Fine is changing to a periodic posting schedule effective immediately

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Hello Fine Readers,

I just wanted to let you know that although I will continue to publish Fine, it will now be on a periodic rather than a weekly basis.

If you’re interested in keeping up with Fine, I suggest you subscribe to Fine Ideas, my e-newsletter.  You can subscribe directly from here.  (Just look to the right!)  And you will receive a notification when a new post goes up.  Be assured that I will not use your email address for any other purpose.  If you are already a subscriber, I thank you for your continued support!



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Elizabeth Street Café (Austin): Heavy on the Vietnamese and light on the French, a South Austin spot offers a welcome melding of cuisines

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Devotees of Vietnamese cuisine, chef-restaurateurs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman created an upscale French-Vietnamese café to spotlight this flavorful Southeast Asian fare.  Photo by Rebecca Fondren

“Short but sweet” perfectly sums up my time at South Austin’s Elizabeth Street Café.

The adorable French-Vietnamese eatery was the very last stop on a mother-daughter weekend that had morphed into a days-long eat-a-thon that essentially took us to Austin’s city limits and back.  There were stops for barbecue (Franklin, if you’re curious), food truck eats, a multi-course meal by famed chef David Bull, and more.

So to say that The Girl and I rolled into Elizabeth Street for lunch before we hit Austin-Bergstrom airport isn’t far from the truth.

The café features an extensive menu of  Vietnamese classics as well as creative appetizers, specialty dishes and daily specials.  Photo by Rebecca Fondren

The brainchild of chef-restaurateurs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman (Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar and the new Clark’s Oyster Bar), the busy neighborhood spot presents “an eclectic French-Vietnamese café menu.”

“The menu is like a classic Vietnamese menu with tons of choices,” McGuire says.  “There’s 50 items on the menu.”

Actually, there are even more than that.  And it’s a shame that The Girl and I were fairly sated when we sat down, as so much appealed to us.

The restaurant — which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner — specializes in three Vietnamese classics:  bánh mì, submarine-style sandwiches; phở,(prounounced “fuh”), hearty noodle soups served with various condiments; and bún, dressed-up vermicelli rice noodle bowls.  And it also offers a slew of Asian- and French-kissed appetizers, as well as a handful of specialty dishes and daily specials.

Elizabeth Street is also a boulangerie, which produces house-baked breads and French pastries.  Photo by Casey Dunn

Additionally, Elizabeth Street supports an in-house baking program that rolls out a daily assortment of French pastries and fresh breads, including the baguettes for the bánh mì.

Vietnamese “is a cuisine that should be respected,” McGuire says.  And Elizabeth Street shows its respect for this intriguing fare by using top-quality meats, poultry and seafood, farm-fresh produce and the like.  You get it.  Diners won’t find any faux crab or boot-leather beef here.

A devotee of Austin’s mom-and-pop Vietnamese joints, McGuire appreciates the cuisine’s harmony of flavors (spicy, sweet, salty) and textures (crunchy, soft).

“It’s the balance of it.  Vietnamese food is all about balance.”

And the dishes that The Girl and I sampled were indeed balanced.

The Girl started us off with steamed buns ($8).  Although not specifically Vietnamese,  the puffy house-made dough discs held a nice helping of fat and juicy Niman Ranch pork belly, along with crunchy cukes and scallions.  Pleasant notes of fresh mint and cilantro were also present in this multi-flavored treat.

If I could go back in time, I would also try a French-Asian hybrid — broiled escargots with Thai basil curry butter.  The appetizer has become a signature dish, McGuire says.

Customers favor dishes “that meld the French and Vietnamese ingredients together the most,” he says.

A giant bowl of seafood phở was a meal in itself and left no room for bánh mì.  Photo by Rebecca Fondren

That explains why bánh mì ($6-8) were on nearly every table during our visit.  During colonial times, the French introduced the Vietnamese to baguettes, which form the base of the sandwich.  And the Vietnamese took it from there, adding proteins (including grilled pork, meatballs, and pâté) and toppings such as daikon radish and carrots, fresh cilantro, and mayo.  Elizabeth Street’s “house specialty,” for example, is a Franco-Vietnamese dream:  chicken liver mousse, pork pâté and roast pork.

