The road to the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse is well known to most Austinites as it’s the same road that leads to the Oasis and the cliffs of Hippy Hollow, but taking that left turn onto Steiner Ranch Boulevard just a few yards before the familiar right is in effect a vast distance in the experience that awaits.
Situated on a high hill with spectacular views of Lake Travis, the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse sits in part of what was once a 5,200-acre working cattle ranch. Now a thriving upscale community on the banks of Lake Austin, the ranch’s origins go back to the early part of the last century and the family patriarch Thomas Casper “Buck” Steiner.
Buck was as famous for his rodeo career and rodeo traveling company (among other exploits) as he was for being the long-time owner of the Capitol Saddlery on Lavaca Street. The shop which opened its doors in the 1930s eventually employed over 100 people and even supplied saddles through Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward’s catalogs. Their custom cowboy boots created by master bootmaker Charlie Dunn were famous and expensive, selling for as much as $500 in the 1960s.
The long success of the saddle shop is credited for funding the purchase of the vast tracts of land that eventually became the Steiner Ranch.
Successive generations of Steiners have carried on the rodeo tradition; Buck’s son Tommy took over the Steiner Rodeo Company with his wife Joleen in the mid-1940s, and as a nod to his years of success in the arena, he was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1995.
Bobby Steiner (Tommy’s middle son) became a world champion Bull Rider while others branched out into famous music careers.
In the mid-1980s the ranch was partitioned for development. It’s funny to think that some of the first houses in the early Steiner Ranch developments still shared their yards with the occasional group of cattle.
By the 1990s the housing boom saw the quick expansion of subdivisions and schools, and in 2003 the prestigious University of Texas Golf Club opened at the ranch.
In 2008 partners Bobby Steiner, Don Burdette, and Kelly Gray opened the Steakhouse in what was originally meant to be a grand residence. Additions would eventually expand the structure to 14,000 square feet!
Today the restaurant is a thriving enterprise with upwards of several hundreds of covers per night. It encompasses three dining spaces; the large “great room,” the popular ‘Sunnyside’ with its panoramic views, and the Travis Room. There are also rooms for special events on the upper floors with the same stunning views. Lastly, there is a large and very popular patio bar which features live music and dancing.
Manager Jason Bailey tells me that Bobby Steiner (in his 60s now and a bit less active in the day to day workings of the restaurant) still calls in to see if the band is up to snuff and the patio’s energy is good. Live music is featured on the “Hill Top Stage” seven days a week as is a live piano player in the dining room.
When you walk into the restaurant the tall timbered ceiling, the wood and stone plus some impressive western bronzes give an elegant hunting lodge feel. Placed throughout are beautiful leather saddles – some original Buck Steiner’s included. Eventually, you notice the long glass wall enclosing some of the nearly 9,000 bottles of wine in the restaurant’s collection.
My latest two dinners at the restaurant were truly special. I was able to attend one of Steiner’s bi-monthly wine dinners. I feel tremendously lucky to have happened on a vertical tasting of premier Sonoma County’s Jordan Winery. Jordan has been making wine since 1972, and they produce some of the most beautiful and coveted cabernet sauvignons in the country.
The tasting was held on the 3rd floor of the restaurant with beautiful views all around – several elegant tables were set with soldier-like rows of wine glasses on label facsimiles of the wines were going to enjoy.
We were all greeted personally by Steiner’s Beverage Director and Sommelier Joel Prato, who hails from northern California and whose family not only produces wine but has produced four sommeliers to date! Originally a successful actor, Joel eventually became a sommelier and has worked for the likes of Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame and at the “swanky steakhouse” Boa in West Hollywood. (Think TMZ paparazzi.)
Acting seems to have given Joel a presence as he works a room comfortably and builds excitement between courses.
Our first glass of the evening was a delicious 2016 Jordan Russian River Chardonnay – crisp and filled with aromas of citrus blossom and flavors from Meyer lemon to pear.
Executive Chef Angel Lopez and his team had prepared an amazing seared, sliced duck breast as a first course. The duck was served on micro-greens and Belgian endive with just a wash of Champagne vinaigrette. One of my table mates made an involuntary appreciative sound on the first bite of duck. I couldn’t help but agree.
Next up, was the first set of Jordan Alexander Valley Cabs – Joel poured the 2009, 2010 and 2014. They each had distinct aromas – beautiful blueberry notes in the 2010, black cherry with just a hint of mint in the 2009, and black fruit/currant aromas and flavors in the 2014. To complement these, we received in succession; a large short rib cooked to a buttery softness followed by a stunning aged Platinum Wagyu steak from A Bar N Ranch and a venison lollypop.
As we got the steak, the second set of Cabs were poured; the Jordan Alexander Valley 2005, 2006 and 2007. The 2005 was more complex in aromas with cooked black fruit and hints of tobacco and a dried floral note. The flavors were smooth dried cherry and blackberry. The 2006 leaned more towards red fruit; cherries, raspberry with some baking spices. These aromas were echoed in the flavors and long finish. The 2007 was again black fruit, blackberry, black currant, and a cedar note. The taste carried a note of vanilla from the French Oak barrels used.
