Renovated Jeffrey’s looks to the future with a nod at the past

Restaurateur Larry McGuire and his partners have spent much of the past 10 years building a mini-empire in Austin by packaging stylized concepts that have become highly visible and popular components of the city’s growing restaurant culture and aesthetic.

They turned Mediterranean restaurant Mars on South Congress Avenue into Hamptons-esque seafood restaurant Perla’s, converted the scrappy Bouldin Creek Cafe on South First Street to precious French-accented Vietnamese spot Elizabeth Street Cafe, reimagined a dilapidated warehouse in the 2nd Street District as upmarket Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, built a jewel-box version of Perla’s in the plain space on West Sixth Street that formerly housed grab-and-go spot Portabla, and redeveloped a coffee shop on North Lamar Boulevard into Fresa’s, an ingredient-driven charcoal chicken stand.

McGuire’s latest creation marks arguably the young restaurateur’s most ambitious project to date. The native Austinite has transformed what was once the city’s most venerable and beloved fine dining restaurant into a clubby modern day steakhouse.

Ron and Peggy Weiss and Jeffrey Weinberger opened Jeffrey’s on West Lynn Street in Clarksville in 1975, and for decades welcomed celebrities, politicians (George W. Bush was a huge fan), tastemakers and, most importantly, faithful locals. Whether they only spent anniversary dinners there or made weekly sojourns to the convivial bar, regulars at Jeffrey’s felt a unique sense of ownership of the place.

In taking on the task of reviving the restaurant that had trouble maintaining its cultural relevance in the final years before the sale, McGuire and his McGuire Moorman Hospitality group have the responsibility of keeping longtime regulars satisfied while appealing to a new crowd of moneyed guests and creating an atmosphere for a new generation of Austin diners in search of a special-occasion restaurant.

As with all McGuire-Moorman joints, Jeffrey’s hallmarks are design (at every level) and high-quality ingredients. The aesthetic touches at Jeffrey’s begin before you even enter the door, with valets dressed in pink seersucker shorts and classic Adidas tennis shoes. The preppy sartorial flair harkens to director Wes Anderson’s New York City-set “The Royal Tenenbaums” and captures the spirit of the new Jeffrey’s as Clarksville’s answer to a private Midtown Manhattan club, a feeling expanded once inside with the suits worn by servers and bartenders. It is an effect that will charm some and lead to eye-rolling in others. Is this Jeffrey’s or Joffrey’s?

While the uniforms may feel a bit stuffy, the main dining room in the multi-chambered restaurant has an airiness and brightness not found at the old Jeffrey’s. Caramel banquettes line the cream and dark brown accented walls populated with animal lithographs in a room that features a massive floral arrangement near the open kitchen. That bouquet is replicated in miniature on the white-clothed tabletops.

The popular bar area still sits on the south side of the restaurant, with lush sapphire blue couches and tables making for tight quarters. A record player spins vinyl, with tunes from Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and Bill Withers reflecting Jeffrey’s ’70s-pedigree while remaining hip. Talented bartenders project a respectful curiosity to guests, who might find more comfort in the conversation than in the bar’s hard molded wooden saddle stools.

The room that separates the bar from the main dining room feels like dining in a submarine, servers, runners and bussers darting about, trying to avoid bumping shoulders. The thick colorful geometric-patterned carpeting helps dampen the noise and gets bonus points for resembling that in the upstairs hallways in the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” though it does prevent the martini cart from making a visit.

Jeffrey’s has seen its share of talented chefs make their way through the kitchen over the years: Raymond Tatum (Three Little Pigs), David Garrido (Garrido’s) and Alma Alcocer-Thomas (El Alma) all enjoyed successful stints. At the helm now is chef de cuisine Josh Hines, who worked as the chef at the Starlite almost a decade ago, when a young McGuire served as line cook. McGuire spends many nights in the kitchen at Jeffrey’s, working the salad station on one visit and the sauce station on another.

The centerpieces of the menu are a dozen dry-aged steaks from three ranches, including Texas’ Branch and Beeman family ranches. The prices will astound many guests. The average price for a steak is $63, with sides and sauces both costing extra. Those prices put Jeffrey’s on par with some of the most elite steakhouses in the country.

Dry-aging requires time and financial resources, and many steak connoisseurs will tell you it is the best meat you can get. The dry-aged beef should have more condensed and intense flavors, and the grass-fed beef from the Texas ranches will have a richer, beefier quality, for lack of a better word. I found mixed results with multiple steaks at Jeffrey’s.

