Steakhouse Series: III Forks, Perry’s, Trio

 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.13.11
 
If the new Wendy’s commercial with the skinny kid in a thrift-shop “Where’s the Beef?” T-shirt strikes a chord, it’s because the commercial was shot along South Congress, asking a question we never have trouble answering in cattle country.
 
Quick, name three steakhouses in downtown Austin. I can name three times that many in a blink: Ruth’s Chris, Perry’s, Trio, Sullivan’s, Fleming’s, Vince Young, McCormick & Schmick’s, Finn & Porter, Fogo de Chao, even the Driskill Grill. All within walking distance of each other. The beef is everywhere.
 
But a good steakhouse is an expensive proposition. There’s no getting around the main ingredient: beef measured by the pound. It’s not like a chef can make magic with whatever’s on hand. And right now, the best beef is at a premium. So during Austin Restaurant Week earlier this month, I checked in on four steakhouses with the idea of translating that week’s three-course dinner deal into a broader experience. Today I’ll look at III Forks, Perry’s and Trio at the Four Seasons, each part of a well-funded regional or national operation. On Sunday, I’ll highlight the local Austin Land & Cattle Co.
 
 
III Forks
111 Lavaca St. 474-1776, www.iiiforks.com.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursdays. 5 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
 
III Forks is a dark hunters’ den, a well-appointed lodge with light fixtures assembled from antlers and leather-backed chairs with brass studs. I thought about Valentine’s Day this year, when a car crashed into the front of the restaurant. The staff and construction crews rallied and pulled off dinner service that night anyway. Impressive.
 
The white-jacketed waiters in black bowties stay in constant motion, with a consistent and rehearsed script of favorites and upsells: a 16-ounce bone-in filet for north of $50, bacon-wrapped scallops, a III Forks salad, a filet and lobster combo. Jazz in the background bordered on nerve-rattling, the kind of music that commands its best attention live rather than as part of a recorded atmospheric fiction.
 
At the table, bread isn’t sliced but rather cracked by hand inside a white linen towel. Every bite is like the collar of your favorite pizza. I thought a 187ml split of Mumm Napa sparkling wine was a good deal at $10, part of a voluminous wine list that includes more than 30 by the glass.
 
An opener of wedge salad ($8.75) brought a blue cheese dressing so thick you’d have to call its something more permanent than dressing, with a bite of blue cheese in even the most tentative forkful. It cloaked a wedge of iceberg with too many of the bitter green outer leaves left on. The bacon was hardly incidental or ornamental; the same can be said for a slice of tomato cut from the heart of a beefsteak red tomato, like a primal chop. Salad and bread alone could stand in for lunch.
 
When I asked for my 6-ounce filet to be cooked rare, my waiter asked if I’d prefer the center warm or cold, a proper steakhouse question I’ve only been asked at III Forks. Warm is the civilized option, and it arrived in vermilion majesty, so tall and tenderly grained it collapsed almost to the plate with the downward pressure of a knife that for all its wood-handled heft could have been sharper. I know a bacon wrapper is de rigueur for a small filet like this, but I’m saturated with bacon by now, happy for beef just to be beef without its cured barnyard buddy moving in for the steal.
 
The plate drew color and composition from sinewy stalks of blanched green broccolini and mashed potatoes with salty brown mushroom gravy. At III Forks, the price of a steak is tempered by the fact that every plate comes with vegetables and starch, along with tomatoes and spring onions from roving trays. The full plate introduces value into an equation that might start with an 8-ounce filet for $38 or a 16-ounce strip for $46. Considering that a pound of prime-grade strip goes for about $28 a pound and up at the grocery store, adding another $18 for cooking it, adding bread and butter and sides and cleaning up afterward seems acceptable in this nice room.
 
By the time dessert came, I was ready for just a bite and a box, but one bite turned into another through a soft chocolate cake with a smart edge of toasted coconut, and a bite was all that was left.
 
Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille
114 W. Seventh St. 474-6300, www.perryssteakhouse.com.
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday. 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
 
Perry’s is what happens when a family of Houston butchers decides to take its show on the road. It’s not just a steakhouse, it’s a point to prove. And just a few blocks from the Capitol, the only thing smaller than life is a bas relief of the Capitol near the bathrooms. And you’ve never seen meat travel through a restaurant until you’ve seen a waiter’s tray stacked with four of Perry’s monster pork chops at a time. Those four-bone roasts, which weigh 28 to 34 ounces apiece, are the best carnivoral deal in town at $30.
 