But something had to give, and on this visit it was the bánh mì — although I purchased a crunchy-chewy baguette for the road.  In its stead, I opted for another house specialty, phở tom with shrimp, red snapper and jumbo lump crab ($22).  My decision was wise, as the seemingly bottomless bowl of noodles and light broth held a bounty of seafood and could have easily fed The Girl and me (as well as the two nice ladies at the next table).  I further livened up this fully customizable dish by adding a rich soft-boiled egg ($2), its accompanying fresh garnishes (limes, radishes, sweet basil, jalapeno slices) and a big squirt of peppery Sriracha.   

The Girl was presented with a hefty bún topped with grilled local chicken thighs ($12).  She never even got close to the bottom as she (and I) worked through these dress-it-yourself, sweet-and-sour noodles and a host of other goodies — lettuce, herbs, carrots, cucumber and chopped peanuts.

With more than 50 dishes on the menu, we had to turn down many things, but could not resist  freshly baked éclairs and macarons.  Photo by Rebecca Fondren

It would have been easy to stop there, but the eatery takes great pride in its bakery program.  So The Girl and I pressed on and ordered up an assortment of “bonbons.”  Mini éclairs ($3 each) came in a trio of flavors — Nutella, peanut and pistachio.  We selected pistachio, and we adored its purely flavored, nut-studded cream filling.  Macarons ($2 each) change daily.  During our visit, Meyer lemon was one option.  And the chewy sandwich cookie, with its light schmear of lemon curd, was a sweet end to our (too) short — but sweet — lunch.  

Elizabeth Street Café
1501 South First Street
Austin, Texas  78704

Elizabeth Street Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Elizabeth Street Café (Austin): Two chefs develop a recipe for design at a bright and beautiful French-Vietnamese eatery

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Colorful and bright, Elizabeth Street Café is miles away from Austin’s typical pared-down strip-mall Vietnamese storefront eateries.  Photo by Casey Dunn

Austin, Texas, is rife with terrific little Vietnamese joints.  And one can easily find a steaming bowl of phở or savory bun noodles at any number of drab strip-mall storefronts.

But when Vietnamese food devotees Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman (Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar and the new Clark’s Oyster Bar) created their version of a Southeast Asian eatery, the popular local chef-restaurateurs  tinkered extensively with local conventions.

Last winter they opened Elizabeth Street Café in a freestanding building in the up-and-coming South Austin area — as opposed to traditionally Asian North Austin.  Leading an in-house design team, they gutted a hipster coffee house and came up with a charming and cheery French-Vietnamese spot that serves elevated spins on noodle-house fare as well as freshly baked breads and pastries.

Bringing together both French and Vietnamese elements, the restaurant was designed to have a homey, neighborhood café vibe.  Photo by Casey Dunn

“We wanted it to have a really neighborhood and residential feel,” McGuire says of the bustling 40-seat restaurant and boulangerie.

Menu and design inspiration came from several sources — Vietnam’s classic French colonial cafés, modern French cafés and those aforementioned family-owned storefronts.

An “equatorial” color scheme — heavy on turquoise, teal and pink (which also coats the front door) — is a reference to the bright hues commonly associated with tropical countries.

“We looked at lots of pictures of [Hanoi] and saw all of the painted shutters with the teal and turquoise repeated,” McGuire says.

The two-room eatery is filled with a mix of antiques-shop finds, eBay purchases and cool reproduction pieces that give the space a comfortable, lived-in look.

Guests, for example, enter near a host stand that was made from an old secretary desk.  To its left are two Carrara marble counters, both lined with vintage-looking stools that combine decorative white-painted iron bases with turquoise disc seats.

Many of the restaurant’s furnishings and decorative pieces are antiques-store and eBay finds.  Photo by Casey Dunn

One counter offers an outside view through the restaurant’s ample windows; the other tops a brightly painted periwinkle-blue bar that overlooks the service area and partially open kitchen.  A happy, colorful Asian teahouse-print paper embellishes the walls in the room.  And “classic residential” two-and-a-quarter-inch oak covers the floor.

There is also seating available at a large wood communal table.  The table is matched with a mix of antique café chairs and lit by a quirky, shade-topped chandelier.  A cushioned seat with a toss of colorful throw pillows is stationed at one end.

“We didn’t want it to feel too designed or precious,” says McGuire of the eclectic seating area.