Our last bite of the evening was a small but intense piece of flourless chocolate cake paired with a 20-year-old Grahams Tawney port in the biggest bottle I’ve ever seen. Joel personally managed through connections in Portugal to be one of only three restaurants in Texas with 4.5-liter bottles of this fantastic, just sweet enough, port.
My next visit a week later was just as remarkable. I was greeted kindly at the door and having arrived early; I managed to steal a little time from Manager Jason and had another visit with Somm Joel. Jason was kind enough to give me some of the colorful history of the family and pointed out the family nature of not only the ownership but the staff as well. His philosophy honed from managing several other steak houses was to try and “provide a place that has everything” – comfort, great service, great food, and excellent wine. He and Somm Joel proudly pointed out that their most recent award was a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence (two glasses). According to Wine Spectator, these are restaurants that “are destinations for serious wine lovers, showing a deep commitment to wine, both in the cellar and through their service team.” (The other same level award in town happened to be Jeffrey’s in Clarksville)
Steiner’s wine cellar boasts over 650 labels with a couple of dozen by the glass. It is a very approachable wine list with a good assortment of well-known wines at good price points and a great number of world varietal selections. The list has a good concentration of reds – over 130 featured cabernet sauvignons, and almost 60 pinot noirs from various regions on their standard menu.
Several hundred more labels cover France, Spain, Austria, Northern, and Central Italy and happily even a few in Texas.
Their Cattle Baron’s Selections has another 40 prestige California labels including several vintages of cult-favorite Harlan Estates, several offerings from Schrader and some from Colgin and Scarecrow. The prices are however commensurate with the ‘Cattle Baron’ designation.
Before dinner I got to try Joel’s family wine Vapor Trail from Oak Farms – this 2017 Zinfandel is available at the restaurant in limited quantities. It’s a big jammy Zin with deep plum notes. Interestingly, its smoothness comes with a surprising 16.5% alcohol.
My Friday night dinner was in the beautiful Sunnyside room – essentially a large solarium with beautiful sunsets. My waiter James was a great combination of professional and friendly demeanor. He kept an easy, comfortable pace to my meal.
I started my meal with Oysters Rockefeller, (it was a difficult decision with a dozen or so other items like snow crab legs and crab cocktail on the menu.) Somm Joel paired it with a 2016 Premier Cru Chablis ‘Les Forêts’ by Domaine Vocoret & Fils – This Premier Cru white Burgundy is only about $50 retail and paired with the oysters it was absolutely perfect. It was crisp with flavors of apple, citrus and the classic chalky minerality you would expect from a good Burgundy.
My soup came with a story. Don Burdette was in house, and he was kind enough to stop by my table. He explained that the bisque-like She Crab soup was a favorite of his as well. He had been vacationing in the Bahamas years ago and came across a restaurant that served this wonderful soup. He offered to be quite generous if he could get the recipe. Lucky for all of he was successful.
Although there are seven primary steak options, ranging from the 7oz filet mignon to the 28oz porterhouse, there are a few special options. I opted for the 8oz Platinum Wagyu again as it had been the nicest steak I’ve eaten in a very long time. The steak was seared and cooked just enough to leave a beautiful texture, and the flavor was extraordinary. Some of the premium steaks are wet-aged up to 45 days leading to a very deep flavor. I was asked to verify the preferred doneness of the steak when it arrived – a nice but genuine touch. A simple side of asparagus and some sautéed mushrooms was all that was needed to complete the dish.
I personally prefer a medium body for my red wines avoiding the really large Cabs that to me can sometimes overpower a great steak. Joel paired my steak with a 2014 Sea Smoke “Southing” Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills California (92 points Wine Enthusiast / 91 Wine Spectator). It was just the right weight to complement the flavorful steak. It had the expected cherry, red plum aromas and beautiful hints of baking spice imparted by the new French oak barrels used at the winery.
In addition to the primary steak options, Steiner’s has a variety of seafood and other specialty items – one colleague (a Steiner Ranch resident) is particularly fond of the Chicken Fried Elk. Blackened Salmon, Lobster Tails, Scallops, Shrimp and Flounder round out some of the other popular options.
My last bite of the evening was a simple piece of Key Lime (cheesecake). Light in texture and delicate in flavor, it was the only thing that could have finished the meal properly….except… ever the showman, Joel came by with the monster bottle of the Graham’s 20-Year Tawny.
By the end of my meal, the sun had long since set. I sat and enjoyed my port and was able to absorb the atmosphere of the place. Just outside of the window on the large patio, shiny lights hung over the crowd, and as the band played country-western music, the dancefloor came to life. In my dining room, I was most pleasantly surprised at the mix of people; families, romantic dates, and a large, boisterous table enjoying a late-night meal – all of the young men in cowboy hats! The atmosphere was modern Texas but with a friendliness from another time. The crowd was diverse, comfortable, and all happily sharing the best the Steakhouse had to offer.
On my way out, I noticed several guests hugging the staff goodbye.
It doesn’t get better than this.
OTL Features Editor