Originally published in Austin Monthly, June 2015 Issue
RUSTIC CUISINE AND WARM SERVICE TAKE FLIGHT AT APIS RESTAURANT AND APIARY IN SPICEWOOD
A seasoned chef opens a restaurant, driven by a respect for his ingredients, a passion for his craft and a desire to share his vision with willing diners. It’s a familiar trope, to be sure, but one that only describes part of Taylor Hall’s journey. His was also inspired by a crisis.
A veteran of Brennan’s in New Orleans, Postrio and Boulevard in San Francisco and Supper Underground here in Austin, Hall was moved to action after learning about colony collapse disorder, or CCD. The phenomenon was identified in 2006 after honeybees began dying off in record numbers. The why remains a mystery, but one thing is certain: These mighty pollinators are crucial to our food supply to the tune of $15 billion annually. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service attributes one in every three mouthfuls we eat to honeybee pollination, from the obvious produce to dairy and beef. Cattle also eat food that grows, after all.
Hall and Casie, his wife and restaurant co-owner, began keeping bees at their Spicewood home, and his vision of opening a restaurant morphed into a dining model that supported a more sustainable cycle, complete with a thriving apiary full of food-producing pollinators. Apis opened in early February, and vision became reality. Situated on 6 acres bordering the Pedernales River, the restaurant sits at the front of the property, while the 20-hive apiary is at the back, separated by a feeding barrier so colony denizens don’t stray too close to diners. The Halls plan to start a garden on the premises to supplement the menu, and they harvest their honey to use in the restaurant.
The decor pays homage as much to its namesake apis mellifera as it does to the surrounding landscape. Rough-hewn wood and limestone echo the hardscrabble beauty of the Hill Country, and hexagonal design elements like wood inlay and faceted light fixtures recall the geometry of the comb—an apparent motif, yet gracefully employed. The intimate dining room is as welcoming as the service, though confoundingly devoid of natural light. With only dinner service Wednesday through Saturday as of this writing, it’s a quibble, to be sure, but what a shame it was to miss the hills aglow with sunset just outside the shaded windows. (Right as we went to press, the restaurant added a Sunday brunch.)
Nods to the almighty bee are evident on the menu, though it’s not a through line that’s forced, to the kitchen’s credit. Honey mostly shows up where it’s opportune, in a honey vinegar dressing on butter lettuce accompanied by ricotta and hazelnuts; in several cocktails, including the dangerously drinkable Apiary, a delicate blend of honeycomb–infused Texas bourbon, lemon, sarsaparilla and dry curacao; and in a substantial and gorgeously lacquered cast iron skillet–baked honey bun topped with pecans from Katy and horchata ice cream. (Save room for that!) Honey also appears less successfully in a valley grapefruit mignonette, the sweetness masking the taste of the less briny of the oyster duo. But it was welcome in the honey butter topped with bee pollen that accompanied the biscuits.
As of my March and April visits, the menu felt like it was still finding its footing, with no apparent focus beyond the inspiration of seasonal ingredients, much of which is done quite well. The bright green spring pea soup punctuated with chunks of smoked pork and fresh mint served atop a savory Parmesan custard was a triumph of texture, beautifully capturing the essence of the season, as did a light but intensely flavored sorbet made with Poteet strawberries, accompanied by a lovely lemon verbena meringue, goat’s milk ice cream and a Thai basil oil. Other items feature rustic cuisine that seems right at home in the Hill Country, from a selection of housemade salumi to a chestnut pasta topped with a wild pork ragu. The meat in both dishes is sourced from the North Texas Hapgood Ranch, which does its part to control the wild hog population by putting them to delicious use.
Additional winners include a snack of egg toast, with two pieces of grilled brioche married by whipped egg yolks and topped with cured salmon belly and smoked roe; the flounder and ruby red shrimp, a vibrant variety with an exceptionally short season and a sweet tenderness due to the greater depths at which they dwell, served with potato, celtuce (a lettuce cultivar prized for its large, nutty tasting stem) and chorizo; and at $64, possibly the most expensive—but also most tender and silky—chicken I’ve tasted short of Hainanese chicken rice. A foie gras mousseline is layered under the skin of a whole chicken (hence the steep price), which is then steamed until done and then roasted for a crisp browned finish. Served on a bed of popcorn grits (a coarsely ground heirloom variety that’s been soaked in popcorn-infused milk) and drizzled with buttermilk jus, it was enticing and rewarding enough to make me halt my moratorium of ordering chicken in a restaurant, after being bored by one too many dreary poultry entrees.
While most menu offerings pleased, some didn’t. For instance, we found the lovely mix of lobster and peekytoe crab completely overpowered by the grilled escarole wrapped around it. In the Colorado lamb trio, the merguez, while flavorful, was a little dry, and the confit obscured by its crisp wrapper. The accompanying lamb shoulder, however, was magnificent, as was the chickpea cake, which I feared would be dense but wasn’t. Occasional unevenness and wandering focus aren’t unforgiveable sins in a menu, which is an evolving organism, after all. Trial and error are necessary steps to mastery, and diners forgive it when they want to repeat their experience and recommend it. I would, and I have with Apis—a success in my book.