Rounded archways lead into the slightly more formal side dining room.  Here, the floor changes to classic café black-and-white tiles, and a long banquette upholstered in alligator-embossed teal vinyl becomes the featured piece.

The side dining area is a bit more formal and refined than the café’s  front room.  Photo by Casey Dunn

“We love animal textures and prints, and it goes back to us referencing a tropical river culture,” McGuire says.

The banquette is paired with closely set wood tables and turquoise reproduction Thonet rounded-back armchairs.

The room is capped by an elegant wenge round pedestal table and neoclassically inspired chairs upholstered in a simple, broadly striped fabric.

Ornately framed mirrors and teardrop-and globe-shaped pendant light fixtures also dress up the long rectangular space.  And then there’s the prominently displayed gilt-framed George of the Jungle painting.

“We just think it’s funny,” says McGuire of the artwork, which a friend painted.  “We just thought [George] was perfect.”

Elizabeth Street Café
1501 South First Street
Austin, Texas  78704

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Allium (Chicago): Chef Kevin Hickey moves out of the world of fine dining and into a world of fun

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Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel shuttered its award-winning fine-dining restaurant, Seasons, and reopened it as Allium, an approachable and affordable American eatery.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

It’s fair to say that Kevin Hickey saw the writing on the starched white tablecloth.

Hickey was the longtime executive chef at Seasons, the award-winning fine-dining room at Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel.  “But the more accolades we got at Seasons, the fewer covers we seemed to do,” he says.   Even with a coveted Michelin star, the restaurant had difficulty drawing diners.

Meanwhile, the chef noticed “the food sales in the bar and lounge were going through the roof.”  And thus the concept for the “more casual, more approachable” Allium was born.

Executive chef Kevin Hickey knew it was time for a change when he saw Seasons’ lively lounge and bar vastly outperforming its formal dining room.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

“We wanted to get away from the tablecloths and the silver and the Old World, old-school feel,” Hickey says.  “We wanted to stop being an occasional or an occasion restaurant.”

Some things remain the same at Allium, which opened in February and fills Seasons’ former lounge and bar areas.  Hickey still runs the show, and the menu emphasizes fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.

But instead of fancy composed plates, the affable chef is serving the likes of soft pretzels, deviled eggs and Chicago-style hot dogs.  Bear in mind that the pretzels may come paired with foie gras and Medjool date mustard, the eggs may include miso and pickled ramp, and the hot dog is a house-made gourmet sausage with from-scratch toppings.

“We’re still putting a good deal of effort, time and technique into the dishes,” Hickey says.  “But they are simpler. And they showcase the ingredients rather than the technique.

“I find it easier to be creative when I’m given more restrictions….  The tighter the box, the more focused I can be.”

The Chicago-born-and-bred chef”s definition of American cuisine incorporates a multitude of ethnic flavors.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Allium offers an amalgam of what the chef — who grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood near Chicago’s Greektown and Chinatown — perceives as American fare.

“When I think of American food, I don’t think of pot roast and meatloaf,” Hickey says. “I think of dim sum and Polish sausage.”

The menu of (mostly) regionally and ethnically diverse small plates also features a section curiously titled “mine.” Hickey, who has a love-hate relationship with the “small-plates movement,” explains that these entrée-sized portions were designed for those who don’t necessarily play well with others.

“We’re still American, and every once in a while we want our own plates and we don’t want to share.  Sometimes I just want my food — my steak, my chicken, my fish.”

The Husband and I are big sharers (so much so that we purposely never order the same entrée) — so we split our “mines.”  But not before we split a few other things as well.

Dishes — including bacon-and-onion buns — are meant to be fun, but they still conform to Hickey’s high standards.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

At our server’s suggestion, we started with fresh-from-the-oven bacon-and- onion buns ($4).  Served in a buttered casserole, the yeasty rolls were topped with crisp bacon strips and served with tangy goat cheese butter.  True finger-lickers, they made me glad that Allium was all about the casual.

From the “smaller” section we sampled airy gnocchi ($12) prepared with an unconventional toss of crumbled spicy lamb sausage, mussels and rapini.  The sausage and mussels worked together harmoniously with neither overpowering the other.  And the anise-tinged, stocky broth made me wish I had saved a bit of that bun for sopping up the rich liquid at the bowl’s bottom.