A 13-ounce 35-day-aged Beeman ribeye ($65) on one visit was rich with fat from connective tissue and received a luscious boost from roasted marrow butter ($2). I know it is standard for some steakhouses to charge extra for a side of sauce, but when I’m paying $65 for steak, the extra $2 feels chintzy. We enjoyed a bottle of sangiovese from La Querciolina ($45) with that meal, a modest selection from an impressive wine list that features about 400 bottles, leaving Jeffrey’s with few peers in town.

On another visit we ordered a 16-ounce Branch bone-in strip ($65) that had solid seasoning of salt and pepper, but the grass-fed beef was tough and had little sear. The cognac au poivre sauce ($2) was rich without being dynamic and did little for the steak. And while I understand that with beef of this quality you want the steak to speak for itself, one meal featured an eight-ounce tenderloin filet ($50) that, while cooked to a ruby medium-rare, had zero added seasoning. Sides of macaroni and cheese with undercooked asparagus spears ($10) and roasted wild mushrooms ($10) felt like antiquated afterthoughts when served alongside the august beef.

Longtime fans of Jeffrey’s will remember the crispy fried oysters introduced by chef Garrido more than 20 years ago. They remain on the menu ($16), but with small changes — long crunchy strips of bronzed parsnip and a smooth savory parsnip puree have replaced yucca chips and habanero honey aioli, with grapefruit, habanero vinaigrette and fresh horseradish now providing the sweet and spicy kick. Lightly fried with long finishes of salt and sea, the oysters were better than ever.

The highlights of the appetizers were steakhouse classics beef tartare ($22) and crab cakes ($22). Shaved black truffles lent sensuous earthy depth to the tiny pearls of caper-spiked Akaushi tenderloin topped with a tiny quail egg. Wood roasting left a superb crust on the lump crab cake, with sweet corn cutting the decadent sauce Paolise. They were two of the best appetizers I’ve had this year.

More French flavors could be found in the wonderful pistou soup special ($12) – a satiny vegetable-flecked broth studded with broiled bay scallops and delicate handmade ravioli stuffed with foie gras. It was a fun but faithful take on a classic. Another classic – the pâté en croute ($12) – suffered from a dry outer pastry.

Jeffrey’s obviously has no fear in turning the clock back on some of its non-steak offerings. I doubt many menus in Texas feature wood-roasted lobster thermidor ($48), though after trudging through the cheese and spinach-draped mornay sauce and overcooked lobster that approached the consistency of saltwater taffy, I think it may be a dish best relegated to our fine dining past.

The pan-roasted and confit duck ($44) balanced tang and earth with currants and morels, and the spongy buckwheat crepe, reminiscent of Ethiopian injera bread, showed ingenuity, but the confit lacked a nice layer of fat and the roasted bird proved tough.

Dessert also proved uneven on multiple occasions: I enjoyed the baked Alaska’s ($10) light meringue and nutty crumble of a pistachio cake and a tangerine ice cream that looked like a Flintstone push-up, but the tobacco ice cream on a dish of lukewarm roasted peaches ($10) carried an unripe green astringency.

From the elegant décor to the exorbitant prices, Jeffrey’s obviously considers itself a restaurant with few equals in Austin. One place where it has achieved that goal is with service. A few early visits to Jeffrey’s spurned by personal curiosity revealed multiple hiccups in service, from servers not knowing the names of popular classic cocktails to confusion with menu items and timing, but by the time I returned for multiple review dinners, those bumps had been eliminated. Service was friendly but respectful, prompt but not overeager and polite without being too austere. One visit featured one of the best servers I’ve had in town, putting service at Jeffrey’s on par with places such as Congress, Lenoir and Uchi.

At each meal at Jeffrey’s I wrestled with whom the restaurant was hoping to target. I was the youngest person in the restaurant at each visit, and while an adjacent table of regulars from the old Jeffrey’s raved about much of the experience, one well-heeled man at the table balked at the price of the steaks. The experience seemed to confuse the old idea of Jeffrey’s as a place to be with a new desire of it as a place to be seen. The deciding factors will likely come down to service and the execution of Jeffrey’s prized beef. If they make it a place where you feel welcome and can expect consistency, many will likely not think twice about the expense.

Jeffrey’s still seems to struggle between maintaining its old identity as a familiar and comfortable family friend (it was nice to see Ron Weiss greeting guests on one visit) with its new face(-lift) of elegance and opulence. Jeffrey’s may sit at the intersection of West Lynn and West 12th streets, but it really resides at the crossroads of what Austin has long been and what some imagine the city to be going forward.

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