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Breathtaking in Austin: The Perfect Medicine

 

Song Pairing: The Breath You Take – George Strait

The lake was still tranquil aside from ripples caused by occasional jumping fish and gentle swirls from the paddle blade. The morning was peaceful, birds stretched their wings in the cooler air before heat drove them into thick tree cover, their tweets lyrical and apolitical.

After 45 minutes of cruising the Colorado River, I steered the yellow kayak toward the boat dock and inhaled deeply the scent from the nearby herb garden. The smell was a combination of rosemary, lavender, oregano, thyme, and renewal. I focused on my breathing, uncontained by stress, unveiled, my breath a gift of life; I took in the scent, a gift of the moment. My first morning at Lake Austin Spa Resort was restorative.

Tired of Sweltering in Place

It was the second week of July and I felt like I had been sweltering in place for years. Trips to Mexico and Florida were canceled, the holiday-less period until Labor Day loomed ahead bleakly. With the country starting to reopen, I decided the time was right for a change of scenery that would not involve commercial transportation and would infuse money back into the local economy. The perfect solution turned out to be Lake Austin Spa Resort, the 19-acre luxury wellness resort on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin.

Back in early March, I had lunch with Mike McAdams, co-owner of the wellness retreat, who, with several key team members, was in Dallas to promote the resort’s recent $2 million renovation. The pandemic interrupted their media tour and my plans to visit.  But now, determined to leave town, I connected with the resort and made the easy three-hour drive a few weeks later.

Breath

The thing that, during a pandemic, can be a contagion is the very same thing that revives and energizes us. In fact, it is life itself.  As I was headed to Lake Austin Spa, I was grieving the loss of a friend who had just passed away after a battle with cancer. While I was at the spa, I learned about the passing of another friend who died tragically and unexpectedly. I’m very grateful to have been in such a beautiful, peaceful setting while I was processing this.

The composition of Lake Austin Spa and the programming it offers is intentional and healing. Paddling in the mornings while the water was still and the air was thick with dew required me to breathe deeply, thoughtfully. I haven’t felt more present in any moments this year than when I was there, watching turtles pop up to the surface of the lake and birds glide from tree-to-tree.

In three words, Lake Austin Spa is: Intentional, Peaceful, Restorative.

Lake Austin Spa Resort closed down March 21, during their busiest time of year, and reopened July 1 after developing and implementing comprehensive health and safety standards, protocol and training for employees including servers, housekeepers, spa technicians, massage therapists, fitness instructors, programming consultants such as chefs, musicians, mediation experts, and others who provide their services for LASR’s unique wellness-focused programs and activities.  I reviewed the information on the website and felt safe with their approach.

The resort only has 40 rooms, each of them separate with no shared ventilation or air conditioning, and has limited occupancy during the pandemic.

Plus, the unique feature of the resort is its natural setting. Its irreplaceable location on the banks of Lake Austin, the shade trees, landscaping, and thoughtful outdoor spaces, and its minimal public spaces make Lake Austin Spa especially suitable for guests during this time.

Welcome

From the moment you enter the gates, it is clear that management has put thought into the guest experience relative to keeping everyone safe. Hand sanitizer is perched at the gate keypad so you can use it before and after you call the front desk to announce your arrival.  There are sanitizing stations located throughout the resort so anyone can take a squirt of sanitizer or a sanitizing wipe when and where they need one. All employees are masked indoors, and the same is required of guests.  Temperatures are taken daily at the front desk and color-coded wrist bands are issued daily to indicate the guest and employee has had his or her temperature checked and is normal, a requirement for any guest participating in an activity.

Rooms

Guestrooms, recently renovated and presented in a calming light aqua, tan, and white color scheme are immaculate and spacious. Each room is deep cleaned and sanitized prior to guest arrival and is outfitted with the resort’s private-label lavender amenities of bar soap, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion. Daily housekeeping service is discontinued as a health and safety measure, but whatever you need is a phone call away and a member of the housekeeping staff can deliver it to your door.

My husband and I stayed in room 20, which included a small workstation with easy-access plugs and ports and a spacious back patio, which included a hot tub. Connectivity was perfect and we had no issues when our Zoom/Microsoft Team online meetings took place concurrently.