Hickey’s “big bowl of urban greens” ($12) balanced out the earlier decadence.  Simple, basic and super-fresh, the fall mix featured a toss of lettuce, crunchy apples and mild radishes lightly dressed with a cinnamon-laced hard-cider vinaigrette.  Grilled blue cheese sandwich croutons brought a touch of naughtiness to the healthful salad.

From there, the husband and I rolled into “bigger,” and checked out lobster-hominy “chowder” ($17).  I see why Hickey uses quotation marks around the word “chowder,” as the hearty soup — with its mirepoix of aromatic veggies — was more a seafood minestrone than a traditional chowder.  Firm bites of hominy provided a welcome change from conventional noodles or pasta.

Allium offers mainly small plates, but it also has a selection of entrée-sized “mines” for those who don’t share.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Moving into “mines,” Wisconsin walleye ($25) with buttercrisp corn succotash, chow-chow relish and ham broth turned out to be a tad too similar in concept to the aforementioned chowder.  And the mild fish was shouted down a bit by its lowland accompaniments.  Conversely, the obscenely tender wagyu skirt steak ($24) was a flavor powerhouse that stood up to its deliciously sweet-sticky, hoisin-like glaze.

The Four Seasons has always done an outstanding job in the sweets department, so it became an overwhelming task to pick a dessert.  There are teasers — lemon bars, pretzel caramels, red velvet cupcakes and more — that can be purchased by the piece ($3-$6) or in a grand tower ($20).  There are also “signature plates” ($10 each) that include such tempters as black walnut carrot cake and s’mores.

After several polite rounds of, “You choose.”  “No — you choose,” the husband and I wound up with a perfectly pleasant peach cobbler tart with silky butterscotch ice cream and the desire to come back and sample something a bit more daring — say, a miso-butterscotch malt or a PB&J float.

The menu includes a plethora of desserts, and sweet-lovers will be hard-pressed to make a decision about what to order.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Hickey says he’s enjoying his role as a purveyor of upscale comfort food.  And at this juncture he’d rather be serving bratwursts and doughnut holes than fussing over fancy- schmancy plates for a half-empty house.

“I miss the intensity [of fine dining] a little bit,” he says. “But I prefer having a full dining room with happy diners who are there to have fun.”

Four Seasons Hotel Chicago
900 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60610

Allium (at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago) on Urbanspoon

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Allium (Chicago): A hotel restaurant undergoes a season of change and gets a whole new look in the process

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The accessible and energetic Allium replaced Seasons, the staid fine-dining stalwart in Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

It seems fitting that a restaurant that was once called Seasons would be subject to change.

Seasons — the award-winning, but underperforming, fine-dining room at Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel — regrouped  and  reopened in February as Allium.  The restaurant’s distinguished chef, Kevin Hickey, stayed on and overhauled the menu, which now focuses on more approachable American contemporary fare.  And the space got a major makeover.

Out is Seasons’ ultra-traditional, for-the-one-percent décor.  In is a look that is “casual, refined, hip, fun and very sensual,” says Marshall Drake of San Francisco-based BraytonHughes Design Studios, which oversaw the renovation.

Located off the hotel’s seventh-floor main lobby, Allium took over Seasons’ former lounge and bar spaces. (The old dining room now serves as private-event space.)

Some elements remain:  the signature mahogany millwork; the distinguished marble fireplace and the bubbling entranceway fountain — although it now has “Allium” written across it in pink neon.

The design team kept certain features from the original space, including the signature mahogany woodwork, but scores of new design elements were added. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

The mission was to retain aspects of the iconic space and seamlessly incorporate them into something new and exciting.

“We’re capturing the old, and refreshing it and making it even better,” says Drake.  “We’re taking the original feeling [of the room] and turning it on its head and making it ‘today.’”

The design team used color, for example, to energize what once a highly subdued space.

In the main dining room and bar, the palette is now a tony mix of taupes, browns and grays, electrified with lively dashes of rich carmine red — a color that bespeaks the Midwest, Drake says.

“We definitely wanted to give [Allium] a personality of the Midwest, of Chicago,” he says.

The adjacent “windows” room, which is used primarily for daytime and overflow dining, features an entirely different color scheme.  Here, turquoise, gold and buff complement the main color palette, creating a brighter, sunnier feel.

The restaurant — and the main dining room in particular — have an intentionally “residential flair,” that was intended to make guests feel “at home and at ease,” Drake says.

