Creative cuisine. Stunning design. A unique experience. Dinner at Tillie’s features several hallmarks you expect from standout restaurants in the area. It also offers something unexpected: a winding drive through a pastoral setting that crosses multiple one-lane bridges.
Creek Road twists through verdant pastures and gentle rises slashed by the ambling Onion Creek, oblivious cows grazing as the sound of braying donkeys echoes in the unseen distance. The jaunt to Dripping Springs feels more like an exciting retreat to a friend’s ranch or a family camping trip than your typical drive to dinner. Just about the time you think you may be lost, you come to the entrance of Camp Lucy, the 275-acre property home to a lodge, restaurant and event space opened last October by Austinite Whit Hanks on his family’s longtime property.
In much the way the one-lane bridges and bucolic drive set the stage for the reveal of the property named after Hanks’ mother, the lobby at Tillie’s engenders anticipation and intrigue for the meal to come. Gorgeous leather chairs and buttoned couches dot the room, and historic family photos, some that include the restaurant’s namesake, Hanks’ grandmother, line the walls, along with snapshots of Austin near the turn of the 20th century. A gleaming wine room behind the impressive host station contrasts the historic artifacts with a flash of modernity.
The employee who welcomed you upon arrival interrupts your perusing of photos and family history (Hanks’ family apparently introduced golf to Texas and founded the original Austin Country Club) to inform you that your table is ready. You gather near the massive wooden doors, the rustic barriers of entry the color of teal milk paint, and with a knowing flourish, the host reveals the dining room.
Soaring wooden columns support the thatched steepled ceiling of the century-old building, once a town hall in Vietnam that was disassembled and shipped by former antique dealer Hanks back to Texas. Completing the sense of eclectic, no-expense-spared elegance: more handsome leather furniture, colorful tile floors, marble tables, a sparkling chandelier, ornate cutlery, iridescent mermaid tiles lining the wall behind the bar, and religious iconography nestled in the walls’ alcoves. You’re not in Dripping Springs anymore, Toto. Heck, you’re not even in Texas.
But then the carnitas tostadas arrive, the meat lush with rendered fat and spotted with tangy bites of compressed pickled apple ($8), and the kitchen reminds you that you’re eating lunch in Texas. The state is speaking to you in ways both familiar and unexpected. Maybe it’s the green-chili Szechuan oil that piques an appetizer of salt-and-pepper quail and tempura fried cauliflower ($10) or the curry vinaigrette that zips an array of grilled vegetables served with a fold of sticky rice ($21) at dinner.
When robust farm-fresh carrots, lightly charred and smoky, arrive tingly with green curry and pickled shallots and floating on a wave of mint ($10), executive chef Brandon Martin’s history as a sous chef at Odd Duck and Barley Swine becomes apparent. The chef is taking the vocabulary of the region and adapting it to the vernacular of Southeast Asian cuisine that matches the bones of the space, simultaneously cultivating comfort and a sense of adventure.
Beets and Brussels sprouts, the training wheels of the nascent foodie that help bridge a palate to new frontiers, make an appearance, with Martin finding ways to get creative without threat of alienating more staid diners. He perks up the earthiness of roasted beets with strawberry, citrusy goat cheese, lemongrass and fennel ($9), and enlivens smoky fried sprouts with chili jam and juicy sections of orange ($10).
The Thai roasted chicken, amplified by curry vinaigrette and sweetly salved with butternut squash puree and the sweet crunch of sticky rice ($27), probably best encapsulates the restaurant’s approach of blending flavors from near and far, while tender grilled beef short rib served with a decadent whipped potato puree ($34) nods more subtly to the cross-cultural take with pickled shiitake mushrooms and shiitake hot mustard. Pair the beef with a glass of bold red from a boutique producer on a diverse list that stands up to the sophistication of the space. Or surprise yourself yet again with the discovery that the bartender can make a nicely balanced Vieux Carré.
The arrival to the Tillie’s hilltop home as the sun sets out toward Blanco combined with the unique aesthetic of the restaurant and the exciting food combine to enchanting effect. But when things stumble and slow, the whimsy starts to feel more awkward than intoxicating. Did we drive 40 minutes for a lean shoe leather cut of coffee-rubbed wild boar? And that excellent whiskey cocktail you had the first night? You may be waiting 20 minutes to even order it on your next visit. The scrambled servers, frantically trying to work themselves from unnecessary weeds one service, meant more time spent trying to flag someone down for water and less time enjoying the restaurant’s ambience.
While dinner holds the most romance at Tillie’s, lunch and brunch service, with light Indian-inspired house music thrumming one afternoon, provide their own sense of retreat. The daylight, music and the pool adjacent to the outdoor seating area team for a spa vibe to the afternoon.
Several of the shareables from the dinner menu pop up on the more streamlined and casual lunch menu. And while the kitchen once again pays tribute to Asia with a salty charred carrot-and-chicken ramen with wiry, springy noodles and tender pork belly ($13), lunch at Tillie’s centers on American classics of a fried chicken sandwich ($13), dressed with bourbon-aged hot sauce and cabbage, that could have used a touch of the ramen’s salt, and a couple of cheeseburgers, the standout of which is the Tillie’s Cheeseburger served with mild, creamy pimento cheese and pungent smoked onion jam on a sweet, glossy bun ($15). If you’re gonna go big like that at lunch, I suggest sticking to the lithe Meyer lemon panna cotta flagged with beet chips for dessert ($8) and leaving the gooey cast iron brownie with caramel bourbon ice cream ($10) for dinner.
If you’re the type that gets overwhelmed by the freedom of choice, Tillie’s weekend brunch makes for a nice change of pace. The “brunch experience” is a roster of small portions of a half dozen dishes served one at a time, giving the meal the sense of a table-service buffet ($22). The kitchen again jumps back and forth from West to East, starting with a supple slice of French toast with candied pecan butter and vanilla-infused maple syrup and finishing with a green curry rice bowl studded with tender lardons, candied peanuts and pickle relish. It’s probably not what you’d expect but somehow everything you want.
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