Monday, August 15, 2011

Washington Social Diary

It may be Austin but it's still Texas.
by Carol Joynt

Austin is in the news almost daily. One of the city’s more notable residents, Governor Rick Perry, just announced he’s a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and quickly shot up in the pack of GOP candidates. He didn’t score in the Iowa straw poll because he didn’t enter that race. Last weekend he led a Christian rally in Houston, a day of prayer and fasting, where on behalf of America he read from scripture and asked for the Lord’s help in solving the nation’s problems. “We cry out for your forgiveness,” he said. Austin is in the news, too, because like much of Texas it has been hit with record heat and drought, more than a month of triple digit temperatures.

Regardless of politics or weather I just spent several days there and came away impressed with the city, the people and even the heat (because it was dry), and can’t get Austin off my mind. At the risk of sounding like I’m on the take from the Chamber of Commerce, my advice is put Austin at the top of the list if you’re looking for a new city to explore. You may decide to call it home.
The Austin Hills, terrain that is reminiscent of Santa Barbara or the hills above Malibu.
First of all, it’s easy to get there. The international airport, the former Bergstrom Air Force Base, services many of the major airlines, especially American, United, USAirways and Southwest, with nonstops from all the major cities.

Austin has many good hotels. I recommend The Four Seasons. It represents this luxury chain at its best; quiet quality, and a hub both for travelers and locals, especially in the large and relaxing lobby lounge, the downstairs Trio restaurant and poolside. It’s ideally situated on Lake Lady Bird, near the big office towers, not far from the Capitol building, the 6th Street nightlife, many restaurants, plus an excellent running path just outside the back door.
Looking down San Jacinto Boulevard to the Four Seasons Hotel. To the right are the new Four Seasons Residences.
A colorful "longhorn" welcome to the Four Seasons in Austin.
Inside the lobby, "The First Flag of the Republic," designed 1836 by Lorenza de Zavala, native of Spain who became a Texan.
The Four Seasons classic and elegant lobby.
Also in the lobby, a bit of Texas style. For cooler days, the lobby fireplace.
Over the mantle, "Lone Tree" by Carroll Collier.
Room 937 at the Four Seasons. The lobby lounge is large, comfortable and welcoming.
Longhorns are ubiquitous in Austin, even in the lobby at the Four Seasons.
Austin, and Lady Bird Lake, viewed from room 937 at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Looking in the other direction from Room 937 toward the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.
Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.
The famous Austin bats live under the Ann Richards Bridge ("the bat bridge") and typically come out at sunset. At their peak in spring and summer they number more than a million.
There’s a shady lawn and hammocks. And it’s friendly. I point that out because sometimes staff at Four Seasons hotels can come across as haughty and cold. Not here. As with almost every person I met in Texas, the staff at the Austin Four Seasons were smiling, helpful, “can do,” and absent even a trace of attitude. It was refreshing. And I didn’t tell them I was writing a story.

And that pool! When it’s 107 degrees outside, a pool is essential. I liked hanging out poolside in the morning and evening, but especially for breakfast, when the temp was merely 85 degrees. They offer a day-long menu and happily deliver cocktails to you while you float. My favorite was the Skinny Margarita. No relation to the bottled “Real Housewives” version. The secret to this made-to-order “lite” cocktail is Agave Nectar rather than sugar.
Breakfast at the pool. Cocktails poolside, too.
Preparations for an evening wedding on the Four Seasons lawn.
A Texas salute for the wedding album.
One of the many Grackles. They are not shy, or quiet.
The Four Seasons expansive lawn features Adirondack chairs and hammocks.
A running path skirts the Four Seasons and the lake.
Austin has plenty of other recommended hotels. For a lakeside location, the Radisson is next door to The Four Seasons, but at a lower price. The youthful and trendy W Hotel is in one of the city’s most stunning skyscrapers in the heart of the “2nd Street District.”

The venerable Driskill, the city’s oldest operating hotel, has a popular bar and Zagat calls the highly rated Driskill Grill restaurant “the picture of Texas elegance.” For a stylish stay practically on the campus of the University of Texas, try the AT&T Center. While they specialize in meetings and groups, they welcome individual travelers, too; there’s free high-speed wireless throughout the hotel, and a pool and fitness center.