I got a peak at the Lady Bird Suite, which is their version of the Presidential Suite and it is gorgeous, features fabulous antiques and a sitting room, expanded back patio with table and chairs suitable for a small dinner party. When I hit the big time, I will stay there.

Cuisine

Chef Stepháne Beaucamp has led the culinary mission there for nine years and still, he manages to keep it fresh and creative.  His menu is innovative, relying heavily on locally-sourced plants and protein.  Spa cuisine is meant to be healthy, low cal, and low carb, and Chef Beaucamp’s is, but his cuisine is abundant with flavors, textures, and visual appeal which, to me, made every meal feel indulgent and luxurious.

Preparing nutritious, tasty meals is labor intensive, time consuming, and requires technical expertise for preparing ingredients in ways that magnify the flavor, texture, and color without adding fat or salt. Every menu item I tasted, which was a lot, I confess, was memorable and bursting with flavor.

Lake Austin Spa is an all-inclusive property, so all meals are included in the price per person per night. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the main dining room and the adjacent outdoor patio.  Menus are presented using a QR code you can scan with your phone and on a disposable paper menu.  Dinner specials are featured on an A-frame stand. The Aster Café up at the spa also serves lunch packaged to-go so you take choose to eat in the lovely dining room there or go picnic anywhere on the grounds.

Some of the lunch menu standouts include Texas Pecan Vegan Tacos, which uses chopped pecans as a beef substitute, giving a rich, slightly crunchy texture with a slightly spicy kick. Tacos are served with gently pickled onions, avocado, and pico de gallo on corn tortillas.

Another standout was the open-faced falafel burger which piled hummus, tzatziki, a slice of heirloom tomato, arugula, cucumber, red onion, and feta atop a house-made falafel patty. It was flavorful and filling and only 231 calories which allowed me to partake guilt-free in the pistachio frozen yogurt dessert.  The lunch menu offers salads and Power Bowls with protein options such as Red Bird Farm chicken, grilled avocado, and sustainable salmon.

Dinner is by reservation only to ensure guests are appropriately distanced and the restaurant adheres to maximum occupancy guidelines. The menu is robust and offers a selection of interesting salads such as the Vitamin Boost Salad with citrus, fennel, radishes, herbs, watercress, and pistachios in a honey Dijon vinaigrette and main courses with chicken, fish, beef, and vegetarian options.  As I mentioned, Chef Beaucamp is a genius with vegetables, and the dinner sides are each works of art.

Roasted cauliflower side dish

Roasted cauliflower with harissa, cucumber, pomegranate seeds, almonds, and charred broccolini were big on flavor and virtually fat free.

Wine, beer, and cocktails are available for an additional cost and the list is approachable and well-priced. Dessert options change nightly and could easily pass as some something you’d expect to find at The Mansion Restaurant in Dallas, including a chocolate mille feuille with a passion fruit sauce and a stunning raspberry bread pudding.

Spa

This photo predates COVID19. All spa staff and
guests are required to wear masks

Really, the whole point of coming to Lake Austin Spa and Resort is the spa. A brief shady, scenic walk from the guest rooms, the spa is an impressive building positioned between the Pool Barn, where guests take aqua fitness classes, therapies and swimming, and the Palm Pool, an aquatic retreat with shaded cabanas and chaises for lounging.

Spa personnel take guest’s temperature or look to ensure they are wearing the proper wrist band for the day prior to check-in. The ground-floor locker room is well equipped and has a lovely shaded patio for relaxing before or after treatments, or guests can go upstairs to the Blue Room, which perhaps is the most memorable room in the entire resort. The massive yet cozy room is Austin Hill Country chic, with a cornflower blue vaulted ceiling, paneled walls, clerestory windows, and botanical and bird prints on the walls.  The room is elegant and comfortable, and I thought it almost a shame to leave when called for my treatment.