Eye-popping color-saturated artwork hangs from the main dining room’s mahogany walls, while an eclectic mix of seating vignettes sit atop bold damask print carpeting.  There are starburst wood rounds coupled with upholstered arm chairs and leather tub chairs.  And “living room” areas that feature nubbly rust-colored sofas, cane and wood chairs, low-slung black lacquer coffee tables and lamp-bedecked side tables. A string of gold and carmine-red-upholstered, high-backed loveseats create a stylized banquette.  And a lighthearted animal print sofa is positioned cozily in front of the fireplace.

“We wanted to make sure there were no bad seats in the house,” Drake says.

The windows room complements the main dining room and bar-lounge, but has its own distinct look and feel.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

A sea of starburst tables and leather tub chairs also appear in the windows room, where magnificent views of the Magnificent Mile abound.  The room’s original limestone walls and dark burgundy marble floor were left undisturbed.  But the designers updated the room by upholstering the chair backs in alternating solid turquoise velvet and silky gold leaf-patterned fabric, then adding custom-painted chinoiserie wall panels on each end.

The bar, which stands off to the side of the main dining room, was designed “to be one of the best watering holes in the city,” Drake says.

A yin/yang of the masculine and the feminine, the bar is both clubby and sexy.

“When you go into the bar, the vibe goes over the roof,” Drake says.  “It’s taking the energy from the other areas, but really intensifying it in that room.”

Again, the space is all mahogany walls.  And the grand neoclassical granite and wood bar remains.  But then things get a bit wild.

Art pieces — with an emphasis on fashion, beauty and wildlife photography — emblazon the room.

“Instead of boats and horses and prints, we wanted to have bold expressions of color,” Drake says.

Inspired by fashion — both men’s and women’s — the bar-lounge area features a fun and funky array of furnishings and artwork.  Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Seating again offers a variety of options beyond the bar’s row of handsome leather stools.  Several pieces of furniture — in a nod to men’s haberdashery — are covered in pinstripe or plaid suiting fabric, allowing guests to sit at stone-topped rounds on brown leather high-backs or tub chairs.  Or they can hang out on a nail-head studded plaid love seat and set their drinks on a nearby coffee table.  And those seeking a bit of distance from the action can grab a funky, pinstriped upholstered hooded chair.

Says Drake of the cocoon-like chairs:  “You can feel like you’re in a private room within a room.”

Four Seasons Hotel Chicago
900 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60610

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Sorry to keep you waiting!

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Hello Fine Friends,

I will be posting Wednesday/Friday of this week instead of my usual Tuesday/Thursday.  Thanks for your patience and see you on Wednesday with an all-new Fine!

– Harlene

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Congress (Austin): Star chef David Bull’s multi-course, prix-fixe dinners are hot in this chilled-out town

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Congress, a lauded fine-dining destination, shows that Austinites are interested in more than just barbecue and food truck fare.  Photo by Ryann Collier

You know you definitely have first world problems when you’re desperately struggling to finish a transcendent multi-course dinner.  And the guy at the next table is relentlessly teasing you about consuming such copious amounts of food.   And your three-inch heels prevent you from taking a critical after-dinner stroll.

But then, you are unequivocally a member of the first world if you have the good fortune to dine at Congress, chef David Bull’s acclaimed fine-dining gem.

Set in a jewel box space in a downtown Austin high-rise, Congress may share the same geographical realm as this capital city’s renowned barbecue joints, Mexican cantinas and beloved food trucks.  But Bull’s refined and meticulously executed, seasonal fare is worlds away from them all.

Chef-partner David Bull says that a prix-fixe menu concept was necessary to create Congress’ unmistakably upscale, high-end tone.  Photo by Marshall Wright

Bull — who also helms the more informal Second Bar + Kitchen next door — believes there’s a distinct place for fine dining in this notoriously relaxed town.

“We hear constantly from people that they really appreciated the chance to dine in this way,” says Bull, who opened Congress with his partners in early 2011.

Congress presents two prix-fixe dining options.  There’s Bull’s set seven-course tasting menu ($125/$180 with wine pairings).  And chef de cuisine Rebecca Meeker’s three-course version ($75) offers diners some choices within each course.  Both menus undergo daily tweaks and changes depending on ingredient availability and quality.

Bull says the restaurant’s prix-fixe menus “really set the tone and the pace of the restaurant.”

