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The Backyard Gourmet

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By Lori Moffatt
At the Upscale Domain retail center in north Austin, one whiff of the divine aroma wafting from the wood-fired ovens at Jasper’s should stop even the most determined shoppers in their tracks. On recent visits, I’ve followed my nose straight to the dining room, and I don’t regret it. I’ll happily pass up couture for calamari, after all, especially when said calamari is crispy yet succulent, and comes atop an artful swirl of orange soy sauce with sprigs of cilantro. The plate is as pretty as a Balenciaga handbag.

There are three Jasper’s in Texas. The first of the trio, in Plano, landed on Esquire’s list of Best New Restaurants for 2003, the writers sighing over salt-crusted prime rib and bourbon-laced creamed corn. Executive Chef Kent Rathbun opened the second Jasper’s last fall in The Woodlands, near Houston, where diners helped propel the baby-back ribs—slow-smoked and succulent, and unquestionably gnaw-worthy—to fame. And the third, in a spacious corner of Austin’s tony Domain, opened in spring 2007.

Unlike Rathbun’s restaurant in Dallas, the haute-cuisine hot-spot Abacus (home to Top Chef contestant Tre Wilcox), Jasper’s aims to bring fine dining back down to earth. Feel free to dress up and make dinner an event, but don’t shy away from wearing jeans and ordering a burger either. It might be the best burger you’ll ever have.

On two recent visits, one for dinner and one for lunch, I sampled my way through the menu and decided that Jasper’s is my kind of place.

At dinner, a signature Big Daddy martini—a tart mix of fresh orange juice, house-made sweet and sour, and citrus-flavored vodka—set the relaxed mood for a perfectly paced evening. My dining companion and I dug into a prodigious order of the restaurant’s most popular appetizer—a basket of Maytag Blue Cheese Potato Chips, a glorious mess of crunchy, house-made chips ladled with chives and a mixture of cream and richly veined blue cheese. We loved the flavor, but we’d order the chips again only with a larger group; a little goes a long way, and they’re best when they’re hot and crisp. Crab cakes, served with a tomatillo-cream sauce and a crisp jicama-tortilla slaw, proved divisive. I loved the gorgeous presentation, the slightly sweet flavor of the sauce, and the kiss of heat in the breading, but my companion thought he would have liked more jicama in the slaw, and less breading in the crab cake.

We both oohed and ummed over the proscuitto-wrapped shrimp, which arrived on a square of grilled, garlicky grits in a pool of lemon-thyme butter, all nestled in a tortilla shell. It’s a looker of a dish. My companion observed it was like “Venus rising from the sea,” a romantic-sounding analogy that I attributed to the Big Daddy martini until I took a bite. It’s as delicious as it is attractive.

Next, we tried a tasting menu featuring three of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, the pecan-crusted rainbow trout, the lemon rotisserie chicken, and the baby-back ribs. We loved the ribs, which come with roasted matchstick onions and a bacon-studded potato salad; and the chicken was flavorful and tender. But we agreed that the trout was the most original of the three. This isn’t a light choice: Buttery, crunchy, salty, and redolent of basil, the fish arrives with curls of sweet potatoes simmered in a sauce made of bourbon and butter.

In conversations with several chefs, I’ve noticed a trend: Restaurants are moving toward small dessert portions, having noticed that more diners order dessert if they can choose “just a taste.” To accompany cups of bold coffee, we selected a “Mini Trio” from Jasper’s “Mini” menu—a toasty, nutty crème brûlée, a tart triangle of cherry-limeade pie, and a gooey, caramel-layered Rocky Road ice cream sandwich. The most grown-up flavor was the crème brûlée, but damned if that ice cream sandwich didn’t take me back to childhood backyard barbecues.

Rathbun, in fact, has been perfecting his “backyard gourmet food” since he was a kid himself; his father was a jazz musician in Kansas City, and his parents entertained a lot. “I was cooking on my own by the time I got into the Boy Scouts,” he says. “On campouts, the rest of them would be cracking cans of SpaghettiOs, and my brother and I would be grilling T-bones.”

By the time he turned 14, Rathbun says, he could hold his own in the kitchen. And then he began to train. Following a stint as a dishwasher, he served as a cook, a chef’s apprentice, and finally as chef in half a dozen four- and five-star restaurants in Missouri, Louisiana, and Texas, including the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. But he hasn’t departed that far from those days in Kansas City, when he’d help his dad put the brisket on the smoker during Johnny Carson and then be in charge of re-stoking the fire the next morning.

“My dad used to tell me that anything that starts with garlic and onions is gonna be okay,” says Rathbun. And like Julia Child, Graham Kerr, and Jacques Pépin, Rathbun believes that a good stock lends indescribable depth to almost every dish. If you could visit the kitchen at four a.m., you’d find a cauldron of broth simmering with carrots, celery, garlic, and onions.

Part of the fun of dining at Jasper’s is that you can watch the inner workings of the kitchen—the fiery skillets, the armfuls of white plates, the chefs in their white jackets—pointing and sampling and scurrying. I also appreciate the excellent acoustics in the dining room; soft surfaces on the booths, floors, and walls help absorb sound, making it easy to hear conversation even when the restaurant is crowded. The restaurant looks good, too: Lots of gray and brown and amber create a sophisticated, relaxed ambiance; and the contemporary artwork on the walls was created by Rathbun’s staff, whose talents extend outside of the kitchen. Rathbun paid particular attention to the lighting, which shines a warm beam on the tables (and plates) but creates a diffused glow on diner’s faces. We look marvelous.

I returned for lunch one Saturday afternoon with a girlfriend and split a salad and a burger just to make sure that such everyday fare could compete with the elaborate dinner I’d enjoyed. The salad, a mixture of baby spinach, smoked chicken, candied pecans, currants, red onions, sun-dried tomatoes, and goat cheese, with a bacon vinaigrette, was so good I tried to duplicate it at home, with only a modicum of success. And all hail the burger: Juicy, perfectly cooked, and served with smoked bacon and beer-braised onions on a sesame-brioche bun with vine-ripened tomatoes and crisp pickles, it tasted beefy and smoky and scrumptious. It just might be the best burger I’ve ever had.

Jasper’s has three locations statewide: Plano, The Woodlands, and Austin. For menu, hours, and directions, visit www.jaspers-restaurant.com.

Read 19449 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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