Listen to Austin 360 Radio

First Impressions: Soleil

Mike Sutter
The New York strip was cooked just as ordered, but a rind of gristled fat marred the steak. It was served with Gorgonzola cheese and a fig-and-chile sauce.

The early darkness of midwinter is a dodgy time to board the newest theme-park ride at Lake Travis. By theme park, I mean Oasis, Texas, the restaurant-retail Shangri-la that bundles together the Oasis, Uncle Billy's Brew & Que and Soleil, the Mediterranean restaurant-ride in question.

If Uncle Billy's were a county fair and the Oasis a Six-Flags-Over-Sunset, then Soleil would be Epcot Center, the most high-minded (and least fun) of the three, and the one with the trickier mission: Are we here for the Houston super-chef Robert Del Grande experience or are we just here to party by the lake with fancier food? The answer is somewhere in-between, and won't this be great when it's not already pitch-dark at 6:30?

For one, Del Grande isn't actually cooking at Soleil. His restaurant group developed the menu, but its day-to-day operations are in the hands of the local group that runs Uncle Billy's and the Oasis. The cooking is handled by George Thomas, whose Austin résumé includes Truluck's, Paggi House, Maiko and Imperia. For two, Soleil opened in November, but its raw seafood bar and lounge, Azure, won't be in full swing until spring.

Until then, here's a First Impression of the Soleil experience.

The space evokes a seaside mood with soft coastal blues and corals, weathered planks and pickled wood flooring, cushioned wicker and a puzzling trio of mounted blue deer heads. Antipasti, pizza and pasta dishes announce an Italian direction, a direction that includes a small pizza with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes ($10) that's missing the big, fresh flavors you want from a margherita-style pie, with a miserly scatter of basil and a medium-thick crust that's crisp on the edge and soft in the middle. Or calamari ($12) cut in thick strips more rubbery than they should be, with doughy breading, middling marinara and good, sharp garlic aioli.

With two claws of sunburn-red meat folded in, a dish of fettuccine with crab, shrimp and lobster ($22) left no doubt where the lobster was. There was no way to confuse it with the lighter, sweeter crab meat. And a cream sauce tied together well with generous shavings of dry ricotta salata cheese. We also liked the flavor profile (and at $18, the value) of rainbow trout and lump crab finished with golden raisins and pine nut brown butter.

Moving from surf to turf, we imagined how a $12.95 cheeseburger with fries would factor into a summer dinner at the lake. We decided that after two glasses of Chilean cab or a Grand Smash margarita in that scenario, all a burger would need is a crisp sear, a toasted bun with a little sweetness, mild provolone and fries with some handcut character. This burger had all that, even if I never figured out what Sicilian mayonnaise is.

A New York steak with Gorgonzola cheese ($32) came close to a higher calling at Soleil, but a hard rind of gristled fat left along the edge of the petite strip made every bite seem tough. Without the rind, the texture was fine, cooked shy of mid-rare, just like we ordered, with a generous amount of smooth Gorgonzola that would have benefited from a touch of heat to make it more malleable and to awaken the flavor (ours had a piece of the foil wrapper left in). The steak sauce had a strong dried chile flavor the menu didn't mention, but I was fine with that, blended as it was with the sweetness and texture of dried figs.

Our experience had rough edges. The waiter offered no preamble or introduction to the restaurant, just an immediate call for drink orders. I wish we'd been offered bread for the table, and through the dinner, we had to lift our dirty side plates as offerings, because they didn't seem to be going anywhere on their own. And a tiramisu dessert was a waste of $9 for a cube of fluff with the taste of neither cocoa nor coffee.

So far, Soleil seems too pricey to be casual, too unpolished to be taken seriously as fine dining. Maybe in that regard it's just right for the lake. But then again, we have Uncle Billy's and the Oasis for that.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Soleil

6550 Comanche Trail. 266-0600, www.soleilaustin.com .

Rating:First Impressions reports don't carry ratings. We'll assign a star rating after a more thorough review.

Hours:11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Prices:Antipasti $8-$16. Soups and salads $6-$16. Pasta $9-$22. Burgers and sandwiches $12-$13. Pizza $8-$15. Main courses $9-$32. Desserts $7-$9.

Payment:All major cards

Alcohol:Beer, wine and cocktails

Wheelchair access:Yes