“If people are looking for one plate or to split a salad, that’s not what Congress is all about.”

Since I had traveled more than 1,000 miles to sample Bull’s storied creations, I went all out with his seven-course tour de force.

With his firmly rooted fine-dining background — Bull made his name at Austin’s Driskill Grill — the chef expertly takes diners on a journey that is exciting and fun without being outlandish or eccentric.

“I’m not trying to be too fussy or shocking,” Bull says.

Bull designs his dishes to wow without being “too fussy or shocking.”  Photo by Jay B Sauceda

“I want you to know what you’re eating.”

Bull might not be out to shock, but he is out to impress.  And what better way to impress than to open with sweet bites of lobster?  Paired with Asian and fresh sea flavors, the slow-poached lobster  agreeably shared the plate with pickled radish salad, crunchy sea beans and miso cream.

In a lighthearted homage to the classic deli sandwich, shreds of wagyu beef tongue pastrami were flavor packed, but further electrified by their accompaniments.  I had fun stacking my fork with the delicately smoked meat, pickled cabbage and crunchy fried rye bread ribbons, then dunking my little “sandwich” in piquant miso mustard.

I was a bit surprised that Bull opted to move from the heavier pastrami back to light and crisp sea scallops, but after a few cleansing sips of a 2009 Zilliken Estate Riesling, my palette was up for anything.  A study in flavor and texture, Bull served the seared scallops with a rich coconut cream and a bittersweet cocoa nib crumble.  Jicama-mint salad provided balance by bringing in crunch and cutting the overall sweetness.  The simple addition of “chocolate mint” — a spicy herb with a natural chocolate-mint flavor — brilliantly completed the package.

Celery root agnolotti with veal breast and matsutake mushrooms moved the meal back into heartier territory with its stewy savoriness.  Served with veal jus, the rustic dish was pure stick-to-your ribs comfort food and perfect fall fare.

Then things began to get sticky for me, as my cover was clearly blown.  I was graciously and unexpectedly sent a salt-and-pepper foie gras torchon in a balsamic reduction, “compliments of the chef.”  Amply portioned and irresistible, I dug into the luscious liver round, greedily spreading it on melt-away foie gras brioche and topping it off with intensely fruity compressed pears and pear marmalade.

The chef is always on the lookout for the finest seasonal ingredients available.  Photo by Jay B Sauceda

At this point, I needed that walk — and a break from my neighbor’s (albeit good-natured) ribbing.  But then an irresistible espresso-rubbed prime ribeye cap appeared accompanied by a puff of pomme purée.  A stroke of smoked caramel proved a creative and notable substitute for the ATX’s ubiquitous barbecue sauce.

A trio of sheep’s milk cheeses with a host of accoutrements  — wheatgrass, watercress and other things sheep eat, according to Bull — signaled that the end was near.   And then dessert, created by pastry chef Erica Waksmunski, arrived in the welcome form of a light and cool lime-basil sorbet and yogurt mousse.  A gourmet yogurt parfait of sorts, the dish also featured fresh mango, Asian pear and a sprinkling of granola-like dehydrated grapes.

Fini.  Or so I thought.  But once again, my waiter presented me with a complimentary dish to sample.

Frankly, my ninth — yes, ninth — course was understandably a bit of a blur.  I can tell you that it was a chocolate dessert with fig sorbet, black figs and mission figs.  And according to my notes, “It was like the best Fig Newton in the whole world.”  But no more.

Quite the first world quandary, I’d say.

200 Congress Avenue
Austin, Texas 78701

Congress on Urbanspoon

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Congress (Austin): A top fine-dining destination brings casual elegance to this easygoing capital city

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Chef-partner David Bull has garnered national attention for his detailed fare, but Congress’ owners wanted guests to feel relaxed and welcome — even if they come dressed in denim — to this high-end eatery.  Photo by Casey Dunn

Apparently Austinites love their Levi’s.

So much so, that when the spirited town’s prominent La Corsha Hospitality Group decided to open a fine-dining restaurant in a downtown luxury high-rise, its partners decided guests should feel welcome at Congress in their blue jeans.

After all, “Austin is a very casual town,” says La Corsha’s Scott Walker.  “There’s only one restaurant here that requires a jacket.”

And when it came to designing the street-level restaurant — which serves the grand preparations of acclaimed chef-partner David Bull — Walker details the look he envisioned much in the same way one might describe their favorite jeans.

A nook off the main dining room offers a cozy spot for larger groups.  Photo by Casey Dunn

“I wanted something that felt a little bit more warm and homey,” he says of the 21-month-old eatery.  “I wanted something that felt good and was comfortable.

“We are doing very detailed, selective plating, but I wanted to the room to be comfortable.”

Although the small room is cozy and inviting, it’s not completely laid-back in look or tone.  Those seeking a more casual dining experience can head next door to Bull’s Second Bar + Kitchen, Congress’ moderately priced sister restaurant.

Mixing classic fine-dining features with more rustic, playful elements, Congress is the epitome of easygoing elegance.

Yes, the tables are topped with crisp linen, elegant glassware and flatware. Glittering chandeliers hang from above.  Luxe wingback armchairs abound.  And a stunning, gleaming wood and marble custom-milled tower serves as both a wait station and partition wall.

But there are numerous touches throughout the 58-seat eatery that prove Congress doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“I didn’t want it to come off as pretentious,” Walker says.  And it doesn’t.

Perhaps the most fanciful feature is a series of mobile-like chandeliers that dangle from the 23-foot ceiling and float over the main room and the tiny, semiprivate dining nook at the front.

Partner Scott Walker made art a priority and selected an eclectic array of pieces for the space.  Photo by Casey Dunn

Dallas-based designer Amber Lewis, who worked closely with the team, imagined this happy riff on the classic chandelier.  She laboriously hand-strung glass beads onto “industrial skeletons,” melding together the old and the new, Walker says.

“To me, the chandeliers are the focal point of the room.  They’re eye-catching, distinctive and different,” he says.

Walker also curated an eclectic collection of art that appears around the restaurant.  There’s everything from a white-on-white abstract painting in the main dining room to a black-and-white photo of a vintage diner sign mounted in the foyer’s wood-covered wall niche.  And those with a careful eye will find an array of quirky objects — including Walker’s grandmother’s cheese graters — placed artfully about.

Natural materials add warmth while keeping the neutral-toned space from veering off toward fine-dining fussiness.  Richly stained hardwood floors hospitably prevent the room from becoming a hush-hush place where one hears only the clink-clink of silver on china.  Transitional style button-tufted, linen-backed and leather-bottomed banquettes line the walls and contrast nicely with their mates — the more formal Frette cloth-covered tables.

The sophisticated private dining room is visible through glass doors, and has a slightly less formal feel than the main area. Photo by Casey Dunn

Then there’s the private dining room that sits behind a glass wall along the back of the main seating area.  Yes, it contains a level of elegance (see the aforementioned wingback chairs).  But it also notches up the rusticity with cork flooring, a herringbone-patterned brick back wall and a massive live edge oak dining table.  (A smaller version of the table sits in the semiprivate dining alcove.)  Sculptural orb lights counterbalance the heavy table while adding more visual interest to the space.  And a window that peeks into Congress’ notable wine library provides another fun flourish.

“People are always fascinated with wine rooms and kitchens,” Walker says.  “And it’s better than having another painting on the wall.  It’s an insight into what we do.”

200 Congress Avenue
Austin, Texas 78701

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Greetings from Austin,Texas

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Hello Fine Friends,

I’m in Austin, Texas, this week testing out some restaurants for the website.  While I’m doing a little dining in the ATX, why not revisit some past Fine posts?  Y’all can use the  searchable directory on the right.

See you back here on Tuesday, October 16!


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Trenchermen (Chicago): The brothers Sheerin have a hearty appetite for creative, innovative flavors

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Chefs Mike and Pat Sheerin are dedicated to creating dishes where each ingredient stands alone, but also plays incredibly well with its platemates.  Photo by Huge Galdones

A nibble of sardine.  A bite of coconut-horseradish fluff.  A sip of garlic-laced zucchini purée.  And finally, a swirl of the spoon that melds all these elements — and more — together into one magnificent medley.

I couldn’t help myself.  I was literally playing with my food.  And this went on from start (the above-noted chilled zucchini soup) to finish (chocolate marquis).

I’m sure this sort of thing happens frequently at Trenchermen, which means “hearty eaters.”  Here, chefs Mike and Pat Sheerin are putting out wondrous creations that amuse, bemuse and inspire people to pull out their camera phones and post rapturous Tweets.

