I want to report on one of my new Austin-area favorites: Back Stage Steakhouse on Highway 71 in Spicewood (just west of Bee Cave), a great place with knowledgeable, friendly service and inventive, well-conceived, and perfectly-prepared food.
On my first visit, I had the blond shrimp-and-sausage gumbo, which had a complex, light-roux-based broth; fresh, large shrimp; and good sausage. I also sampled the excellent spinach salad, which came with pears poached in red wine and a fried square of walnut-encrusted goat cheese. The spinach was perfectly dressed with their own house-made red-wine and raspberry vinaigrette--That is, it was pre-tossed with just enough dressing to lightly coat each leaf, just like salads are supposed to be. Our table also split a corn-cake appetizer: a jalapeño-flecked cornmeal cake of about the thickness of a pancake, topped with a mound of crumbled gorgonzola cheese mixed with fresh crawfish. The rich crawfish-and-cheese was a good foil for the spicy cake. For a main course, I had the special of pan-seared pork tenderloin served on a mound of whipped, subtly garlicky mashed potatoes with a cream-corn reduction sauce and meaty hedgehog mushrooms. The potatoes were so smooth, they must have been put through a ricer; the high-quality pork tenderloin was moist and flavorful. I requested a side of the vegetable of the day, in this case long, thin green beans that had been crisp-sautéed in olive oil with just the right amount of garlic and black pepper. My dining companion tried the porterhouse steak. It wasnt a huge steak, but it had good flavor and was char-grilled to order (especially noteworthy since steak often comes under-cooked at other places in town). The only mildly disappointing thing about this choice was the loaded baked potato on the side--it was just good, not excellent. Thats how high the bar was that night. The desserts on this visit were not bad, but not outstanding. Crème brûlée cooked in a deep bowl-like dish misses the point: Since the best part of this dessert is the burnt-sugar glaze, a less-deep ramekin allows for a bite of the caramelized top with every bite of custard. Several places in Austin do the deep-dish version--and claim that theirs is the best in town. But, custard desserts can taste like baby food if not perfectly prepared. The bourbon-chocolate and pecan pie was just good.
On the next visit, with my parents in tow, I ordered that satisfying spinach salad again. We also tried an appetizer of fried oysters. The fresh oysters were cleanly fried, with just a light dusting of flour and cornmeal, and practically greaseless. I ordered pork again instead of steak. The special that night was pork tenderloin with green-tomatillo salsa served on top of a quesadilla filled with shrimp, poblano peppers, and asadero cheese. This was all layered over a mound of delicious mashed potatoes, which may have been flavored with a sweet-onion confit that night. I almost didnt order this dish because I was afraid of the quesadilla part of the combo. But, it was the best part of the dish. They make their own corn tortillas, which were tasty and crisply fried. (I noticed they offer an appetizer of quesadillas with grilled beef tenderloin: I have to try them next time.) Thanks to the use of very fresh, flavorful ingredients, the tomatillo-based spicy salsa, which is also made in house, was superb. The rest of the group ordered salmon, sea bass, and apricot-stuffed chicken, and everyone enjoyed their meals, though I think the special was the most creative of the bunch. For dessert, the way to go is with the chocolate. My folks split a dense chocolate dessert that I believe came with a pastry crust like a pie. They enjoyed it. A friend ordered the coconut pie and liked it. I ordered a dessert that looked like a round of chocolate devils food cake, generously frosted on the top and between the layers. It was absolutely rich, moist, and decadent. I stayed in a chocolate stupor for about 30 minutes afterwards. A lot of restaurants in town aspire to the inventive Southwestern cuisine served at Back Stage, but they can't all pull it off. Given the great service, unique wine list (which our favorite server, Bill, knows a lot about), and the top-notch food, Ill be heading that way again very soon.
In mid-February, I took visitors to Austin Land & Cattle. This is not Texas Land & Cattle, the chain, but an independent place on Lamar. I remember that the porterhouse was a great cut of meat. It was two-inches thick, well marbled, and very juicy. I wish Id ordered it; my rib-eye was much less appealing. An appetizer of beer-battered fried mushrooms and the sides of loaded baked potatoes were very good versions of the usual steakhouse basics. We also had an appetizer of grilled poblano peppers stuffed with goat cheese that was well executed though not very exciting. However, the salads, the salmon entree, the plain steamed vegetables on the side, and especially the desserts were sub-par. The steaks were significantly underdone, rather than cooked to specification, which almost ruined even the excellent porterhouse. And, the service was of the enthusiastically uninformed, obtrusive variety. For me, this is unacceptable in general, let alone at those prices. There are far too many places in town that do only one or two things well. Back Stage is one of the rare local restaurants that has depth.