The wedge salad ($7.95) is surely chopped from an iceberg species re-animated from Jurassic lettuce. It’s a simple expression of the steakhouse form: cherry tomatoes, onions, green onions, crumbles of blue cheese if you ask — scaled to Houstonian proportions. Perry’s is a study in proportions, with towering ceilings, light fixtures with stegosaurus blades reaching for the sky, a padded staircase spiraling to a balcony with a view of an enormous glassed-in wine wall.
 
The main room reminded me of “Goodfellas,” the scene where they carry a table across the room, put it down and turn on a lamp just for Ray Liotta. I pictured them doing that for me as I waited in the lounge, a loud room suitable for a drink but with hardly a third of the steakhouse elan of the main theater. I’m glad I chose to play the big room rather than the dollhouse booths of the lounge.
 
There’s no way to say this that isn’t embarrassing, but Perry’s wine list runs a little high for my expense account. From only a handful of wines at less than $10 a glass, I picked a loose and hot, green-pepper glass of Coppola zinfandel and had to live with it, wishing I’d had better options. For example: a glass of Zonin prosecco from Italy that’s $6 a glass at Fabi and Rosi is $11 here, and there’s no reason it should be.
 
I ordered an 8-ounce Filet Perry ($39.95) rare, and my wish was granted in bright red style. The only thing missing was the kind of high-temperature sear that forms a crust. But the steak was full of flavor and texture beyond its civilized pedigree, decorated with opaque ornaments of lump crab the size of pearl onions, the dish supported by beams of asparagus.
 
Dessert was a trio of small bites tailored to the richness of the steakhouse experience: praline cheesecake that brought a candy-counter twist, like the pastry chef had dashed into Lammes Candies before work, a dense chocolate truffle with the orange glimmer of Gran Marnier and a poorly set vanilla creme brulee with as much sugar crust as custard.
 
 
Trio
98 San Jacinto Blvd. in the Four Seasons Hotel. 685-8300, www.trioaustin.com.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday. 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday. 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
 
A conversation about the steakhouse inside the Four Seasons Hotel might as well start with wine. During Trio’s happy hour (5 to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday), wines by the glass are half-price in the wine bar, separated from the main room only by tall tables and a wealth of opportunity.
 
A conversation with sommelier and host Mark Sayre (who doesn’t know me) veered through Texas grape varietals, the efforts of Texas winemaker Kim McPherson on the High Plains and Sayre’s discovery of a French Macon Chaintre chardonnay from Dominique Cornin during a low-expectation first stop on a Burgundian tour. With lean expressions of pear and honeydew, it was $6 during happy hour.
 
I asked for tastes of two Texas wines, because asking for a taste is something you can do at Trio, if you’re all right with starting a dialogue about wine (and you know you are). Tranquilo is a blend of viognier, chenin and roussanne made in Lubbock, with sweetness in waves, a wine that with a little effervescence could be Spanish txakoli. I also tried an aglianico from the Hill Country’s Duchman Winery that was young and sharp and wouldn’t have the backbone to keep up with the smoked ribeye I’d ordered. So I took the happy hour half-price break on an $18 glass of Chateau Bernadotte Bordeaux, with some earth and wind to go with that smoky fire.
 
Sayre has the presence of a professor whose class you’d fight to be a part of even if it didn’t involve catching a buzz. He’s become as big a part of Trio’s identity as executive chef Elmar Prambs and chef de cuisine Todd Duplechan, who was working his final shifts before leaving to start a place of his own called Lenoir.
 
A trio of wedge salads ($9) was less elegantly composed than I remembered, crowded together in a bowl where flavors migrated and hard-fried onions covered each of the three styles: crumbled blue cheese, a sweet smoked onion dressing and an herb dressing with a glycerin texture and no dominant herb presence, but rather an all-purpose green dressing. In Trio’s early days, the wedge trio arrived on a rectangular plate, each wedge its own island of careful composition.
 
A popover fresh from the oven was like a real estate agent’s trick, its home-baked aura making me think that yes, I would like to buy this place, this burnt-orange space with its Mediterranean terrace and a view of the lake.
 
The steak — a smoked ribeye I’d put in the 12- to 16-ounce range that I didn’t see on the regular menu; its closest counterpart is in the mid-$30s — started with a slow smoke that built to a rustic leather character like the way you’d imagine those little cigars from “High Plains Drifter” taste. On a steak like this, sauce is beside the point, but Trio sent delicious distractions anyway: a lemon-tarragon bearnaise, an oily herbal and garlic chimichurri and a white-wine incarnation of classic steak sauce. Dinner was rounded out by a baking dish of luscious mac and cheese and firm stalks of broccolini.
 
Even in the wine bar, service was a Four Seasons blend of personal and formal, with plates and flatware flying in and out like stagecraft. A case in point: At a tall table, I dropped my billfold. Knee surgery has made bending down a comedy of contortions. My waitress retrieved it for me without a fuss.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)