[review] Keep Austin Weird. That’s the motto of this city…and while it does have plenty of ‘weird’ attitude and quirks unique to Austin, it also has some surprisingly fantastic fine dining. We knew this was a foodie town, but once we started exploring it became near impossible to stop eating our way through the streets.
There’s something to be said for effort, and for that matter, a serious lack of effort. You can have the location, the chef with the great reputation, the almost too perfectly impact interior—but once you start coasting on your reputation or location, it’s not the same. So many restaurants in the ‘big cities’ (i.e. New York, L.A., etc.) know they are sort of shoo ins to the visitors and locals alike. They source local produce, get the celebrity chef’s name on the menu (even if he’ll never cook there) and assume all is well. Don’t get me wrong, the diners will come. And no one will be disappointed. But so often no one leaves thrilled either.
Simply put, creativity, ingenuity and an honest eagerness to please is a trifecta we don’t come across often. Lucky for us, we found it in the charming intimate dining experience at Congress in downtown Austin, Texas. Home to a mecca of gourmet food trucks, we were pleasantly surprised to also find this exquisite culinary experience from Chef David Bull.
The cuisine is ‘Natural American’ and really focuses on fresh ingredients and technical dishes that aren’t overworked. The atmosphere—and every plate—is elegant and self-composed, the epitome of southern hospitality and charm. The seven-course chef’s tasting, or a three-course prix fixe menu (with an optional fourth course, plus dessert) both showcase flavors that are unique in pairing and yet not so far off that they make you feel like you’re on that cooking show with those mystery ingredients.
The atmosphere is inviting and sophisticated without being pretentious and pushy. Also, you won’t hear the soft hum of classical music in your ear – instead you’ll find yourself tapping your wingtips to the beat of a Velvet Underground tune that reminds you of your first love. Congress is genius at unlikely pairings – fine dining and indie rock. Who knew?
Items like the lofty and exquisitely balanced combinations of sous-vide artichoke with tart grape agrodolce and a creamy burrata that escapes wateriness set the tone for a fantastic evening. The slow poached egg with jasmine rice and peanuts outdoes itself with the addition of a sweet and spicy yellow curry. While there is invention it never feels showy or smug; a capable precision brings purpose to each bell and whistle. Likewise, at the bar, near-perfect frothing, blending, and muddling gives weight to the cleverness of certain combinations. The spectacular wine list is generous with its range, yet makes no concessions, and great advice is easy to come by.
Rare is the Austin restaurant that nails all the necessary elements, but when it does, it’s worth every penny.