Best New Restaurants Not Far From Campus

Austin’s always offered solid steaks and even better Tex-Mex, but in the past few years it’s become a city altogether more worldly and gourmet. Whether you’re a current student celebrating your graduation or you’re an alum back in town for an event, here are the most innovative and luxurious new restaurants you should open your wallet and try.

 

The Carillon

1900 University Ave.

The term “conference center” tends not to evoke images of fine dining. More like “PowerPoint presentations” or “meetings.” But the Carillon—with executive chef Josh Watkins, of Driskill Grill fame—defies expectations. The dining room is cavernous, with an arched high ceiling and wrought-iron chandeliers, and perhaps because relatively few people have found this hidden gem tucked away inside the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, it was nearly empty during our visit. The three-course fixed price menu is $29 if you arrive before 6:30, and $42 after—a relative steal. Choose two appetizers and an entrée or an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, and don’t fear getting the miniature portions some fancy restaurants serve: sizes are very generous. The pork belly with pear and mint was our favorite dish, but the desserts were especially creative, from spruced-up bread pudding to citrus beignets. —Rose Cahalan

 

Congress

200 Congress Ave.; Tues.-Thurs., 6–10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 6–11 p.m.

A wine list is usually a pretty good indicator of a restaurant’s quality. The one at Congress includes 21 pages, its own table of contents, and a whole section for Southern Hemisphere whites. Chef David Bull’s latest effort sits in a cozy, chandeliered room at the bottom of the Austonian luxury-condo building. Dining options are exclusively prix-fixe; choose between three- and seven-course chef’s tasting menus. Start with the pleasantly daring Hamachi sashimi with turnips, grapefruit, and avocado puree. For round two, try the potato gnocchi with braised oxtail and poached quail egg. The pecan-crusted salmon comes with the peas of a lifetime (the kitchen removes the skin from each one). Last, the grapefruit sorbet is topped with whipped honey, and—get this—Pop Rocks! Whatever you do, ask for the fried sweet potato beignets, served with ice cream and pecan brittle. If you have to, beg. —Tim Taliaferro


El Arbol

3411 Glenview Ave.; Tue.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sun. 5-10:30 p.m.

As brutal as Texas summer days may be, the evenings are silk. Where better to enjoy them than on a patio? And what better patio than a lantern-lit, triple-level penthouse of a treehouse built around a graceful live oak? El Arbol awes you with just that, and then it settles you in for the food. The South American influences emerge early, with dishes like ceviche and most menu items named en español. There’s an entire section for empanadas, but be warned that they may come out dry. Try instead the chargrilled octopus to start—softer than squid and blackened nicely. From there, choose between comfort foods (steaks, ribs, gnocchi, and a dessert inspired by a PB&J) and adventure-bites (grilled beef heart). Losing is not impossible, but it’s difficult. You’re still on that patio. —Lynn Freehill


Uchiko

4200 N. Lamar Blvd.; Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m.

From the minute your server politely insists you grab the sushi bites with your fingers and flip them fish-side down on your tongue, you know Uchiko will be an atypical dining experience. If this is the little sister of Austin’s standout Uchi restaurant, think of it as the more creative, rebellious younger child. Its sushi crosses continents—to sample the mackerel on rice topped with basil, olive oil, and a truffle shaving, for instance, is to experience Japan by way of Italy. Don’t hold off on desserts, or even the less-sweet dessert preludes. A dish called “berries on dirt” involves Texas strawberries atop foie gras mousse, with fried pumpernickel breadcrumbs in between for texture; it registers in the mouth like strawberry shortcake gone creamy, crunchy, and earthy. Cool finishes like tomato sorbet or tobacco cream are pleasurable surprises, too. Your credit card may require a large swipe by the end—those bite-at-a-time “small plates” add up quickly—but you’ll wish the flavor party could keep going. —Lynn Freehill

 

Vince Young Steakhouse

301 San Jacinto Blvd.; Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m.

Opened to much fanfare in 2010, in what was previously the Real World: Austin house, the Vince Young Steakhouse follows the age-old tradition of athletes lending their fame to restaurants. And while big fame doesn’t necessarily mean big taste, Vince has put his money where our mouths are. Cocktail drinkers should start off with the inVINCEable, Vince’s version of a margarita, that features Patron Silver, Patron Citrouge, agave nectar, fresh lime, and a citrus-salted rim. My server said the restaurant boasts “the best filet in town,” owing to its being cooked on a gas grill as opposed to a cast-iron skillet. Mine emerged juicy, tender, and perfectly medium-rare, but best in town is a stretch. Be sure to share sides—the bacon mac and cheese could feed seven, and the mountain of French fries comes with delicious homemade ketchup. Finish up with the decadent Chocolate Peanut Butter Tower. It stands tall and leaves you satisfied, kind of like that big photo of Vince. —Tim Taliaferro

 

 

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