Therapists and technicians carefully explained the sanitation and safety precautions they take to ensure guest and employee safety.  The rooms are thoroughly sanitized, and therapists wear masks during the treatment as do guests unless they are getting a facial. Something I noticed on this and my previous visit to the spa is the commitment to wellness that each therapist demonstrates.  I have had two significant injuries that throw my entire musculoskeletal system out of whack.  The therapists at LASR, more than any I’ve had before at a spa, are interested in how the injuries occurred and how they impact me on a day-to-day basis.  With that knowledge, these therapists focused on the areas that would be most beneficial to me and I left my treatments feeling relaxed, steady, and more upright than I had in a while.

In keeping with its natural wellness vibe, LASR includes the Naturopathica treatment line, which is an all-natural, plant-based line used for my Luminous Skin Brightening Facial. Two of the products were so impressive I ended up buying them: the Manuka Honey Cleansing Balm and the Sweet Cherry Enzyme Peel which was gentle but effective and looks and smells like something you’d smear on a biscuit.

Programming

In a non-pandemic time, Lake Austin Spa offers hundreds of different classes, activities, and events for guests, some cost extra, some don’t. Though they are scaled back a bit now, there were still plenty of things to do.

Guests are advised to review the options prior and book in advance as some activities have guest limits to ensure proper social distancing. For me, my goal was to make this visit an investment in my health and well-being so I can return home with knowledge I can apply back in the real world.

This is not a a photo of my actual treatment. Photo courtesy of LASR

To that end, I signed up for an AquaStretch™  Myofacial Release upon my arrival and spent one hour one-on-one in the Pool Barn with Monica, a certified aqua fitness professional. This is a great treatment for anyone who is stiff, sore, or spends hours at a time in the same position, such as surgeons, who make up a large segment of Monica’s clients.  After I was loosened up, I trekked over to the Fitness Center to meet with Paul for a Functional Movement Assessment, which, even as loosened up as I was from my previous treatment, I still flunked.  However, included with the cost of the assessment is access to the Functional Movement Systems app and a personalized fitness routine that I can do at home. Both treatments cost extra.

Visiting Chef Beth Pav preps for class

The resort has a spacious and well-equipped demonstration kitchen and classroom where cooking classes are offered several times a week, led by Chef Beaucamp and local guest chefs. Chef is an engaging, entertaining teacher who prepared Baja Shrimp Tacos for the group of eight guests who all admitted to cooking more at home during the pandemic and saw this class as a way to expand their culinary repertoire. When I mentioned my failure in pandemic bread baking, Chef spent a few minutes to share bread-making hacks to the guests who also copped to unsuccessful pandemic bread baking.

Programming doesn’t end when the sun goes down and guests can take advantage of an outdoor lullaby concert by local musicians, meditation practices for bedtime, or watercolor classes. Or, if you’d rather, find an empty hammock or bring a blanket and find a spot to listen to nature and stargaze.

Pricing

Lake Austin Spa is an all-inclusive resort, so rooms, food and non-alcoholic beverages, most water and ground activities, classes, activities, events and parking are included in the price. 

At first glance, the rates might give you sticker shock, but when you break down costs, it’s completely in-line with any luxury property without pricey airfare. Activities that cost extra include the evening wine cruise, water sports such as tubing, skiing, and wakeboarding. Wellness is worth the investment–more so, in my view, than a handbag, shoes, or the latest fashion trend. Today, two weeks after I returned home from Lake Austin Spa Resort, I feel more energetic and optimistic, and I’ve lost two pandemic pounds from the healthy cooking tips, exercise plan, and motivation I got at the spa.

Many of the guests during our mid-week visit were women on mother-daughter, sister, or girlfriend getaways. In fact, I ran across several locals including Kelly Yandell, author of The Meaning of Pie blog, who was there with her incoming ESD senior daughter, Lily. Lamenting canceled spring break and epic summer trips, Kelly and Lily took every advantage of their time at the spa, including Kelly slalom skiing for the first time in two decades (being pulled by the resort’s resident former NCAA champion water skier) and the both of them challenging us to a dessert eat-off (which they won).

There were a few couples there as well, so my husband didn’t feel completely out of place, though he wants to return for a couple’s weekend when guest demographics are more evenly split male and female.

