GEORGETOWN -- The appetizer was a show stopper. Golden puff pastries with the diameter of a half-dollar rose from each of six spherical indentations in the classic white escargot dish.
The dish was spattered with butter and grated Gruyère and Parmesan cheeses, which had turned a crusty dark brown and contrasted with the bits of green parsley that dotted it.
The real treasure -- wild snails from the Burgundy region of France -- lurked under the pastry caps in pools of garlic butter with chopped parsley and cheese.
The escargot ($9.95), every bit as good as the ones I devoured in the cafes of Paris earlier this year, were a huge improvement over the snails served in June at Monica's 701 in Georgetown.
They underscore the significant transformation of the restaurant from a no-star eatery to a three-star gem in less than six months.
Owners Jim and Monica McKinney and chef Jim McNeill, who together have the Main Street Grill in Round Rock, deserve accolades for the turnaround.
They used a critical review last summer as the basis for re-evaluating and re-adjusting their dishes, throwing out some and modifying others.
"We have been in business a long time," McKinney said. "It doesn't matter who it is, whether it's some Joe off the street or a food critic, we're in business to make people happy. Although the review hurt and we suffered over it, it also made us better. It really woke us up.
"We have been working our tails off to make sure everything is consistent and good all the time." They are succeeding. In a big way.
This time around, the coconut shrimp ($9.95) were delicious as an appetizer. Covered with a crisp coconut batter that did not hide the sweet, distinct taste of the fruit, the fried butterflied shrimp were moist and tender.
The prime rib ($22.95 for the 12-ounce cut), no longer cooked like a steak as it had been months ago, was a perfect medium rare as ordered, with a flavorful horseradish sauce, mashed potatoes and broccoli on the side.
The chocolate malt cake ($5.95), now stored differently in the refrigerator, was moist and luscious, a multi-layer treat for chocolate lovers.
Monica's salad ($6.50), as always, was a winner, bringing together greens, candied nuts, strawberries and blue cheese crumbles in a maple-balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
An entree not sampled before, the chicken roulade ($17.95) featured pinwheels of chicken breast holding a filling of prosciutto, spinach and cheese. It was served with a veal demi-glace sauce and sides of crisp polenta and broccoli.
The white chocolate bread pudding ($5.95) offered a presentation that was as appealing as it was tasty. Two wedges of pudding separated two sauces, a crème anglaise and a butterscotch sauce spiked with bourbon.
The ambience of Monica's 701 is the one thing that has not changed in the past six months -- and it didn't need to. The historic building on the square in Georgetown is charming, with dining on the street level and upstairs. In addition, the sound-absorbing ceiling and the upholstered seating help create an environment conducive to conversation.
Service was measurably improved, with a waiter who was attentive and knowledgeable.
That upswing in service and food shows the depths of commitment the McKinneys and McNeill have for the business and their patrons. They have turned Monica's 701 into a restaurant that is worthy of being a regional destination.
"Owners, chef polish Monica's into a Georgetown gem", www.austin360.com, 11/24/04, By Dale Rice, American-Statesman Restaurant Critic