Only a hint of smoke lingered in the air. It didn’t drift in thick waves from a worn pit. The wisps lifted from the plate like the fading evidence of an extinguished candle.
The chef had torched the brisket with a cherry wood-fueled flame seconds earlier, applying the essence of smoke. It was the final step in preparing the velvety meat that had been brined for three days and cooked sous vide for three more.
Welcome to barbecued brisket, Vienna-style.
The excellent dish, which also included a rosy medium rare petite tender, popcorn crumble and eggplant puree ($32), is chef Florian Prelog’s homage to his recently adopted hometown.
The chef and his wife, Romana, moved to Austin last year and opened their eponymous restaurant in the base of the 360 Condominiums in March. The fine dining restaurant replaced Garrido’s, whose chef, David Garrido, has taken the helm at Dine at the Radisson.
It is the first job stateside for the striking young chef, whose career includes time at the celebrated Cafe Sacher in Innsbruck. He moved to Austin for a reason shared by many: A friend raved about the city. The Prelogs visited and were seduced by Austin’s lifestyle and opportunities.
Prelog’s sits above Shoal Creek and adjacent to the pedestrian bridge leading to the new Seaholm development on the booming west end of downtown. The restaurant’s location and style serve as fitting analogue for Austin’s change. A longtime Austin chef closes his Mexican restaurant across from the soon-to-shutter Austin Music Hall and is supplanted by a European chef serving fine dining. With the area of town still finding its identity, Prelog’s may have arrived a year ahead of its time, but its refined-yet-approachable food should give the restaurant staying power.
You can order from three- ($44) or five-course ($65) prix fixe menus at dinner. Prelog’s also serves lunch, which may prove a tough sell, but on each visit we opted to order a la carte from the menu that features artful but not precious plating and complex but direct flavors.
Armagnac-infused chicken liver pâté ($8) with subtle raisin notes, and a white wine and apple reduction pierced the superb pâté’s lush fat. The chef applied the tart snap of pomegranate to the iron and cream of foie gras jiggling atop milky mounds of burrata cheese ($24).
Prelog proved a quick study of Austin diners’ predilections and includes on the menu a dish of caramelized Brussels sprouts lightly dancing with the vinegar tingle of capers and the citrus splash of lemon ($7). The pork belly, a nice balance of crackle and fat, can be ordered as an entrée, but we opted for the slider ($5 each), bolstered by the crunch and tang of cucumber, cabbage and mustard. Other familiar items benefit from creative spins, like a beautifully presented ruby beef tartare ($15) interspersed with mildly bitter grounds of coffee that cut the savory meat.
Two fish courses represented Prelog’s ability to create dishes that are at once delicate and assertive. The chef cured supple Arctic char with salt, sugar, coriander, anise and citrus zest, and underlined the flavors of the sweet and floral fish with laced shavings of fennel and orange slices ($12).
A translucent bacon sauce gave substance and structure to a twirl of poached trout ($25) served with crispy fingerling potatoes and topped with silver skins puffed to resemble fish chicharrónes.
The kitchen showcased Italian cuisine with an earthy mushroom risotto balanced by the sweet snap and yield of plump, glistening shrimp ($23), and the tricorne-shaped pea ravioli bathed in corn broth and hidden beneath a bounty of snap peas, carrots, matchstick apples and curled radishes was the best pasta dish I’ve eaten in months ($14).
French preparation and Texas ingredients wed for an exquisite summer dish of seared duck breast ($31) served with grilled peaches, simple but sublime asparagus, brioche dumplings, potato croquettes and the smoky backbone of mushrooms. Despite the number of ingredients and flavor profiles, the harmonious dish didn’t feel fussy.
It’s representative of a kitchen that finds a way to blend seriousness with comfort. The front-of-house staff aims for that same blend of precision and casualness, though some of the service staff lacked the polished erudition conferred by the restaurant’s European pedigree.
You’re reminded of the restaurant’s European roots at the meal’s finale, with a dessert of torched bananas ringing a summery Hefeweizen sorbet and woodsy parsnip puree, and another of Black Forest chocolate mousse with cherry sorbet and clouds of foam made with cherry-whispered brandy ($10).
The translation of European sensibilities into the Austin dining vernacular is generally a smooth one, but Prelog’s does feature some aesthetic touches that feel dated, such as the artist’s palette-shaped plate on which the chicken liver pâté arrived. And the restaurant’s logo has the ’90s flourish of a cruise ship’s restaurant, possibly fitting for the couple that met while working at sea.
Other incongruities include a television showing sports at the bar. That might appeal to some of the lunchtime or happy-hour crowd, but it feels out of place in a sleek, dimly lit restaurant with abstract art, a showcase open kitchen and romantic resort-style patio with billowing white curtains.
But Prelog’s doesn’t follow traditional guidelines expected of white-tablecloth restaurants. The dining room’s centerpiece artwork is a storyboard painting depicting the Prelogs’ move from Austria to Austin. Like the restaurant, it is unexpected but charms with its surprise. It’s also proof that despite its fine dining bona fides, at heart Prelog’s is a family-run restaurant intent to share its story in its own language.
360 Nueces St. 512-350-2895, prelogs.com
Rating: 8 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Snack and antipasti, $5-$16. First course, $12-$24. Second course, $9-$23. Third course, $25-$32. Dessert, $10-$12. Three-course tasting menu, $44 (+$29 for wine pairings). Five-course tasting menu, $65 (+$49 for wine pairings).
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Austrian chef Florian Prelog brings a European sensibility to the restaurant he runs with his wife, Romana.
Notes: Street parking only.