- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Swimming holes. Willie Nelson’s ranch. Opie’s Barbecue. Spicewood is known for several things. Fine dining hasn’t historically been one of them. Apis Restaurant and Apiary could change that.
Bowie native Taylor Hall opened the restaurant in February on a six-acre piece of property that backs up to the Pedernales River. The kitchen merges classic and modern approaches for a contemporary Texas restaurant with a vibe of understated elegance. It isn’t just a hidden gem on the road from Austin to Marble Falls — it’s one of the best restaurants in the Greater Austin area.
The restaurant’s moniker references the scientific name for the honeybee. Hall and his wife, who several years ago became fascinated with the phenomenon of bee colonies suddenly disappearing, keep about two dozen hives on the property, sourcing honey for dishes and cocktails. The honey plays a supporting role in the menu, but the Halls also chose the theme as a symbolic nod to the bees’ role in the cycle of nature, their representation of seasonality and their reputation as hardworking team members.
Hall, who started his career at Brennan’s in New Orleans before culinary school in San Francisco and stints at that city’s Town Hall, Salt House and Boulevard, leads a team highlighted by chef de cuisine and Austin native Adam Brick. Brick studied at the Culinary Institute of America before working in some of New York City’s most lauded restaurants, including Daniel, Aureole and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and that training is evident in the elegant plating that displays refined technique without preciousness or pretense.
Diners will spot Asian influences on the menu in dishes like an appetizer of coral-colored slabs of king salmon tartare in yuzu, spotted with cucumbers and pickled almonds that resemble the silhouettes of autumn leaves ($18). The fish arrived with a crispy skin chip topped with baubles of salmon roe and smooth yogurt.
A trio of beef from Beeman Family also mixed East and West with a pecan miso that accompanied a butter-soft tender strip loin ($36). Though not advertised on the menu, the steak came with braised cheeks and a sumptuous cut of beef tongue that fell apart like a rendered, slow-smoked beef rib on a plate that included a spire of pickled parsnip and a toasted coil of ribboned potatoes.
So, why Spicewood?
Hall, who moved here in 2007, wanted to be near Austin but said, “I’m a country boy and can only take the city in doses.”
He’s worked his North Texas country connections to source wild boars from Hapgood Ranch in Clay County. Apis uses the meat to create a salumi board ($12) that includes marbled cuts of soppressata, loin, culatello and more. You can also taste the nut-grazing hogs in a pork ragu scattered among al dente swatches of blecs pasta showered with salty-sweet floral notes from shaved juniper-rubbed pecorino ginepro cheese ($17). I could have ordered another dish of the appetizer at the end of the meal for dessert. But that would’ve kept me from enjoying brown-sugar-glazed roasted pineapple ($9) with mellow citronelle cream, tart calamansi-sake sorbet and the crackle of expressive ginger “glass.”
Meals begin with thoughtful bites from the kitchen, like creamy twirled shavings of foie gras spiked by tart charred grapefruit jam. Small plates — maybe more fairly described as appetizers — and entrees make up most of the menu, with three “snacks” offered as well. The star of that trio is a gorgeous egg toast ($5). Whipped yolk sandwiched between buttery brioche, the snack resembles a grilled cheese — if your grilled cheese happened to come with a ruby mound of dry-aged beef tartare. The dish would be a first-ballot inductee to the Finger Food Hall of Fame.
International culinary influences at Apis range from Spain to India. An appetizer of white Austrian asparagus ($17) blended elements of Old World elegance with modern technique. The ivory spears arrived with beef-poached maitake mushrooms that carried the smoky sweetness of charred campfire marshmallows on a dish drizzled, dusted and graced with coffee emulsion, fermented maitake powder and asparagus foam.
If you ever want to convince someone to fall in love with octopus, the charred tendrils of Spanish octopus at Apis will do the trick. The oil-poached octopus maintained a delicate tenderness I’ve never encountered, and its smoky char was complemented by the bright acidic sting of fermented chili oil ($18).
Dishes at Apis are elegant and direct, but the kitchen picks its spot for bouts of playfulness. A lamb tasting ($35) accompanied by vadouvan yogurt and garlic hummus included a spicy-sweet nob of pistachio-crusted merguez sausage and a fried-pastry-wrapped shoulder that balanced on a chickpea cake resembling a fried Twinkie. It crackled and oozed with little provocation, surprising with both flavor and texture. It would be a hit at the Delhi State Fair.
The server, who relished describing the lamb dish and checked back to gauge our response, is indicative of the staff and ambiance at Apis: a blend of genuine familiarity tempered with professional courtesy. The restaurant’s interior, colored in Hill Country sage and brown, features light fixtures shaped like honeycombs and teardrops of the viscous nectar.
Fortunately Apis applies honey as an accent and not a culinary bludgeon or gimmick. They use it to glaze a tender lacquered duck with crackling skin served with honey vinaigrette and awakened by fragrant green coriander and electric blood orange. The exceptional aged bird serves two ($64).
The honey also punctuates some of the craft cocktails from the large bar, such as the brawny but toned Apiary ($12), made with honey-infused bourbon, lemon, sarsaparilla and dry curacao, and the bittersweet and effervescent Queen’s Nectar ($10), an alluring concoction of prosecco, Amaro Averna, grapefruit and honey syrup.
But the honey’s greatest feat comes at the end of the meal. Rum-soaked raisins and pecans stick to the golden shimmering surface of a billowy honey bun ($9) topped with a sphere of horchata ice cream.
It’s one of many dishes at Apis compelling enough to expand the way you think about Spicewood.