I write this at the Oasis, a café with an enormous terrace overlooking Lake Travis in Austin, TX. The sun is beating down, the water is blue, turtles (actual turtles) plash beneath me, and a nice man is coming in a few minutes with my bowl of guacamole. My mission here has been largely barbecue-oriented, and I’ll have a whole list of barbecue tips for you here next week. Last night, though, I realised I couldn’t take any more in the way of brisket, at least in the short term, so I headed out to Hudson’s on the Bend, a cottagey little restaurant out near the lake, famous for its game and rare meats.
My husband used to live in Austin in the summers when he was a student, and has always held Hudson’s up as a pinnacle of his early restaurant experience – the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia are a powerful thing. Enter through the back, from the car park, where you’ll find a patio strewn with white fairy lights, carpets laid out on the rock floors to soften things underfoot. And some very pretty food, some aloof and indifferent service, and more obnoxiously sugary glazes than I’ve ever encountered in one place.
(Oo. Here is my guacamole.)
Hudson’s menu is a positive circus of wildlife. It opens with a rattlesnake cake (“coiled atop a spicy chipotle cream”), taking a schizophrenic route through the plains of Africa (yak), America (buffalo) and Canada (elk) via a French flowerbed (escargots). You’ll be disappointed to learn that I simply couldn’t face that much meat after a few days’ hunting down the city’s best barbecued beef ribs, so I ended up with a portion of foie gras (I have still to meet the level of protein consumption that will stop me from finding a chunk of foie appetising) and a quail salad. Dr W also remained untempted by exoticism, and there’s plenty on the menu for those not up for a slab of yak, like the lobster risotto and Nieman Ranch pork chop he eventually settled for.
(Bleedin’ awful guacamole, this. I will give the Oasis café a bye; the view is good, the friend I’m with claims to be enjoying his veggie burger, and they do make a reasonable cup of coffee. There’s also a mural depicting twenty chihuahuas being served drinks by a longhorn cow, and a larger-than-life fibreglass parrot wearing a Hawaiian shirt, which is so fantastic that I’m hard-pressed to be down on them.)
Things started well, last night. A Margarita, puckeringly and curiously sweet, and some complimentary spring onion and dill bread with flavoured butters. The bread had reached great puffy, yeasted heights, thanks to a very generous amount of sugar in the dough. Sugary butters, too – chipotle-honey and some sweet herbs.
In concerningly short order, our waiter, facial expression suggesting his best friend had died recently, rolled out with starters. The foie came on a plate shaped like an artist’s palette; weirdly annoying, shaped plates and whimsy, but something I’m prepared to forgive. As it turns out, cornbread and foie is not the best textural combination – the gritty nature of cornbread, especially when, like this bit, it’s been drenched in oil, is compellingly wrong alongside silky, buttery foie. The richness of foie is a no-brain match with sweet accompaniments, but this cornbread, dense with sugar; the slippery, syrupy crust on the foie; and the red strawberry and balsamic sauce alongside were too overwhelmingly sweet to support this teeny a slice of liver.
I can’t comment on the lobster, thanks to an allergy in equal parts deadly and annoying. Dr W says “Toothsome, with plenty of saffron, and very sweet”. You may see a theme emerging here.
Quail, on a bed of spinach leaves. Hopelessly pretty, gently smoked, nicely boned, cooked to a lovely tenderness. And so tooth-hurtingly, pancreas-winceingly sweet, that I was hard-pressed to work out how, honey aside, the little bird had been flavoured. This was a dish so sugary that the baby tomato halves in the salad cringed into sourness against the sticky, sticky meat. I stole a chunk of Dr W’s chorizo-stuffed pork chop, and blenched. I’ve eaten ice creams more savoury.
This is all such a shame, because the plating is gorgeous (as you can see from the pictures), and the environment at Hudson’s is so green, twinkly and romantic that you find yourself willing them to buck up a bit. I couldn’t face the dessert section of the menu – sculptural glasses full of custardy-looking concoctions kept coming past on the way to other tables, but my teeth were already vibrating with desire for a toothbrush, so we called it a night.
Perhaps this is not Hudson’s fault. Perhaps it is a Texas thing. After all; this is a place where sugary barbecue rubs and sauces are sold on every corner. Maybe after a while, your palate slips, and high-sucrose seasoning is merely standard. (I did have a steak at another restaurant a few nights ago – of which more later – with a crème brulée crust, which actually managed to be very tasty indeed.) All the same, If I succumb to some sort of diabetic crisis before I manage to get home, you’ll know who to blame.