I look forward to returning there to enjoy it during cooler weather, taste what Chef does with fall and winter produce, and restore the halo of wellness I gained there this summer.

Tips

Be sure to visit The Garden Room

Every room is lovely, some have covered porches with comfy chairs, perfect for morning coffee. Many guests walk around in spa robes or athletic apparel and even show up for dinner that way.  It’s perfectly acceptable and, in fact, encouraged.  Just be comfortable (and covered). Be sure to fully understand which activities and events cost extra, you don’t want a surprise at check out and it isn’t fair to the front desk staff when guests react poorly to their bill.  

The gift shop and spa shop are well curated and worth visits. Included in my package were discount coupons for each and I shopped in each, picking up a pair of light-as-a-feather Anatomie travel pants and a LASR resort tee for my husband at the main shop. Check-in time is 4 p.m., but you can go “on property” and use the activities while your room is being prepared. Check out time is noon, so I checked out, left my bags at the front desk, and headed to the spa for a facial before driving home. Parking is a breeze and free, unlike many resorts. The spots, some shaded, were filled with luxury SUVs and sedans and are located conveniently close to the guest rooms.

For more information on Lake Austin Spa, visit their website https://www.lakeaustin.com/.

https://www.peoplenewspapers.com/2020/07/29/breathtaking-in-austin-the-perfect-medicine/

Taco-Bout: Pick Sides in this Food Fight

In 1000 AD, Archeologists discovered pre-hispanic comal “ovens” used to cook corn tortillas.  Since then, or maybe before then (this isn’t a history lesson) people have been eating tacos. Tacos have earned a place of great culinary and cultural importance and in 2009 the first National Taco Day was created. Taco aficionados everywhere assumed the taco could receive no greater honor than that, until October 2015 when the taco emoji came out. Since then, the taco has never looked back.

October 4 is National Taco Day and, thanks to the overwhelming success of People Newspapers’ Mac-Off, we will pit neighbor against neighbor, taco against taco to determine the Peoples’ Choice for best taco in town. For more about People Newspapers and its dedication to the fine art of tacos and everything else, read more here

Vote HERE for your favorite taco.  Voting ends October 2 at noon and the winner will be crowned October 4. 

DIVE INTO THE LIGHT: FRANCHESCA NOR

Song Pairing: In the Light by Led Zepplin

When she was 30 years old, Franchesca Nor had her first baby, an aqua, navy and seafoam progeny she named Dive Coastal Cuisine. In 2016 she delivered something even more special, her son Archer James. Today, they have each matured and evolved; provided food for the body, soul and heart; and given back.

Cauliflower pizza

Dive continues to be a Park Cities restaurant phenom, serving fresh, sustainable, non-GMO, organic salads, seafood and sandwiches to families, locals and notable chefs alike. Chef/Owner Franchesca has beaten the odds as a restauranteur a few years before her 40th birthday. Though she is well educated and trained, she graduated top of her class at Johnson & Wales culinary school and has worked in virtually every position in a restaurant, she doesn’t directly attribute her blessings to those things. Rather, she says she is where she is today because she’s always believed in her passion and vision, she’s taken a non-traditional path, and allowed herself to make mistakes and learn from them. She’s loyal and believes in taking care of those who take care of you.

Franchesca and her business partner, Victor

Dive has more than 25 employees, many of whom have been there since Day 1, an almost unheard-of feat in the high-turnover restaurant business. The high quality, well-prepared food guests have enjoyed year after year is largely due to consistency in the kitchen. Franchesca’s exacting standards in food quality and preparation are understood by every member of her team and she credits them for Dive’s loyal customer base. In fact, when I asked her what her what she loves most about this business, she paused and got a little choked up. “I’m feeding 25 families,” she said referring to her employees and their families. “That’s the most fulfilling thing about this.”

