish, best when every element could be gathered at once to augment fish just hitting the overdone mark. Wax on about perfect sugared armors and custard textures, but to sample a tiny trio of crème brûlée flavored with vanilla, orange liqueur and coffee at this level is a treat.
Cons: The Carlsbad Cavern that is the main floor of Finn & Porter carried a whiff of Restaurant Week malaise, the staff straining to keep up, the air blooming with the shuffle-humph sounds of people on the verge of expressing their frustrations. Remain calm. All is well.
The line: A textbook Restaurant Week example of using a hot deal as a battering ram to get people in the doors, then blowing the doors off with food that makes memories.
• 360 Nueces St. 320-8226, www.garridosaustin.com.
• Restaurant Week pricing: $14 for Sunday brunch, $10 for lunch Monday-Wednesday, $25 for dinner
Here's the thing: David Garrido has wrapped his arms around Restaurant Week. Lunch, brunch, dinner, everything, with price points too good to pass up. His Mexican restaurant in the 360 condo tower isn't even a year old, but Garrido is putting his stamp on the event. And yes, that's him in the kitchen, the thoroughbred chef working the lunch rush, pushing out six main courses. At dinner, he ramps it up to seven and adds lamb chops, grilled snapper and his signature fried oyster bocaditos to the mix for $25. If you've even thought about hitting this brave taqueria from one of Austin's most storied stove warriors, the food and prices are in perfect formation. Charge.
Appetizers: Mushroom quesadilla with ancho crema. Chips with guacamole and warm, chile-fueled salsa.
Mains: Two tacos with chicken and avocado on flour tortillas, with tortilla soup and anise-spiced refried black beans. Chile relleno with habanero salsa, rice and black beans.
Desserts: Strawberry mousse with Gran Marnier. 'Final Feliz' with cocoa-dusted chocolate truffle, chocolate mousse and thin almond wafers.
Pros: What a great way to get to know Garrido's. Brief as it is, the a la carte menu here can make you freeze up, trying to figure out whether all those little dishes will add up to a full belly at a fair price. (They will, once you figure out the right blend. Plates with two tacos plus rice and beans are a good place to start.) The quesadilla was simple, just a corn tortilla folded over cheese and sauteed mushrooms, but a ribbon of deep orange sauce brought the flavors into sparky relief. Guacamole was unadorned and fresh, the warm salsa a tangy-hot flavor trip. The bright reds and greens of tomatoes and lettuce played Picasso patterns with waves of tomatillo across the tacos. The 'Final Feliz' of textured chocolate suggested that lunch can be sexy, too. Cross your fingers for good weather; the creekside patio's calling.
Cons: Small things. The licorice blast of anise in the beans rang an odd flavor note, a coffee cup came pre-smudged with lipstick, the dining room can make your ears ring, the orange kick of Gran Marnier was an awkward match for strawberry.
The line: A three-course lunch at Garrido's for $10? It's all about the Hamiltons, baby.