Dining Picks

Where to eat in Austin right now: Best restaurants for celebrating special occasions

Where to eat in Austin right now: Celebrating special occasions

Austin Photo Set: News_Jessica dupuy_fine dining_jan 2012_congress dining room
Congress dining room. Photo by Casey Dunn
Austin Photo Set: News_Adrienne Breaux_Joel Mozersky_Nov 2011_uchi
Uchi Courtesy of Uchi
Dining room of Jeffrey's restaurant in Austin
Jeffrey's dining room. Photo by Casey Dunn
Austin Photo Set: News_Beth_Lenoir Austin_june 2012_1
Austin Photo Set: News_Jessica dupuy_fine dining_jan 2012_congress dining room
Austin Photo Set: News_Adrienne Breaux_Joel Mozersky_Nov 2011_uchi
Dining room of Jeffrey's restaurant in Austin

This month, as CultureMap Austin celebrates its second anniversary in the Capital City, we’ve picked a few of our favorite spots for honoring special celebratory occasions. It’s a question we often get asked when someone wants to enjoy a special evening out, and thankfully in Austin there are a number of options.

Our top picks include: Congress, Jeffrey’s, Lenoir and Uchi. (Very honorable mentions go to The Carillon, Fonda San Miguel, Trio, Uchiko and Wink.)

Congress
In this immaculately outfitted dining room, it’s hard to decide which is more impressive, the simple-yet-elegant décor, the meticulously crafted food or the kid-glove service. In the kitchen, David Bull designs seven-course meals ideal for anniversary occasions with everything from Wagyu beef tongue pastrami with pickled cabbage and fried Rye bread to delicate cheese agnolotti pasta studded with morel mushrooms in a rich tomato Provençal sauce.

What elevates the flavorful experience is the service, which is friendly and approachable, and also manages to anticipate your every need. (Perfect for an evening when you don’t want to have to worry about a thing.) And if you’re going for the seven courses, splurge on the wine pairings for the added 60 bucks. Sommelier Paula Rester flawlessly matches each dish with an array of old and new world wines, allowing you to bypass navigating the sometimes intimidating wine list. Why worry with it, when you can let the pro do it?

Jeffrey’s 
There was a lot of speculation as to whether this old Austin icon could return — after shuttering its doors for a year and gutting everything right down to its studs and ownership — at a level above its former hay day. But it’s clear the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group (with Chef Larry McGuire front and center in the kitchen) had big plans for the latest restaurant venture. People have balked at the mock-yuppie uniform worn by the valets and the exorbitant prices lacing the menu, but a lively smattering of patrons fill the new tastefully designed mid-century modern dining rooms on any given day of the week. (Even on a recent Wednesday visit, the hidden private dining room was booked to capacity.)

Foie gras torchon is all well and good, but the true star of this appetizer is the accompanying pickled blackberries — an adventure in sweet, sour and savory flavors all at once. You’ll find a new spin on the old Jeffrey’s signature crispy oysters, but it’s sadly the one dish that doesn’t measure up to the original. (An habanero vinaigrette left the parsnip chips soggy and chewy.) A vibrant salad of golden beets, chopped pears, endive, blue cheese and walnuts is a must.

While steak lovers will find a variety of cuts, styles and prices of meat to choose from (almost a dozen), it’s wise not to overlook the other entrée options as well. A spicy Thai chili version of lobster thermidor is a decadent choice, but steamed halibut over a shishito pepper yogurt with sweet corn broth is a light and refreshing option. Indeed the new Jeffrey’s is special. Sure, the prices are steep and the valets really do look ridiculous, but for the quality of the service, food and overall experience you’re getting, it’s a safe bet for celebrating a special occasion.

Lenoir 
Lenoir balances being a place you could dine on any given day of the week or save for a particular time to celebrate something special. The diminutive menu is well appointed with a playful list of dishes designed by chefs/owners Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher with influences from Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The culinary power couple believe the best way to eat food in Texas is with ingredients that do best in warm climates.

Seasonal dishes such as heirloom tomato salad with tamarind watermelon, basil yogurt and tamarind dressing, or crispy spiced goat terrine with harissa and winter greens are inspired. Whether savory or sweet, from land, field, sea or dream, it’s easy to get lost in the variety of flavors on a special night at this place. Equally appealing about Lenoir is its petite yet approachable wine list with a thoughtful selection of food-friendly wines by the bottle or by the glass available to taste upon request.

Uchi 
There’s something about walking into this 1920s bungalow that makes you feel you’re in a special place. Its sleek and sexy decor brings verve to the snug little dining room, and while you’ll either need a reservation or the patience of Job while you wait in the rock garden for a table, the experience is always vibrant and fun. And the food is even better. After 10 years at this South Lamar locale, chefs Tyson Cole and Philip Speer continue to drive their collaborative culinary team to invent beyond what they thought possible.

Whimsical and unexpected, daily specials and permanent hot and cold selections alike force your senses to pay attention with items such as fresh oyster with summer watermelon; red sea bream with coconut; or the old standby “machi cure,” with smoked yellowtail, Marcona almonds, golden raisins and crispy yucca chips. Each dish is a new topic of discussion. And then there’s the service. Despite its tiny kitchen, the fluidity by which the staff disperses an infinite number of orders is both streamlined and effortless. Even if you’re not the type to indulge a sweet tooth, be sure to save room for dessert. You won’t regret it.