“You are a leader if your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream, learn and become more.” This was the daily affirmation that happened to pop up on my phone the day I interviewed Franchesca at Dive, where I devoured her new Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Pizza on cauliflower crust, and she inhaled her Tuna Melt. When she told me about the work she does with Youth With Faces, a Dallas-based organization that provides practical life and work skills to youth in the juvenile justice system, the quote immediately came to mind. By any definition, Franchesca is a leader. She and others help the teens discover a passion, purpose and a view of their potential far bigger than what their environments have offered so far. She introduces new foods, like the time she served a group of uneasy teens quinoa and calamari (they loved it) and has written and cataloged recipes for the program. She recently was invited to join the Dallas chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international philanthropic group for women in the culinary arts.

Franchesca and me at her Les Dames d’Escoffier Induction

Throughout our lunch, Franchesca was full of optimism, passion and light, appropriate since her surname means ‘light” in Arabic. She exudes gratitude and stokes a dream that will go beyond Dive’s current footprint. Her priority today, of course, is Archer; a little boy who, she humblebrags, prefers to chew leaves from his mama’s backyard chocolate peppermint plant rather than bubblegum.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 edition of People Newspapers.

LISTEN TO THE MOCKINGBIRD GOURMET

Song Pairing: Listen to the Mockingbird

George Lewis Band – Jazz at Preservation Hall

First Impressions . . . 

The first time I met Stephanie Magilow, she was sampling product at Central Market and wearing a food-server’s hairnet. The second time I met her there, she was wearing a hair net. The third time I met her, I didn’t recognize her without her hair net, but I recognized the small jars lined up like buttons on a blouse on an upstairs table at Royal Blue Grocery. She’d brought samples from her new food company, Mockingbird Gourmet.

Stephanie Magilow, creator of Mockingbird Gourmet

The co-creator of Jammit Jam is spreading her wings into a new line of comestibles made with fruit and other ingredients sourced from farms within a 50-mile radius of Dallas and in some cases, even closer – like the herb garden in her Highland Park backyard. The inspiration for the name of this endeavor came from the street on which her grandma lived: Mockingbird Lane, just around the corner from her home. Though she will continue to produce and sell Jammit Jams, she will expand the Mockingbird Gourmet product line to include gems such as limited edition preserves, jams, caramel sauces and, eventually, pastry.

Local sourcing plus fixed seasonality means each batch of jams will be limited editions, with only 60-80 six-ounces jars per run available for sale. Stephanie’s relationships with local famers and Market Provisions at the Dallas Farmer’s Market grants her access to straight-from-the-plant produce which she immediately adds to her recipes. Since North Texas is resplendent with fresh blueberries, figs, strawberries, peaches, tomatoes, peppers, pecans and more, Magilow has great bounty with which to showcase her affinity for combining flavors and developing recipes. If you’ve tasted her jams, you know she can pair surprising flavors to bring out the best of each.

Caramel Sauces are $$$$.

Mockingbird Gourmet debuted in May at the St. Michael’s Farmer’s Market where she sold her Fig Jam, Strawberry Jalapeño Limeade Jam, Moroccan Tomato Jam and her caramel sauces, which are sublime. The Bourbon Vanilla Bean Sea Salt Caramel is made with raw cane sugar and Madagascar vanilla beans which have been soaked in Dallas’ own Herman Marshall Texas Bourbon Whiskey for a year. She also males a vegan and paleo version of the sauce sweetened with maple syrup (obviously not from Texas) and includes coconut oil and almond butter.

Mockingbird Gourmet can be found at the St. Michael’s Farmer’s Market all summer, Market Provisions at the downtown Farmer’s Market and Scardello’s on Oak Lawn. 

Pairing notes: Since I met with Stephanie, the song “Listen to the Mockingbird” has been tapping around my brain. I’m partial to the version from the George Lewis Band recorded at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. My roots run deep in Louisiana; why I love food and music so much, I suppose. I grew up listening to jazz and eating my grandmother’s fig jams and kumquat preserves, made right from the trees in her garden. Stephanie’s jams are made much the same way, with an almost maternal love for the fresh fruit ingredients and farmers who grow them.

This article first appeared in the Park Cities People May 2019 print edition.

