- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Nostalgia can empower the heart to override the mind. We booked a birthday dinner for my father at Green Pastures several years ago. The age of the restaurant that originally opened in 1946 seemed fitting for Dad’s milestone celebration, and I hoped the Grand Dame of Austin dining could still provide a worthy sense of occasion.
I knew the meal might not be as great as the memories trapped in my mind’s amber and that the enchantment of the old Victorian home was likely enshrouded in mothballs. But I wanted to believe.
That night with the family turned out to be more of a wake than a party. Not for dad — he’s doing great — but for a restaurant that had slowly drifted into the mists of irrelevance.
The rack of lamb was nice and the service was fine, but I couldn’t get past the abundance of white tablecloths, the striped wallpaper suited for a dusty old bedroom inhabited only by creepy porcelain dolls, the ugly chairs, the flooring. I gave it one last shoutout in that year’s dining guide, joking in my synopsis that it looked like a house that might be inspected for spectral activity by Scooby Doo and his crew.
I tried to will myself to love Green Pastures, even if I knew the flame had died. But on that last visit, my heart learned what my mind knew. It was time to say goodbye to Green Pastures.
I watched my dad, whose back had gone out on him that morning during a round of golf, slowly shuffle his way out of what looked more like a funeral parlor than a dining room, and I knew I likely wouldn’t be back. Things fall apart.
But, if you’re lucky, they can be remade into something even greater. And if you’re really lucky, they do so under the animating force of developer Greg Porter and Jeff Trigger of La Corsha Hospitality Group, who acquired the Green Pastures property in 2015.
They reopened the restaurant in March as Mattie’s, named after Martha “Mattie” Faulk, mother of the original restaurant’s founder, Mary Faulk Koock. (Read Michael Barnes’ comprehensive history of the property at society.blog.austin360.com.) The space has been brightened, the furniture updated, the tablecloths stripped for a modern but homey country appeal.
There’s still wallpaper in some rooms, but instead of exhausted blue stripes, you’ll find fantastical Williamsburg blue peacocks that match the upstairs drapes and wainscoting and nod to the birds perched in the heritage oaks and roaming the property that is slated to be home to a 99-room boutique hotel, the Faulk, next year.
Yes, the birds are still there. And so is the milk punch. And it’s even punchier now. Crafted by La Corsha Hospitality Group beverage director Jason Stevens, the petite glass packs a wallop of aged bourbon, cognac and Jamaican rum, sloshing beneath a hood of nutmeg-dusted vanilla cream. The 1965 Milk Punch ($6) made me wobblier than my dad that night a few years ago and would’ve been lovely enough to dip my fluffy brioche French toast ($15) in if the candied-pecan-flecked triangles hadn’t come with their own powerful bourbon-maple syrup.
Creamy rice grits draped with fried eggs and spotted with hunks of crispy bacon settling into a mildly spiced bath of Steen’s cane syrup ($16) and tender buttermilk fried chicken and baseball-sized poached eggs awash in tangy Hollandaise and perched on lithe homemade biscuits ($20) on the brunch menu indicated that the design isn’t the only thing that shifted as Mattie’s took over Green Pastures.
Instead of Texas and Southwestern staples, you’ll find more pan-Southern dishes on chef Josh Thomas’ menu, from the low-country Sea Island red pea ragout that served as a sturdy bed for crispy ruby red trout ($27) to the deep roux of a smoked pork hock-studded spicy gumbo z’herbes ($7) that could feel right at home at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans.
Gone is bacon-wrapped quail; in its place is a glazed and juicy smoked pork chop ($32) laced with shaved squash. And the intercontinental fusion of a dish like tempura lobster tail with jicama slaw is replaced by more international flavors, like an Indian-inspired basmati rice bowl ($19), rich and sweet with coconut curry and roasted vegetables.
Appetizers hit the simple pleasure spots, as with a mound of creamy pimento cheese made with Irish cheddar ($8), while showing off thoughtfulness and fresh creativity, as witnessed in the fennel and apple chutney that accompanied luxurious chicken liver pâté ($12) and the cashew-chili creme that piqued an array of rainbow carrots ($12).
With such great execution on those dishes, it was surprising to find simpler things fumbled on what is a fairly streamlined and mainstream menu. A cheeseburger blanketed in a freeze-frame ooze of Irish cheddar ($18) arrived at room temperature, a likely casualty of a friendly but overwhelmed service staff one night. But there was no excuse for a mountainous and unwieldy block of New York strip ($34) that was desperate for more salt. And dry bread pudding ($7) and chocolate custard-filled buckwheat crepes ($7) suggested an indifference that stood in sharp contrast to every little detail encountered at Mattie’s.
I found myself wandering the rooms, like so many other patrons, marveling at this once-sleeping beauty that had been revived with such gusto. Grab one of Stevens’ creations (I recommend the lusty whiskey-fueled La Louisiane, $12) or a selection from wine director Paula Rester’s sophisticated yet affordable and very approachable wine list (say, a bottle of Domaine de la Pepiere Clos de Briords Muscadet for only $32) and investigate the property, from the private dining room that feels like you’re in the hull of a schooner to the wraparound patio and terrace dining area.
Even though everything feels considered — from the seafoam and marble of the downstairs bar, one of two in the restaurant, to the cocktail napkins inscribed, “Love, Mattie,” and the tulip bulbs of the midcentury modern chandelier that matched the white flower on our table — nothing feels forced or affected. And the vibe matches the menu.
The Victorian wooden staircase and original design elements ground the space in history, while the musical soundtrack transports you to the restaurant’s early heydays of the ’50s and ’60s. If you’d replaced Ray Charles with Allen Toussaint as I made my way up the grand stairway, I could have believed I was in the Columns Hotel in New Orleans. Every detail of the space transports you.
And, though it is undeniably a house of commerce, touches like portraits of the Faulk family and plush seating spaces that dot the anterooms and lounge areas make it feel more like a private home than a restaurant. Mattie’s has the effortless grace of old money, and the charming appeal of someone who wants you to feel comforted, not awed, by her largesse.