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Living the good life at Austin, Texas

Austin, the capital city of Texas is quite the hippie with its carefree vibe and array of pubs and restaurants. Rishad Saam Mehta takes in the wines and gastronomic delights of this city, and returns exhilarated

Austin, Texas
Best time to visit: Nov/Feb
You need: 3-4 days

You may not crack an egg perfectly, but that doesn’t count if you drop it into a hot girdle and cook an impeccable sunny side up, right?

The Texas State Capitol building stands tall and is a must-visit if you’re in Austin
The Texas State Capitol building stands tall and is a must-visit if you’re in Austin

Last minute plans are a bit like that. They can be chaotic and can leave you harried, but when they fall into place, all that stress you endure really doesn’t matter.

Here I am, in Manali, cooling off after a camping trip, when I receive two emails. One is from my friends in Austin, Texas, asking me to visit, while waxing eloquent on how now is the time to be in Texas Hill Country. The second email is about my air miles as calculated by the airline alliance.

Austin stretches beautifully across both sides of the Colorado River and boasts of more than 300 days of sunshine a year.
Austin stretches beautifully across both sides of the Colorado River and boasts of more than 300 days of sunshine a year.  Rishad Saam Mehta

A bit of frantic browsing later, I realise that I have enough free miles to travel from Delhi to Dallas via Doha. A little more frenzy on my laptop and I have my tickets. The catch is that the flight is in less than 19 hours.

Texas’s hippie
I manage to make it to Austin, though. If Dallas and Houston are the formally-dressed stalwarts of Texas, then Austin is its hippie. Its large student population keeps Austin on its toes — the boom in bars and restaurants is quite something in this city.

Have some excellent, well-curated wine, cold cuts and cheese at Becker’s Vineyard
Have some excellent, well-curated wine, cold cuts and cheese at Becker’s Vineyard

The city cannot beat New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco when it comes to tourism, but this little city wears its epithet of Live Music Capital of the World  with pride.

Have some excellent, well-curated wine, cold cuts and cheese at Becker’s Vineyard

Picture this — there are more than 200 live music venues in a city with 8,00,000 people. Willie Nelson, the famous strummer of country music is a local and there are music festivals such as the ACL (Austin City Limits) and South by Southwest, which are high- profile yet proudly non-commercial. Austin stretches beautifully across both sides of the Colorado River and boasts of more than 300 days of sunshine a year, so locals and travellers have ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, find scenic spots for a picnic, go for a hike, a bit of kayaking or canoeing, and cool off at natural springs in the city. Truly, Austin is one of the best cities to live in the US.

In wonderland
We kickstart the weekend by driving downtown to Wonderland — a bar with two food trailers at its rear. One of them is Thai Kun, which was voted eighth among the best new restaurants in Bon Apetit Magazine. There are just eight items on the menu that come to a grand total of $56. Each of them is a delight, especially the Waterfall Pork ($8) which has pork shoulder grilled and sliced with Tiger Cry sauce, toasted rice powder, pickled cabbage, cilantro, red onion and sticky rice. Other items include Thai-Kun fried chicken and Thai-Kun fish cakes. Amongst the many beers Wonderland stocks in bottles and barrels, my favourite is the Fire Eagle IPA from Austin Beerworks, a local microbrewery. It is hoppy and malty with a lasting, bitter finish.

 Becker’s Vienyard in Fredericksburg comes alive with cool, live jazz music every day
 Becker’s Vienyard in Fredericksburg comes alive with cool, live jazz music every day

Another pleasant surprise is the Chaat Shop food trailer tucked in there. It serves samosas, bhelpuri, fried idlis and Thums Up and Limca.

The next day, since the weather is bright and sunny and very conducive to wine tasting, we head out toward Fredericksburg.

Henri De Lobbe, a refreshingly politically incorrect Frenchman behind the bar at the vineyard, makes a traveller’s time memorable with witty banter
Henri De Lobbe, a refreshingly politically incorrect Frenchman behind the bar at the vineyard, makes a traveller’s time memorable with witty banter

This city got its German-sounding name after the first settlers arrived here on May 8 1846, led by a group of German noblemen who were known as the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but my favourite wine out of all the wineries we visit that day is the Riesling.

Fine wines
The region of Gillespie County of which Fredericksburg is the capital is known as Texas Hill Country. The soil and the climate is very favourable to growing grapes. In fact, I hear that among elite circles, wherein wine is lovingly swirled and notes exchanged about bouquets, pallets and finishes, this region’s wine industry is already being called ‘Mini Napa’, as its growth now reflects that of the early days of California’s Napa Valley.

The highlight of this town is Becker’s Vineyard, all thanks to Henri De Lobbe, a refreshingly politically incorrect Frenchman behind the counter who serves us wines to taste.

Proudly stating that he is the only Frenchman in Gillespie Country, De Lorre liberally pours out merlots, cabernets, ports, shirazes, chardonnays, Rieslings and muscats. He enlightens us with his views on the world, right from the virtues of well-cooked horsemeat to the charms of Casablanca. What was supposed to be a 20-minute tasting turned out to be a 90-minute fête of fantastic wine and invigorating conversation. We spend the afternoon on the patio of the vineyard sampling wine, cold cuts and cheese while listening to some cool, live jazz music. Fredericksburg itself is a lovely town to visit and explore since it has some art galleries and stores selling authentic Texan cooking sauces.

An evening in Austin
That evening, we are back in Austin and dine at a North Italia at the Domain. Established in 2002, it proudly states that it makes everything from scratch every day. In the small plates, the crisp calamari and the braised meatballs are superb and my main course, comprising seared divers scallops are simply sublime. I also particularly like the wine we have.

It is a red wine blend called Crush from the Dreaming Tree Winery that is co-owned by Dave Mathews of the Dave Mathews Band.

Even though the next day is officially the first day of fall, the mercury rides high in the gauges. This means it’s the best time to visit Barton Springs. Situated in Zilker Park, the pool, which is filled from underground springs, is spread over three acres and has an average temperature of 20-21°C. It is ideal for swimming all year round.

Don’t take my word about how pretty Austin is. Head to the 360 Bridge Overlook and hike all the way to a scenic viewpoint. As you watch the wide Colorado River flowing past and the rugged cliffs, you’ll know you’re looking at something unforgettable.

Fact file
Getting there:
Austin is an easy drive from Dallas and Houston. Qatar Airways flies to both these destinations with convenient and comfortable flights (www.qatarairways.com)

What to do: Austin is a foodie’s delight. Drive downtown to Wonderland for some great local food. Don’t forget to try the Fire Eagle IPA from Austin Beerworks, a local microbrewery. It is hoppy and malty with a lasting, bitter finish. A trip to Austin is not complete without a halt at Fredericksburg, the capital of Gillespie County. This region’s wine industry is already being called ‘Mini Napa’

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