Every time I pull into the circular drive at the Four Seasons, a polite and expeditious parking attendant opens my door and asks the question I always hate hearing, "Are you checking in with us today, sir?"
The answer, each time, somberly: "No. I’m here for work."
While I may not have the regular privilege of spending weekends at the Four Seasons, I can still go to Trio and get treated like I’m more important than I really am. The Four Seasons has established itself around the world as the gold standard for service, and that tradition brightens every aspect of the dining experience at Trio.
The restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel reopened in the summer of 2007, reinventing itself as a less stuffy version of the former Café at the Four Seasons. Gone were some of the exorbitant prices and pasta dishes. In their place, a rededicated focus on wines, as evidenced by the handsome racks of wine bottles at the restaurant’s entrance and along the private dining area, and a commitment to local sourcing, encouraged by former executive chef Todd Duplechan.
Duplechan left the restaurant at the end of last year to open Lenoir, another one of the city’s best restaurants, and chef Grant Macdonald arrived from the Four Seasons in Vancouver to continue the kitchen’s reinvigorated direction. Macdonald says he’s committed to even more local sourcing with the restaurant’s Gulf-heavy seafood program, and the Canadian native has expressed a surprised delight in the bounties of Texas’ unique harvesting season: fresh tomatoes … in the fall?
The half-dozen Malpeque oysters ($16) served as an appetizer may not come from the Gulf, but you won’t hear much complaining here. The sweet, light-bodied oysters delivered an abundance of flavorful oyster liquor and came with a guava mignonette that proved polarizing at my table. I loved the refreshing tropical notes of the smoothie-like accompaniment but my dining guest found the sauce an unnecessary saccharine affront.
A plate of seared scallops ($15) was less divisive. The massive mollusks melted at first bite, their buttery flavor braced by smoky cuts of house-smoked ham in the low-country style dish that featured okra, peas and a kiss of sweet heat from Fresno chiles in a scarlet sauce.
Back on land, a gelatinous "pig and pinot" terrine ($12) encased sizable chunks of pork, tipsy on the red wine in which the hog was braised. A brilliant egg-studded grabiche delivered a tartness punctuated with fierce dashes of bright herbs and mellowed nicely by a dry and minerally glass of Greek white Assyrtiko-Athiri from Domaine Sigalas ($12).
Macdonald’s excitement of that second, late-in-the-year bump of tomatoes shone with a salad of sunshiny heirloom tomatoes and zinging goat cheese grounded by the earth of puree eggplant.
An entrée of juicy Dewberry Farms chicken with a crackling golden layer arrived in a cast iron skillet, the mostly de-boned bird bathed in lemon and a natural jus dripping with white wine and whispers of tarragon.
Side dishes are ordered a la carte and should not be overlooked from their place at the bottom of the menu. The crispy Brussels sprouts, spritzed with lemon ($8), had an external crunch from a nice char that stopped shy of the over-caramelization found at other places, and the large confit mushrooms ($8) carried a robust musk made seductive with olive oil, butter and garlic.
We dove into the Gulf offerings with a buttery red fish ($26) with a lacquered skin, served with slivers of firm but slippery pumpkin and sturdy leaves of dark green dinosaur kale. The fall flavors continued with a subtle corn puree that exhibited a delicacy of composition not often found at places that showcase steak.
Sommelier Mark Sayre suggested a Reserve Personnelle Alsace riesling from Domaine Weinbach ($18) to accompany the red fish, and the white featuring stone fruit and subtle pumpkin spice smoothly accentuated the fall flavors from the fish.
Sayre exemplifies the level of excellence one expects at the Four Seasons. Arguably the top sommelier at Austin restaurants – leading a group that includes June Rodil of Congress and Chris McFall of Paggi House – Sayre brings an encyclopedic knowledge to the table, but presents it in an unpretentious and patient manner. A former DJ who still dabbles on occasion, Sayre delivers backstory and tasting notes on wines like liner notes, with the obsession of a vinyl collector.
On a night when we stayed with only one bottle, we told Sayre what kind of wines we preferred (dirty Italian reds), and he guided us to an Italian Valpolicella Classico Superiore from Bussola ($65), which opened up slowly through the meal to reveal complex flavors of cherry and fig. In his selection, Sayre included a concise biography of the winemaker, making for a richer experience. And our table was no special exception. He spent the same amount of time at a nearby table, discussing the joys of their $40 bottle.
But no wine Sayre could have selected would have saved a Chatham cod special overwhelmed by its thick black olive sauce. Kudos should be given to Macdonald for thinking outside the box with this Mediterranean-inspired dish of expertly cooked fish, but you would have had to grow up with posters of olives on your bedroom wall to get excited by this dish.
Selections from the "range" part of the menu fared much better. A 14-ounce bone-in ribeye filet ($38) featured little of the fat one expects in the cut, but that did not temper the flavor of the thick cut of meat cooked to a rosy mid-rare. I considered the assortment of steak sauces a decadent and unnecessary vestige from the past, but the green chimichurri – an explosion of vinegar, garlic and herbs – quieted my scoffing. A side salad of roasted beets ($8) brought along blue cheese to funk up the earthy party, along with a zesty burst of orange and texture of candied pecans (of which there could have been more).
Macdonald takes pride in the ingredients made in-house, and those include a powerful horseradish mustard that needed to be used only sparingly on the very polite rack of lamb ($38) that lacked any salt-and-pepper sear. The gaminess hid itself close to the bone, making the dish a great point of entry for those sheepish about the unique taste of lamb. The Capafons-Ossó Sirsell grenache blend from Spain ($14) delivered notes of oak and pepper that nicely supported the supple roasted candied garlic.
While we did not partake in s’mores outside by the fire pit – because of our age and the current burn ban – we did enjoy the next best thing on one visit: a creamy peanut butter and chocolate mousse ($10) with graham crust, toasted marshmallow, candied peanuts and a sensuous cabernet jelly that carried it way beyond stunt food for kids.
Another fulfilling visit saw us wanting to push back from the table before dessert, but our server gently steered us toward a trio of some of the best sorbet ($10) I’ve had in town, including a beautiful marriage of raspberry and lychee. The server also brought along one scoop of salted créme caramel ($3) ice cream. The gentle cream and viscous caramel felt like sliding into a bed draped in Egyptian cotton and topped with a down comforter.
We didn’t know we wanted the ice cream. But our server did. Always one step ahead of their guests, predicting their desires before they even know they exist … it’s all part of what makes the Four Seasons and Trio such a luxury. Making you feel like you’re king of the castle, even when you’re just popping in for work.