Fed Man 55: The Driskill Grill (15)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 15: The Driskill Grill
604 Brazos St. in the Driskill Hotel. 512-391-7059, www.driskillgrill.com.
Hours: 5:30-10pm Tue-Sat. Closed Sun-Mon.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.28.12
Never mind that it was started in the late 1800s as a cattle baron’s playhouse. The Driskill Hotel is a thoroughly modern meeting place now, a lobbying hub for the Legislature, a pickup point for film and food festival credentials, a retreat to hear your daughter’s school choir sing for Christmas. But the imposing row of white columns, the carpeted staircases, the cowboy sculptures and the Texian Gothic architecture will never let you forget you’re part of a timeline here, and tradition will not be denied.
The Driskill Grill is like that, a hotel restaurant bound by tradition to accommodate its host’s one-percenter clientele. But the Driskill kitchen has a more recent reputation for accommodating chefs like David Bull (Congress) and Josh Watkins (the Carillon), both of whom kept the restaurant from becoming a hidebound relic before moving on to progressive Top 20 restaurants of their own. They held open the door for Jonathan Gelman, the chef who’s made the Driskill one of the city’s best steakhouses, whether he meant to or not. The cattle barons would be proud.
But here’s the thing. Gelman and sous chef Skyler Golden will confound the cattle barons’ ghosts by dressing a plate of impossibly red Strube Ranch sirloin with Bordelaise sauce fortified by foie gras, then play the rest like a modern Southern symphony with sweetened black-eyed peas and a puree of cornbread reduced to its vapors. They’ll take a prime ribeye and stack it over jalapeño creamed leeks and horseradish polenta and make the whole thing subtle somehow. And they’ve played it straight with dry-aged filet mignon as tender as a carnivore’s souffle with truffled mashed potatoes and mushroom sauce forestiere. Steaks are part of fully realized plates at the Driskill for the same mid- to high $30s you’d pay for the meat by itself at a specialty steakhouse, and that’s the Driskill Grill’s great strength.
For me, the Driskill has also been a magnet for winemaker meetings. I’ve talked with Caroline Roussy de Sales of Chateau de la Chaize here, as well as Mary Hansen of ArborBrook. In the Driskill Bar, I explored port pairings with Peter Scott of Premium Port (Graham’s, Dow’s) by experimenting with patés, chorizo-stuffed dates and Angus sliders from the bar menu. Wine people are in good company at the Driskill, where the wine list is a walk-through of celebrated bottles from France, Italy, Spain and the U.S., with a representation of specialty wines from Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and others. Among my favorites was a bottle of Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Granges cabernet franc in the $40s, with the crazy cola and incense flavors of that Bordeaux outrider. The Driskill pours more than 25 wines by the glass, starting at $9 and splurging to the mid-$20s.
I’ve had impressive openers at the Driskill Grill, like a soup with the wine-and-cheese panache of brie, pears, walnuts and port and a lobster bisque made even more seaworthy by lump crab on a raft of brioche. But I stumbled over a charcuterie board that presented more like a party plate of cold cuts and pickles. And a poke-style presentation of hamachi was wildly out of balance, with a sesame-citrus scorched-earth glaze that flamethrowered the poor fish. I wanted to use the little sidecar of yuzu lemonade to put out the fire.
But the Driskill also turned out one of the best plates of food I’ve eaten for this series: lamb chops with elegant bones attached like speed shifters to powerful cuts of Ferrari-red Colorado lamb, served with crab-stuffed squash blossoms and goat-cheese risotto with a pearled al dente bite ($38). I like my steakhouse traditions as much as the next guy, but there’s nothing to do after that but finish with a drop-the-mic dessert from the agile pantry of Tony Sansalone: a scoop of dark chocolate cherry ice cream and a chocolate chip cookie.
(TOP: Dry-aged filet mignon and a bottle of cabernet franc from the Driskill Grill. INSET: Lamb chops with goat-cheese risotto and a dessert of chocolate-caramel crunch. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants