The buzz for David Bull’s return to the Austin culinary scene started at least a year ago. First came the news that there would be three spaces. Second would be the more casual bar/restaurant, Congress would be the upscale dining destination, and Bar Congress would concentrate on cocktails and connect the two spaces. Then came the news of his all star cast- Rebecca Meeker (Driskill, L’Atelieras) as chef de cuisine, Adam Bryan (Lamberts, East Side Showroom) as bar manager, June Rodil (Uchi, Texas Best Sommelier 2009) as beverage director, and Plinio Sandalio(Noe, Soma, Textile, James Beard nomination for Best Pastry Chef 2010) as pastry chef. Expectations were soaring as Bull blogged about the progress of the build at base of the luxury condos the Austonian in the heart of downtown. An early fall opening for 2010 was not surprisingly pushed back. Perfection takes time and restaurant perfection takes twice that when you figure in the city of Austin permitting. The restaurant finally premiered in the waning hours of 2010 for a New Year’s Eve bash.
Every report I heard was fantastic but I patiently waited a few weeks just to be sure the restaurant had its legs before venturing in. I could stand it no longer when I read Pat Sharpe’s review in the New York Times and booked a table towards the end of February. I entered the restaurant through Second, a very modern looking space with a great people watching windows and deck. No happy hour yet but rumored plans of one will bring me back. I stopped at Bar Congress, the small almost hall-like area for a brief chat with Adam Bryan and to sip on his delicious take on a gin and tonic, the Congress GT. Bryan infuses the gin with hops that gives the drink the color and flavor of beer. With house made quinine, of course. Great start to the evening.
The dining area at Congress is intimate with high ceilings, gorgeous lighting, and varying shades of off white. Service was concerned without hovering and friendly without being overly familiar. I ordered a glass of a “safe” Spanish red which I knew would be good but when I inquired about a bolder choice, I was promptly brought a sample of my new favorite red, the 2003 Hochar Pere et Fils, Chateau Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. The silky texture was punctuated with spice and big red fruit that settled into a finish of leather and tea leaves.
The 3 course tasting for $65 gives the diner their choice among some drool inducing options of 2 starters and a main course. There is also a 7 course chefs tasting which looks to have increased from when I was there to $110. Add on some “Enhancements” like foie gras mousse for $22, American Ossetra caviar for $36, or the dessert tasting for $22 and we are venturing into “renegotiating my home loan to be able to afford dinner” territory. I will say now, it is worth every penny but be warned you may have to eat on the cheap for a month afterwards until your food budget balances out again.
My first course is the lead picture on this post of the steak tartare with oysters and truffles. When it first arrived, I delicately tasted each component noting the individual flavors and textures, which were delicious but not mind blowing. Then I composed the “perfect bite.” You know the one, a little of each element gathered on the fork in hopeful anticipation. That bite transformed the notes of each into a harmonious song on my tongue. Who would have thought oyster and tartare brought together with earthy truffle? David Bull, that’s who.
Next up was the hamachi sashimi with grapefruit and avocado. I love the combination of the delicate hamachi with the bitter punch of the grapefruit supremes and the creamy fat of the avocado but to be honest, I’ve had it before. Bull puts his twist on it by adding crunchy cubes of turnips like adding a bass riff to a classic.
More surf and turf on the next course with 2 huge sea scallops topped with molasses bacon in a bed of sweet corn puree and grilled corn salad. The scallops were perfectly seared and almost raw in the center, just how I like them. The sweetness of the scallops was highlighted by the crispy, sticky maple bacon as well as the fresh corn and herbs.
My final savory course brought a ribeye cap with an espresso rub cooked sous vide to a perfect pink served with a salty sweet smoked caramel sauce and a side of the richest, creamiest pommes puree. This dish literally brought a tear to my eye. Meat and potatoes but like none I had ever eaten. Every bite was the perfect blend of salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth, bitter, spice, and umami. I was so happy to see David during the Stars Across Texas event last month serving a small version of this. I hope you got to taste it as well.
Oh but children, we are not done yet! David Bull’s genius is balanced by his playful pastry chef Plinio Sandalio. I first tasted Chef Sandalio’s work at Textile in Houston last year, sadly on their closing night. With my background in pastry, I quickly developed a sugary crush. Chef Sandalio was nice enough to bring out my first dessert course at Congress so I could finally meet him in person. I think I made him blush when I told him I felt like a 12 year old meeting Justin Bieber. No need to worry, Chef, I have no intentions of stalking you. But I may or may not be stalking your desserts, depending on what the court order says.
First dessert brought a thin strip of star anise pound cake with a quenelle of “toast sorbet”, mandarin jam, sesame pudding, and candied cashews. Like with Bulls savory dishes, Sandalio’s desserts bring together a harmonious chord of sweet, savory, crunchy, cold, with a burst of citrusy acid to round it out.
Second dessert consisted of feathery light sweet potato beignets with a sprinkling of chicory on top accompanied with salted butter ice cream and pecan brittle. I think one of the secrets to a great dessert is the proper use of salt to both enhance and contrast the sweetness and Sandalio is a master.
My favorite dessert came last with Chef Sandalio’s version of Strawberry Shortcake. Almond cake topped with strawberry jam, green chartreuse ice cream, and- wait for it- Pop Rocks! Campari flavored Pop Rocks. The dense cake with the sweet jam turned into a fizzy symphony, kind of like strawberry shortcake champagne. DEE-LISH-US!
So when your tax check comes in or if you get a lucky scratch off, head to Congress. It’s worth it.