- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
My dinner guest turned to me with a grin, wide-eyed, during a recent dinner at Lonesome Dove Western Bistro.
“I really feel like I’m in Texas,” she said with a faint chuckle and mixture of awe and confusion.
A native Southerner, she’s lived in Austin for more than two years. But it was a visit to the Warehouse District outpost of Fort Worth celebrity chef Tim Love’s restaurant that made her fully understand the difference between the town she’s grown to call home and the outsider’s stereotype of Texas.
Maybe it was the bleached antlers lining the top of the bar. Or all the chocolate- and caramel-colored wood and leather. She was just as likely referencing the array of taxidermic game on the walls. Or maybe she meant the oversize business bros gathered around a bottle of muscular red wine at a nearby table. And, the miniature Texas flags planted in elk sliders and an appetizer of crème-fraîche-dabbled rabbit-rattlesnake sausage were certainly tells.
The outsized Texas-ness of Lonesome Dove, named in honor of but not in affiliation with Larry McMurtry’s epic novel, feels like what a non-Texan might assume about the Lone Star state. But those presumptions are grounded more in the Metroplex and Houston versions of Texas than Austin’s aesthetic and vibe. Lonesome Dove speaks to the fact that Austin has now become a major tourist draw. The restaurant will make visitors from around the state feel at home while giving out-of-staters the sense that they got to experience Texas: The Ride.
To be fair, Lonesome Dove expresses its yeehaw with more subtlety than I expected. Yes, the taxidermy is plentiful (and sometimes it can be hard to finish a steak with a longhorn staring at you with disapproving eyes), but there aren’t lasso light fixtures and wreaths made of cowboys hats. The bar stools aren’t saddles, and the men’s urinal isn’t a trough. The restaurant has swagger without giving into themed bravado the way some West-meets-Southwestern restaurants, like Stephan Pyles’ Stampede 66 in Dallas, do.
Of course this isn’t Love’s first rodeo. The man who grew up in Denton and spent summers on his dad’s farm raising rabbits, goats, pigs, chickens and cattle opened the original Lonesome Dove in the Fort Worth Stockyards in 2000. He’s no stranger to Austin, either. Love is a founding member of the Austin Food & Wine Festival and the official chef for the Austin City Limits Music Festival. All of which is to say, Love knows the city well enough to understand that some Austinites see Metroplex transplants the way other Texans view carpetbaggers from the North. With Lonesome Dove, Love brings a taste of his personal flavor without boot-stomping us into submission like a culinary J.R. Ewing. Besides, Fort Worth ain’t Dallas.
The Austin menu resembles the Fort Worth original in many ways, but Austin’s has a unique set of appetizers. The wild game fettines, possibly a nod to Austin’s more artisanal approach to cooking, are razor-thin slices of mesquite-roasted meats spiraled like a roulade. The options range from the nutty and sweet (duck and rabbit-rattlesnake sausage with pistachios and quince) to the gamy and expressive (elk and pork spinalis with huckleberries and black garlic). You can order the fettines, presented like charcuterie on a wooden board, for $12 each or order a trio for $18.
I don’t expect much from fried dishes at a brawny game and chop house, but the fried first courses at Lonesome Dove surprised me with their clean flavors and nice meat-to-breading ratio. The blue-corn lobster hushpuppies ($15) were stuffed with meaty lobster in a crackling shell draped with tomato butter, and the sweetness of blue crabs — the meat pulled from the shell, tossed with breadcrumbs, fried and wedged back into the shell — received a kick from piquant Lonesome Dove hot sauce ($10).
While Lonesome Dove serves Texas-raised beef, it doesn’t sweat radius clauses when it comes to sourcing game and seafood. Elk comes from southern Utah, Blue Point oysters from Connecticut and expensive langoustines (which yield sweet and delicate, but very little, meat) arrive from New Zealand ($14 for three grilled and cilantro-butter-splashed bites).
Love has made a name for himself at the Austin Food & Wine Festival with his live fire-grilling demonstrations where, surrounded by more than 100 other participants, I was guided in preparing the best steak I’ve ever cooked. The aggressively gregarious chef, who appears on CNBC’s “Restaurant Startup,” leads his demonstration with colorful brashness.
It’s no surprise, then, that several of the dishes at Love’s restaurant are bold and saucy like the chef. Sticky-sweet homemade barbecue sauce slathered an appetizer of fall-from-the-bone tender wild boar ribs ($12), and a demi-glace shrouded and pooled at the grilled-asparagus-ringed base of a ruby-centered seared beef tenderloin ($42) stuffed with garlic and set atop matchstick Western plaid hash made with red and green cabbage and peppers.
Downtown Austin needs another steakhouse about as much as it needs more lanes closed due to road construction, so it’s nice to see Lonesome Dove focus so much attention on game and alternate proteins. Supple elk loin interspersed with rippled waves of crispy collard greens and musky hen of the woods mushrooms relied on candied grapes for sweetness instead of an overwhelming sauce on one thoughtful entrée ($44). Ruddy lamb chops bristled with a fierce salt-and-pepper char on a dish that paid homage to the Southwest with a refreshing corn-and-avocado salsa ($42), and a trio of rabbit — grilled juicy tenderloin, confit leg wrapped in a crunchy sheath, and pulled threads stuffed inside a decadent shepherd’s pie — was a filling meal fit for a cattle baron ($42).
Love’s cooking demos are fueled by cold white wine and shots of tequila, so it didn’t shock me to see several desserts ($12) spiked with booze. Tequila and vodka fueled a Texican iced coffee, and Tuaca infused its vanilla whisper into a cappuccino flan. Our polite and friendly server, as yes-sir and no-ma’am as you’d expect from a Texas-bred professional, pointed us to a banana cream pie as full of flavor as it was nostalgia. A sugar-cookie crust held the creamy banana wobble topped with a charred (naturally) bourbon marshmallow.
Bourbon, marshmallows, banana pie, yes-sir, no-sir, have a wonderful evening, y’all come back and see us. It’s a play right out of the Texas Handbook. It’s almost too hard to swallow, but it goes down easy. It might not be what people expect when they come to Austin, but it’s what they imagine when they think of Texas. For that reason it might make more sense if the restaurant were located on the ground floor of a major hotel like the JW Marriott. But Lonesome Dove wants to be part of the city more than it wants to be a tourist attraction. If it keeps it up, it may eventually age into the weathered patina of the distressed logo on the outside of the building.