Pat (left) and Mike (right) were introduced to ethnic flavors and foods, and encouraged to be adventurous eaters as kids growing up on Chicago’s North Side.  Michael Stryder

The Sheerin brothers have long been part of the Chicago dining scene — most recently with Mike racking up awards at Blackbird and Pat ramping it up at The Signature Room at the 95th. Their new Wicker Park venture, which opened in July, partners the duo with noted restaurateurs Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner (Nightwood, Bangers & Lace).

The dishes, which arrive in a gorgeously arranged, deconstructed state, “are crafted to work well together, but we make a conscious effort that everything on the plate has a purpose and tastes delicious on its own,” Pat Sheerin says.

Inspirations are often commonplace (caprese salad, Greek egg-lemon soup) — and sometimes even downright lowbrow (tater tots, bubble gum).

“The jumping-off point is always a familiar-flavored dish, something people know,” Pat Sheerin says.

But then the brothers apply their imaginations and some mad skills to create dishes that seem altogether new.

The outcome “is one little twist away” from the source, Pat Sheerin says.  (I’d put it at a good two or three.)

He uses heirloom tomatoes ($12) as an example.  (Please note that this dish may now be gone from the Sheerins’ seasonally driven menu.)

Fervent about flavor, the chefs examined bubblegum and developed a sauce that incorporates its various components.  Photo by Huge Galdones

“Who doesn’t love a great caprese?” Pat Sheerin says.

True, there’s a toss of ripe tomatoes and fresh herbs.  (I also detected a few prunishly sweet roasted tomatoes in the mix.)  But the obligatory balsamic comes in the form of a dollop of house-made white-balsamic ice cream.  And chopped apricot pits add a bit of crunch and an unexpected bitter almond essence.

“It’s a little nuance.  It’s not a far stretch,” Pat Sheerin says.  Indeed, the dish isn’t outlandish, but it’s cleverer than the chef lets on.

The duo “always, always” does their research, obsessively fussing over flavors.  “We don’t want to bastardize anything.  We want to know what we’re talking about,” Pat Sheerin says.  So that’s how they developed, say, their bubblegum sauce — Mike’s idea — that accompanies pork belly ($24).   Studying the flavor compounds in bubblegum, they found mint, coconut, almond, banana and vanilla and then worked all of these into a curry-like condiment.

Growing up on Chicago’s North Side, the brothers were exposed to a variety of ethnic foods — particularly from southeast Asia and Mexico.  The Sheerin family even had a weekly Vietnamese takeout night.

“We had a very open food family,” Pat Sheerin says.  “We were given the exploratory gene and we rolled with it.”

So ethnic flavors are worked into a number of dishes, including the aged Pekin duck breast ($23).  Perfectly delicious on its own, the breast became sublime with the addition of sweet umeboshi pickled plum paste and a side of crunchy-soft fried rice balls.

Pickle tots ($11), already the restaurant’s signature dish, are a Russian-Jewish cross-pollination of two bar food staples – tater tots and fried pickles.  But the airy and greaseless pickle-flecked potato puffs are at least three twists away from either.  The Sheerins plate them with a pastrami-like smoked chicken breast bresaola and thick shmears of borschty, beet juice-infused strained Greek yogurt.

Trenchermen excels in spinning familiar dishes, such as tater tots and fried pickles, into something new and different.   Photo by Huge Galdones

Even the least flashy dishes wow.  The Husband and I were besotted with a gorgeous piece of crisp and flaky hake ($23).  Once again, each component — piquant piquillo pepper broth, lima bean and hazelnut “slaw” and custardy lemon balm — was perfect on its own.  But a quick twirl of my spoon once again created a flavor tsunami.

And then there was dessert.  All four options were compelling, but The Husband and I smartly limited ourselves to two.  Klug blueberries with Gumballhead beer panna cotta ($9) and pound cake bits didn’t stand a chance with chocolate marquis ($9) on the table.  It was a marriage of the familiar (pretzels, caramel corn, chocolate) and the unusual  (tasty but homely black sesame ice cream) — there was absolutely nothing on the plate that cut the wonderful richness of this dessert.

Trencherpeople both, The Husband and I agreed: “Pure decadence on a plate.”

2030 West North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647

Trenchermen on Urbanspoon

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