In the mornings I would start out on the running path, get off of it near the Buford Tower, and then walk through downtown, marveling at the juxtaposition of “old” Austin, buildings that date to the 19th century, and “new” Austin, the contemporary architecture represented by the city’s tallest building, the Frost Bank Tower. Up the street, the State Capitol building is one of the prettiest in the nation. A history or architecture buff would find bliss wandering this city.
A National Historic Landmark, the pink granite Texas State Capitol building was completed in 1888 after three years of construction. It is more than 300 feet tall.
Austin architecture is alluring, a combination of Old West and stunning Contemporary. The Frost Bank Tower dominates the Austin skyline and looks like somthing out of "Transformers."
The W Hotel and apartments. A bell tower with a story. Built in 1930 as a fire department training facility, it is named Buford in honor of a firefighter who died doing his job. It is also named Kitchens Memorial, honoring the family who paid for its restoration and the addition of chimes.
The historic 19th Century Driskill Hotel is adjacent to the city's 6th Street nightlife. The Driskill's lobby.
An American, and Austin, icon: Lady Bird Johnson is honored at the Driskill. While it can get cool in winter, Austin is more temperate than not. Thus, palm trees.
Keep an eye out for the food trucks, many of them more trailer than truck. Just as Whole Foods Market got its start in Austin, and is headquartered there, the city was in the vanguard of the food truck movement. Some are permanently parked, some move around. Yelp is a good source for finding them, including local favorites Kebabalicious, Flip Happy Crepes, and The Mighty Cone. The most photogenic, without hesitation, was Turf and Surf.

Austin’s beloved slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” because the citizens take pride in being the funky liberal alternative to conventional conservative Texas, though I’m not sure that stereotype of blind right wing devotion hasn’t become an outdated broad brush, Gov. Perry notwithstanding.
Austin is famous as the home of Whole Foods Market, but this is Central Market, riffing on the city's love of a good hot pepper.
Clockwise from above: Sixth Street is quiet in the morning, but just the opposite at night; Just in case cowboys aren't enough; No caption necessary!
One of the city's many -- and most entertaining -- food trucks.
A remedy from the past and at an ancient price. Reminder of the "olden days."
What wins in this line up? Of course, "curiosities."
An irresistible (?) combination. One of the nation's great indie bookstores is in Austin, Book People.
I didn’t explore the whole state, but I drove many miles of it -- Texarkana to Dallas, Dallas to Austin, Austin to the Louisiana border and, as I reported last week, found Dallas to be interesting and up to date. Again, over and over and over, people were friendly, helpful, and considerate. There’s about to be a big Dallas push on reality TV, and so we’ll see how it’s played -- stereotypes or authenticity -- and “Dallas,” the TV-series, is being revived to air next year on TNT.

But Austin is unique in the state and probably the entire southwest. It has a laid back vibe that recalls Key West, especially near the UT campus, and a New Orleans vibe, especially in the 6th Street bar district. But don’t be fooled by all the weirdness, because there’s a highly cosmopolitan dimension to the city, too. This is not slackerville. It is a high tech hub. It is home base for Dell. Google, Apple, IBM, Cisco Sytems, Cirrus and others have regional operations based here. It is a well-known music center. An additional slogan is “The Live Music Capital of the World.” The South By South West (SXSW) music and film festival is getting bigger every year, drawing the world. “Austin City Limits” has aired on PBS for years. Many movies are filmed there. “True Grit,” for example, made good use of the beautiful countryside. There’s ballet, theater, The Austin Symphony, and a convention center.
Austin is all about being out of doors, on the land and the water.
Austin offers many opportunities to be on the waterfront.
When temperatures are in the triple digits it’s tough to judge a city’s fashion mode, but western flair will always have a niche in American style. If “Cowboys & Aliens” were a bigger hit, Olivia Wilde’s costumes could launch a trend in alluring prairie dresses. Western dress doesn’t have to be cowboy boots and softball sized belt buckles, but boots worn the right way are cool. In Austin it’s a finely tuned blend of casual Texan meets rich Texan but, as far as I could tell, minus the garish.

There are parts of Austin that reminded me of Soho or South Beach, but not in a copycat way. The food is certainly on a par with major cities, which is probably why Bravo’s “Top Chef” is basing its new season in Austin and other parts of Texas.
The S.F. Austin High School Bulldog Band and Angels Dance Team rehearse for Friday night lights.
A sculptural tribute to the "Austin Pickers." Many notables call Austin home, but Willie Nelson has his own boulevard.
What Texas looks like after weeks of no rain and temps in the 100s.
My list of places to eat was long, and I couldn’t do them all, but here’s where I got to and enjoyed:

Uchiko is new, owned by Tyson Cole, an Austin native and “sushi master,” who also owns the acclaimed Uchi. He won this year’s James Beard Award as the “best chef” of the southwest. The décor is described as “farmhouse Japanese,” and while there is exposed stone it is still sleek and stylish to match the food. There are two rooms. We liked being in the larger room with the sushi bar. Our server guided us through the menu – we chose, she chose – and choice was a win. The pictures tell the story.
Uchiko, in a Japanese farmhouse setting, is chic and tasty. Here's a look at the bar.
The dining room.
The sushi bar.
Mediterranean Sea Bass with Texas grapefruit, Avocado and crispy Fennel.
Yokai Atlantic Salmon, Myoga, Golden Beet and Soy Paper.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts in Lemon Chili.
"Sear It Yourself" Wagyu Beef on a hot Japanese river rock.
Big Eye Tuna with Sweet Chili.
Miso Black Cod with Honshimeji Mushroom, Smoked Dashi.
"Ham & Eggs" - Katsu Pork Belly, Yolk Custard and Espelette.
Uchiko Strawberry Sorbet, Aerated Mint Ganache, Strawberry Gelee and Red Beet Puree.
Siena drew us out to the Austin hills, beautiful terrain that reminded me of Santa Barbara or the hills above Malibu. It’s a 15-minute drive from downtown and a must for any visit to Austin. Siena is also beautiful, custom built to bring Tuscany to Texas, and owner Stan Adams met his goal. The website says it best: “Siena is a grand gift from Italy that as you walk up to this massive stone mansion and go through the two big wooden front doors you feel as if you have been transported to a country Italian villa.” It is also serene, romantic, and a very good meal.
Siena, up in the Hill Country, is a Tuscan retreat.
Upstairs dining at Siena.
The bar of Siena.
The main dining room of Siena.
Figs, cheese and prosciutto.
Steamed mussels with lemon.
Pasta with truffles and mushrooms and herbs.
Capellini with tomato sauce and shrimps.
Panna Cotta with fresh fruit.
It wouldn’t be a visit to Austin without ample samplings of Tex-Mex. Chuy’s is great fun, good food, a celebration of Elvis and big margaritas. There are several locations and you likely won’t go wrong with any one of them. Owners Mike Young and John Zapp have made a regular event out of celebrating Elvis’ January 8th birthday at most locations, and one or another of his impersonators pop in for a song. Btw, Chuy’s Chile Con Queso was remarkable.
Chuy's is famous for its food, kitsch and love of Elvis.
Torchy’s Taco, like Chuy’s, has several outposts in Austin. Collectively on Zagat they score a 27 for “food” and a 13 for “décor.” I had no issue with the décor. It’s basic but cheerful. You go to the counter, order your food, they call your name, you take it back to a table and feast on fully-loaded tacos. For a quick Tex-Mex fix, affordable and with no alcohol, Torchy’s is ideal.
Torchy's Tacos: an Austin must.
Torchy's menu.
House guacamole.
Shrimp Taco.
The house specialty: Green Chili Pork Taco.
I'm not enough of a meat eater to eloquently assess Texas beef versus all the other beef I know. But back at The Four Seasons, at Trio, I did order the trio of Texas tenderloin: Foie Wellington, Oscar and Diane, cooked rare. It was tender, flavorful and filling. I paired it with a flight of Cabernets (they offer several flights, and they’re good choices), which enhanced the “trio” experience. The menu has a long list of steaks, including a 16-ounce ribeye.
Inside Trio, the restaurant at The Four Seasons.
Trio's delicious, cheesy and warm popover.
A variation on the Wedge Salad.
Tuna Tartare with Ginger and Avocado, on a bed of ice.
A trio of Texas filets: with crabmeat, Wellington and Diana.
A flight of Cabernets to the go with the trio of filets.
After dinner S'mores, Texas-style.
The next time I’m in Austin I have to remember to try to the indigenous “Mexican Martini,” a super-sized margarita recently given play in The New York Times. I will also have to remember to have a designated driver.

Last but not least, an anecdote about the friendliness I found in Texas. Friends warned me to “watch out for the State Troopers.” I wondered if they thought I was a secret member of the Dougherty Gang, a headline-grabbing trio of fugitive siblings who eventually got caught. As I headed out of the state toward Louisiana, driving west on route 79, the speed limit on the two-lane highway went from 70 on open stretches to 55 or 60 when passing through a town (one stoplight, sometimes two). After rolling through one town I soon noticed flashing lights in the rear view mirror. A young State Trooper approached. I politely explained I was driving home to Washington, gave him my license and he ran it. He returned to the car and said, “Now Miss Carol, I’m just going to give you a verbal warning because I know the posted speed goes up and down. I want you to get where you’re going, but please just watch it.”

Yes, officer. Thank you. And thank you, Texas.
Next week: Vicksburg, Jackson and Chicago.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.