 

 

SKINNY FATS: WORTH THE PRAISE

Song Pairing: Praise You by Fatboy Slim

Opposites attract, don’t they? At least they do at SkinnyFATS, a new fast-casual restaurant in the West Village that rolled in from Las Vegas last month. SkinnyFATS is the invention of Reed Slobusky, a Big Lebowski Dude-looking dude with a talent for developing a stand-out concept and an eye for design. Reed’s irreverence is on full display throughout the menu, with item names like “Stuff On Curry,” “Thai Knee Dancer,” and “More Cow Bowl” and in the décor, with the word MALONE written on an imposing structural post near the beverage bay. (If you don’t know what that reference means, ask your teen). 

Have you ever seen someone order a triple cheeseburger, large fries and a Diet Coke? Makes sense, right? Splurge on some things and go easy on others. SkinnyFATS gives you essentially the same choice – go healthy or go happy but with flavorful, innovative options on each side of the menu.

Sweet Cheese Us

The menu is divided into sections featuring Sharables, Soups, Bowls, Tacos, Sandwiches/Burgers and Sides. Breakfast is served all day and has sweet and savory items that sound complicated, such as Chickawaffadopolis (chicken and waffles), and Chiamisu, a coffee-flavored chia pudding with banana and cocoa nibs. Not so complicated.

On the Healthy Side, each menu item is 600 calories or less and everything I’ve tried, which is a lot, is packed with flavor, hardy and sizeable. You don’t just get a clover and a nut on your plate to make it come across healthy and low-cal here. SkinnyFATS loads you up. The Healthy dishes including the Caulifire, Tu-Nuts and Brussel Crowe shareables are robust in flavor and size and each well below the 600-calorie threshold. The Happy Fried Pickles and Pimp Shrimp are guilty pleasures, but they don’t feel fattening and heavy. The calorie counts are not on the Happy side so I assume Reed’s position is “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Bowls, burgers and sandwiches are compelling on both sides of the aisle. All bowls offer optional protein or vegetable supplements including filet mignon, portobello mushroom, ahi tuna, tofu and chicken. Different bowls have different greens or grains and, in the case of the Happy Buff Chix bowl, you get truffle fries which are crisp with not too much truffle. Really good. Burgers and sandwiches are huge, and each order includes one side, making the price range of $9.95 to $13.95, depending on the item, a good value for the high quality.

The side dishes are interesting. The aforementioned truffle fries on the Happy side are in good company with the Healthy sides, for instance the Cauliflower Rice with capers, golden raisins and almonds that really help the cauliflower not taste like cauliflower. The House Salad is vegan, as are many of the menu items and is sprinkled with hemp seasoning (don’t worry mama, it won’t get you high and it’s totally legal in this state).

The restaurant is spacious and well appointed, and the bar is really cool and inviting, with an expansive window making the space indoor-outdoor. And, yes, it will be hot in the summer. SkinnyFATS is familiar with heat, it originated in Nevada, remember? The wine list is a pleasant surprise considering the cheekiness of the menu. With the help of some of the Las Vegas team members, the wine list features wonderful and still not well-known wines, both red and white, from Sardinia and Sicily as well as cabs and cab blends from California and French and California Chardonnays. All are available by the glass or bottle. The beers are all thoughtfully sourced by Reed’s brother who is a beer nerd.

The cocktail menu includes classics like the Noble St. Old Fashioned (my favorite, I’m a whiskey girl, BTW), and the witty “99 Problems, But a Spritz Ain’t One” riff on an Aperol Sprtiz.

The lucky number seventh store, the first outside of Nevada, is located on the corner of McKinney Avenue and Noble Avenue and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and a full bar. The menu offers gluten free, vegetarian and vegan items. The patio is pet friendly and waiting for you, with giant TVs in your sight-line so you can watch the Stanley Cup playoffs. I have to praise SKinnyFATS. It’s really good and I can’t wait to try breakfast.

This story originally ran in Park Cities People and Preston Hollow People. Read it here.

FB: SkinnyFATS (Uptown)
IG: eatskinnyfats

In my first post as food writer for People Newspapers, I should tell you that while many folks pair wine with food, I’ve always paired music with food. I have a vast appetite for both food and music, and they come together for me naturally and, sometimes, improbably. Many of the articles I write here will include a pairing, and I hope you’ll understand and enjoy the thought behind each.