We took full advantage of Austin Restaurant Week. It’s a great concept and let us eat in more nice restaurants in two weeks than we generally eat at in one month. Below are our experiences.
Mansion at Judge’s Hill – I had only eaten here once previously, and it was not a good experience (slow service, then rushing us because we were “taking so long”, etc). This evening everything was top notch. The evening got off to a bumpy start when I discovered (despite the bartender telling me it was fine) that you could not, in fact, park in their garage. Charming service and excellent food quickly changed my mood. Service was excellent – friendly, but not overly familiar, and extremely competent. I selected the $25 menu of butternut squash soup, beef medallions with three sauces, and a chocolate soufflé. It was an excellent value for the money. Both the appetizer and the dessert coursers were outstanding. The beef was slightly less tender than I like, but the sauces were very tasty. We ordered the $20 wine pairings, all of which were exceptional, and in my opinion, a cut above the standard wine pairing restaurants usually provide. I prefer a slightly less sweet dessert wine with something as rich as the soufflé, and drank my friend’s pinot noir instead of the sauternes. That is just a matter of preference, though. We will definitely be back.
Starlite – The one huge disappointment of the week. Starlite has been one of my favorite restaurants for years, and I have been a regular customer since it opened in the 34th Street location. They could always be counted on for exceptional quality food. I was worried when I called and was informed that the restaurant is half bistro, half fine dining. It sounded like a last gasp at profitability to me, but given my history with the restaurant, I reserved judgment. My fears were not unfounded. Service was painfully slow. We got our appetizers before we received our bottle of wine, which we’d ordered at least 10 minutes before we placed our food order. It was clear the restaurant was understaffed, a condition for which I blame management. Despite what was published on the Restaurant Week website, Starlite did not have a special menu. Diners instead received half-portions of any appetizer, salad/second course and entrée they selected. As their portions have gotten quite large over time, I thought that was fine. I did not take appropriate notes on this meal, but the fact I can remember an earlier meal at Mansion at Judge’s Hill in great detail but not tells me a lot. My husband’s salad dressing was very bitter. I had the Hudson Valley foie gras as a second course, which was burnt. All I could taste of the poor, tiny piece of foie gras was ash. There was no flavor and no fat. I had the fish filet (Dover sole, I believe) as a main, which was extremely bland. This was not the level of cuisine or service I am used to from Starlite. I nearly had to tackle the waiter to get our check after waiting for more than 15 minutes for anyone to so much as look in our direction. About a month ago we had a very mediocre meal there, but I chalked it off to an off night. In today’s economy, I can’t afford to give a restaurant that costs this much more than two chances for success. As much as it pains me to say this (and it does), Starlite is officially off of our fine dining list.
Parkside – Parkside is one of our very favorite restaurants these days. They had an excellent Restaurant Week menu. I had the raw tasting, which included bay scallops, salmon and bass. I am a huge fan of their raw bar, and this was excellent as always. One of my dining companions had the charcuterie plate, which included two types of creamy pate and a country mushroom pate. If I’d known the blonde pate came with this dish, I might’ve changed my order. Outstanding. The two other diners in my party had the calamari, which was very good as well. For entrees, two of us had the redfish with grilled cauliflower and wine soaked raisins. Since we always order multiple small plates, this was my first try at an entrée. I liked the fish a lot, but the other two in our party ordered the bar steak with fries. One bite of their bar steak induced entrée envy in me. I enjoyed the entrees, but will probably stick to our usual plan of ordering small plates to share in the future. The restaurant let you pick any of their fabulous desserts as part of the menu. We had two orders to doughnut holes, a Mississippi mud (an excellent suggestion from the server), and the sorbet trio. I adore their desserts, and my companions were extremely pleased with the meal. They also offered a $20 wine pairing of excellent wines.
Aquarelle – I had not been to Aquarelle in some time (except for a visit to the wine bar in September), but have always had wonderful special occasion meals here. I was pleased to see the same staff of three servers manning the dining room. I knew the service would be flawless, and they did not disappoint. While we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu, we also added a few things in honor of my upcoming birthday - foie gras! We started with the Trilogy of Foie Gras. For the money (around $26), the portions were substantial and unbelievably good. The trilogy was a seared foie gras, perfectly prepared, a foie gras ice cream, which was delicious, and my favorite, the imaginative foie gras crème brulee. Even my husband, who doesn’t care much for foie gras, was wowed by how perfectly the creaminess of the foie gras worked with the concept of a crème brulee. Genius. For starters, I had the warm green pea soup, a delicate veloute with chive cream and prosciutto. My husband had the crumbled goat cheese salad. Both were very good. For entrees, we had the seared scallops with garlic cream sauce and chili oil. These were perfectly prepared. They were seared on the outside and tender on the inside. The accompanying sauce was delicious. We had the profiteroles for dessert, and these were a disappointment. The ice cream was fine but nothing remarkable. The pastry, however, was tough. I mean so tough you needed a knife to cut it, like it must be a week old. In a meal so expertly prepared, it was just odd, and I’ve read criticisms of their profiteroles before. So we ordered the delightful "foie gras island" with foie gras ice cream floating in moscato to make up for it. We washed everything down with an excellent bottle of Sancerre wine. Despite the slight misstep with the profiteroles, we couldn’t have been happier with the meal and the service.
After taking full advantage of this year’s Restaurant Week, I certainly hope it is something the restaurants continue to do next year.