Notes From the Field: Hill Country

Our critics give new restaurants a quick look and report back with their first impressions.

This highly anticipated New York City import channels the raucous spirit of a Texas roadhouse, from the neon signs around the bar to the long wooden tables to, especially, the happy-making smell of smoked meat. In Texas, barbecue doesn't mean ribs or pulled pork, it means beef—more specifically, hulking slabs of brisket that have been dry-rubbed and cooked "low and slow" over an open pit or in a smoker.

Hill Country serves its brisket two ways: "lean" and "moist." The latter is brisket at its very best—gloriously tender, unctuously rich, with a deep pink hue that points to a thorough penetration of smoke and a nice, thick bark. Barbecue purists will tell you that authentic barbecue doesn't need sauce to be good, and this is precisely what they're talking about.

 I don't know whether it's an indictment of the sad state of 'cue in DC or a testament to the seriousness of Hill Country's mission to say this, but here we are: Less than a week into the restaurant's existence and its "moist" is already the best barbecue to be had in the area.

I also loved a link of sausage from the famous Kreuz market in Lockhart (the casing pops when you pierce it, revealing a fine-grained, well-spiced sausage inside). A Cornish hen, cooked in the beer-can manner advocated by some grill masters, was tasty, if not particularly memorable. The ribs are massive, but invariably the thick, meaty side was tender and juicy, while its opposite was dry. (Note to the pitmaster: The ribs, the moist brisket, and prime rib were all too salty, and the lean and prime rib were also slightly oversmoked.)

Of the four sides I tried, the best by far was the pickled sliced cucumbers, which were perfectly done. The bourbon-spiked sweet potatoes were good, too. The potato salad was fine. The campfire-style beans tasted too strongly of beer.

You can purchase the meats a la a carte, or opt for one of the packaged meals. Both are expensive. One packaged meal comes with a variety of meats and a slew of sides and is advertised as being a meal for two; it costs $47 and could probably feed three. A la carte means buying by the pound; "moist" goes for $22 per.

Don't count on any adjustments in the price scale—Hill Country is smack in the heart of Penn Quarter and aimed at flush young professionals and tourists; the suits who filled the dining room the night I was there didn't seem to blink.

Nor do I expect the system for ordering and paying to be addressed, though some kind of re-think is clearly in order. The system is meant to streamline things for the restaurant, but in so doing, it makes things harder for the diner. When you sit down, you're handed a meal-ticket card. Items are marked off as you order, as if this were a dim sum hall. You're reminded not to misplace your card, to keep it with you at all times. When you're done eating, you take your card and stand in line for five minutes or more waiting for the cashier, as if you were being rung up for groceries.

I can think of one advantage to standing that long afterward: helps to settle some of that meat.

Hill Country, 410 Seventh Street, Northwest; 202-556-2050. Open daily for dinner; lunch coming in the next few weeks. 


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