What we like about The Cafe at the Four Seasons Hotel:
European elegance with an Austin twist

Hereís the deal with The Cafe at the Four Seasons: Youíre practically guaranteed one of the finest meals in Austin, prepared skillfully and healthfully and served in elegant surroundings overlooking Town Lake, but you will pay hotel prices, generally a few bucks higher than at comparable standalone local restaurants.

(Kinda leads me to think that if I were stuck at the hotel without transportation [not that being trapped in the Four Seasons would be such a burden], Iíd just pop next door to the equally excellent Shoreline Grill, brought to you by some of the folks who run another of Austinís top spots, Jeffreyís.)

But if youíre OK with the prices, youíll be more than OK with the food. Iíve tried breakfast, lunch and dinner, and have yet to run across anything that wasnít done beautifully. Menus change a couple of times a year -- not quite with the four seasons, though -- but thereís consistency in the high-quality ingredients, gourmet but seldom fussy techniques (except for desserts, but more on that later) and the presence of several appealing "Alternative Cuisine" (low-fat) items.

Breakfast includes the usual hotel fare (like Continental, $10.50, and American, $14), and a stellar selection of what they modestly call "Hot Cakes & Waffles." (You donít find Lemon Ricotta Hotcakes with Fresh Berries and Blueberry Compote at IHOP, for $8 or any price.) If your sweet tooth needs a morning fix, try the hypoglycemic Texas-Style Chewy Pecan Bun ($3.25), but donít say you werenít warned if you start bouncing off walls.

Get this: Chicken-Fried Ahi Tuna ($13). Weíre happy to report that it worked, though I wouldnít recommend it to someone whose tastebuds were set for Chicken-Fried Steak. This being an Alternative Cuisine selection, the batter coating was nearly tempura-light but highly, perfectly seasoned. My friend tried a Classic Reuben ($9.50), not listed as Alternative Cuisine but sporting lots of lean, tasty pastrami on good rye bread.

The list of dinner appetizers and entrees is so varied, with such interesting combination of local and exotic ingredients, itís hard to choose. For example, Blackened Gulf Coast Shrimp in a Shiner (beer) Bock Glaze ($10) and a salad with Tijuana Caesar dressing ($7.50) share the menu with Carpaccio Laced with Roasted Garlic Aioli ($8). And thatís just the appetizer menu. Entrees include a Hill Country Wild Game Plate ($29) and tender Dijon and Focaccia-Breaded Pork Tenderloin Medallions ($23) that we polished off with dispatch.

We loved the deeply balsamic Grilled Portabello Mushroom appetizer ($7.75 -- but how can you go wrong with balsamic vinegar as your main flavoring?) and the Red Chili Fettuccini ($19, but thereís nearly enough for two) laced with seafood, artichokes, olives and a surprising spicy tomatillo sauce.

Then thereís dessert, which resembles something like the fever dreams of Willie Wonka on speed. Beautiful, beautiful presentations of rich, ever-changing conconctions were simply too much for us (though we tried a couple anyway). If you need sweets, you need one of these desserts.

The Cafe recommends reservations for its sumptuous Sunday brunch, which includes made-to-order omelettes, pates, shrimp, blintzes, TEN kinds of dessert, and complimentary champagne. The per-adult price of $30 ($15 per child) is steep for Austin, but cheaper than flying to Europe for dinner ... and the Cafeís probably the next best thing.

--Betsy Thaggard

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