by Andrew Chalk
Whatever happened to André Natera, the former chef at the The Pyramid Restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel (according to the Pyramid web site he is still there), later execuchef at Village Kitchen (née Village Marquee (née Marquee Grill)), RIP2? The answer is that he is the execuchef for The Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa, a massive resort and country club complex just 20 minutes from downtown Austin (and three hours from Dallas). With three golf courses adjacent to the property and a fourth, affiliated course, 25 miles away, the resort is one of the foremost golf destinations in Texas. Additionally, there are 11 tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, super spa, a nature trail and complete schedules of kids-only and adult-only activities.
The food operation behind all this is, as they say, André’s oyster. That means the flagship restaurant Hill Country Dining Room, 8212 Wine Bar and Grill, a bar named Barton’s Lodge, pool and cabana service, in-room dining, plus the restaurant in the country club on the same, massive site. In addition, Omni has another country club (Lakeside) about 25 miles away that Natera oversees as well.
It is a level of responsibility the like of which Natera has never known before. And André is having a ball. At a recent media event at the resort he demonstrated some items from the revised menus that he has introduced in the restaurant, the bar menu and the country club. It is a work in progress, but I think I detect a conscious shift towards local and made-on-site food. He was never far from this, it is just a difference of emphasis. Bear in mind as you read this that, if these dishes look like they are all over the culinary refinement map, it is because they are drawn, almost randomly, from fine dining to bar food, reflecting the breadth of the mandate that he has at Barton Creek.
First out for the table was an impressive range of charcuterie served on an equally impressive slate platter. All the charcuterie is made in house. Natera and his crew break down whole pigs and a lamb every week. As well as the-usual-suspects, notice the South African beef jerky (biltong) and the duck rillettes. The whole board is served in the country club and an abbreviated version at the resort bar. Natera reported that the club has a core of gourmands and they love the dish.
The strawberry salad is a cleverly simple dish assembled from fresh strawberries, pickled strawberries (in white balsamic), freeze-dried strawberries, pistachio nuts, herbs and Caprino Royale goat cheese.
If the salad of marinated tuna with Japanese mayo and Asian pears looks familiar, Natera explains that he has done different versions of this since his Pyramid days. Compare the refinement of this dish, nurtured curls in the fruit slices and all, with the t-shirt casualness of the bar food below.
Homemade pretzels with Maldon salt and beer cheese dip is what you want after a round of golf in the Texas sun.
Buffalo cauliflower is cauliflower fried like fried chicken in a batter with spices including Thai sweet chili and Sriracha. There is tragedy behind this dish. When he created it, he emailed a culinary friend saying excitedly “Hey, I think I’ve invented buffalo cauliflower”. His friend emailed back a copy of the recipe, found on the Internet. Whoever did it first, Natera’s version is a wonderful snack in front of the pool or TV, adding fuel to the argument that cauliflower is the second most versatile vegetable (after potato, which isn’t really a vegetable, but you know what I mean).
André’s Lobster roll is butter-poached lobster tossed with herbs and mayonnaise in a toasted roll. It is a succulent mass of seafood, cream, lemon and herbs. It is easiest to eat with one of the local beers at the bar. BTW: If you look at the picture carefully you can see that the prep. cook forgot to toast this roll. Oops!
When Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford in 2006 (after running the 777 development program at Boeing) he assembled management and issued a new dictum: from that point on, every model that Ford released would have to, as of its release date, be best in class, worldwide. If the car did not pass that test, it would not be released. There is a culinary equivalent of that going on at Barton Creek. It might be phrased as: sure, if the customer wants a pretzel, we will give him a pretzel, but it will be the best damn pretzel he has ever had.
I hope André turns his attention to the pedestrian holdover wine list next. He could look at Steve Krueger’s list down the road at La Canterra and the imaginatively crafted short list at Gemma, as style guides.
It was quite a meal. Barton Creek is the place to stay to visit Austin or, as we did, tour the Hill Country wineries.