What's New in Austin Dining?

There has been more than a little media attention paid to Austin's food scene recently, which goes hand in hand with its far more established music scene and the downtown nightlife.
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There has been more than a little media attention paid to Austin's food scene recently, which goes hand in hand with its far more established music scene, and the downtown nightlife along Sixth Street has managed to buoy the city's official slogan, "The Live Music Capital of the World," as well as its self-absorbed mantra, "Keep Austin Weird."

Here are some of the new food spots getting well-deserved attention.

CLARK'S OYSTER BAR, 1200 W 6th Street, 512-297-2525
(Photo by Casey Dunn)

I was a big fan of Perla's, Larry McGuire's and Thomas Moorman's seafood restaurant, which hit all the right marks for freshness, simple cooking, color and casual appeal when it opened three years ago. So I was happy when the same duo debuted the smaller, even cozier, Clark's in West Austin.

There is of course an oyster bar on the premises, made of marble and pecan, within a long slip of a bright white room with tree-shaded outdoor tables, too. On any given day there might be a dozen species of the bivalves, served with horseradish, cocktail sauce, mignonette, Saltines and lemon. The bar also offers fresh-as-morning shrimp or crab Louie, with a crisp Iceberg lettuce salad and a big and beautiful plateau of shellfish -- oysters, clams, prawns, mussels, and crab -- along with a selection of overpriced domestic and European caviar.

Even far from New England, I can never resist a lobster roll, and Clark's is a good one -- with plenty of lobster, served with cole slaw, pickles and a heap of crisp french fries. There's even a velvety New England clam chowder here, and San Francisco cioppino comes heaped with fish and garlic toast.

This is a cunning place; the staff is exceptionally friendly without being palsy, so you know they'll coax you into a little dessert. Go for the s'mores bread pudding or the maple bourbon pot de crème, better than any you had as a child. Austin can get hot and humid in summer, but on a twilighted evening, with a cold longneck or bottle of Chablis on ice, there are few nicer places to eat in town right now.

Clark's is open for lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner nightly, brunch on Sat. & Sun; Appetizers run $4-$21, main courses $21-$32.

JEFFREY'S, 1204 W Lynn Street, 512-477-5584

Jeffrey's has long been one of Austin's institutions, and like most institutions it needed a complete facelift and a refreshed menu, which it has received from the same McGuire and Moorman who own Clark's above.

Now the place is warmly lighted, the bar intact but swankier, the artwork a fine mix of western motifs and abstracts, and there is an impressive wine cache room where you can hold an intimate private party. The wine list itself is probably the best in town, though prices are formidable by the glass.

Indeed, Jeffrey's prices for a lot of things are as high on the hog as you can go in Austin, with 50 grams of Israeli caviar at $240, a pan-seared veal ribeye running $56, and a 16-ounce bone-in strip for $70. Jeffrey's is using very good prime beef, but the price discrepancy stands out by comparison.

For starters there's seared fresh foie gras on french toast with roasted pineapple and a fennel salad. Lobster on blini with crème fraîche gained nothing from a dab of bland caviar. Blue crab cake was all big, sweet lump crabmeat, not too firmly packed, and served with corn, tomatoes, Serrano chile, wild arugula, and -- gilding the whole thing -- a marvelously rich Béarnaise sauce. Texas Akaushi (wagyu-style) beef was chopped into a robust tartare, with a quail egg, capers and Parmesan chops but the addition of tasteless summer truffles was an ill-advised afterthought.

I applauded the excellent, firm-fleshed, oven-roasted halibut with oxtail ravioli, shishito yogurt, baby artichokes and a stew of summer vegetables that just skirted being too much of a good thing. Lobster Thermidor is a dish you rarely see anymore, and Jeffrey's version does nothing to demand its return: though piled up with spinach, Mornay sauce, breadcrumbs, lemon and Thai chili butter and sautéed escarole, the lobster hadn't the flavor to carry all that was heaped upon it.

The selection of steaks and cuts -- some with side dishes -- is vast, from eight to 16 ounces of Texas Akaushi ribeye to Niman Ranch and Branch Family West Texas dry-aged beef. Despite its price, I thoroughly enjoyed the beefy, mineral flavor and yielding texture of the strip steak, aged for 28 days. Though a ribeye, also aged that long, curiously lacked fat flavor, despite its being a more marbleized cut.

Accompaniments include nicely rendered baked orechiette pasta and melted cheese with charred scallions and breadcrumbs, and excellent wood-roasted radicchio and endive drizzled with a little caramel -- a great idea. Yukon gold pureed potatoes needed enrichment with butter.

I'm very glad Jeffrey's has been brought back to life. Austin deserves a place for the big splurge, and now it looks and tastes a lot more like 2014.

Jeffrey's is open for dinner nightly; Appetizers $6-$24, main courses $38-$75.

QUI, 1600 East Sixth Street, 512-436-9626

There's been a great deal of ballyhoo in Austin about Paul Qui winning top honors in the ninth season of Top Chef, that egregiously awful torture chamber of a TV show in which contestants are asked to perform idiotic culinary tricks that bear no resemblance whatsoever to what actually goes on in a restaurant kitchen. Nonetheless, Qui, formerly at Austin's finest sushi restaurant, Uchiko, was the winner, so applause is due, as well for him being honored by the James Beard Foundation as Best Chef in the Southwest in 2012.

But the expectations for his restaurant were such that Austinites and the media stormed the place from the day it opened and the crowds have not dissipated -- which is annoying, because Qui takes only "limited reservations."

The premises are handsome -- all wood and stainless steel, so the sound of casually-but-well-dressed people screaming to be heard is hardly enhanced by the throbbing of the playlist here. Everything here is handcrafted, from serving surfaces to multi-colored knives. And, of course, there are a lot of tattoos on the kitchen staff.

On Qui's website he pronounces his restaurant like "nothing else in the world." I was, then, prepared for some very special food, but, sadly, after seven courses, my primary reaction was that I was very hungry. Qui's cuisine is extremely light on fats, without compensation from other sources. So, although much of what I tasted was enjoyable -- chawanmushi ribbon fish with hash brown, ham and egg custard and chanterelle -- the flavors were so subtle that they became refined to the point of blandness. Qui seems so hesitant to add more than a tweezer-ful of an ingredient that they don't really register in a dish like his sunomono of lemon cucumber, sea weed, dill and Parmesan water (this last a ridiculous conceit).

Rabbit seven ways didn't add up to much -- and it was one tiny rabbit -- and after six courses, my friend and I were literally discussing going to Austin's best pizzeria, The Backspace, after dinner, when a delicious butcher's cut of beef shank arrived and made a decent dent in our appetite.

Assuming you can get a table, you can have a pleasant time at Qui à la carte, though it's tough to imagine doing so to the point of satiety.

Qui is open Mon.-Sat. for dinner; Small plates $8-$18, large plates $18-$46.

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