The Early Word: BC Tavern

 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.17.11
 
UPDATED 09.04.12: After just a year in business, BC Tavern has closed.
The owners' other restaurant, Wink, remains open.
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If BC Tavern rings familiar tones, you likely already know it's the metamorphosis of Zoot, which closed in late May after a 20-year run, the last eight under the stewardship of founding chef Stewart Scruggs and business partner Mark Paul, and the past two years on Bee Cave Road. The two also co-own the wine-centric Wink, where they jump-started the gourmet faction of the local-foods movement 10 years ago.
 
With a long bar and wooden tables soaking in the amber glow of droplights in the room to the left and a white-tablecloth dining room on the right, the space evokes equal parts Zoot and the Wine Bar at Wink, a situation that's likely to evolve as BC Tavern grows into its identity.
 
Which is what, exactly? Scruggs and Paul told me during seven hours of interviews about Wink and Zoot in May that BC Tavern would put a traditional restaurant menu into a setting meant to emulate neighborhood watering holes of days past, when the tavern was unequal parts town hall, post office and dinner table. Yes, and a place to drink. BC Tavern brings a full bar to the table. A Vesper martini modeled after Bond's true love? It's here, along with Laphroaig single-malt Scotch, a medicine for which the only illness is life itself. Or Brooklyn Lager or Duckhorn "Decoy" merlot.
 
Where the menu goes is an open question, answered by what Scruggs calls "the two-headed monster" (remember that Godzilla was a hero in some of those movies): chefs Matt Taylor and Chris LeBlanc. Familiar tavern-style dishes include brisket pot roast ($16), the Three Napkin Burger ($9), a snack of chicken sausage in corndog batter ($7), even a more continental bar staple like steamed mussels ($10). At home anywhere is a dish Scruggs made famous at Zoot in the early '90s, a dish he'll never be able to shake: perfectly roasted chicken with crispy skin and sides of polenta and wilted kale, the best $16 plate in Austin.
 
Much of the rest is anything but bar food, roaming from beef tartare ($9) to seared scallops with roasted zucchini ($19) to crispy sweetbreads ($17). That last one puts the delicate meat in crispy relief against collard greens and a sweet succotash sauté. With adventurous marketing, I see a broader future for sweetbread nuggets like these. McMystery Bites? Delusions of Glandeur? Or “Byproduct? No. My product.” BC Tavern could be Franchise No. 1.
 
Show me a tavern with a cucumber, avocado and watermelon salad ($8) and I'll show you a tavern where the only blue collars are attached to designer shirts. But the VP for regional marketing's gotta eat, too. That's also a job for babyback ribs ($14) that trade big barbecued flavor for silken texture by way of a sous-vide bath. A hands-on boss would respond better to a sliced, grilled ribeye ($24) with heirloom tomatoes the color of medium-rare, a dish that makes you appreciate the animal vitality of a summer tomato.
 
I can’t take the full measure of BC Tavern’s food yet. Most of the dishes I tried came during an opening month of half-price food, a shakedown cruise of sorts that ended in July. Early winners included the ribeye, roast chicken, mac-and-cheese, sweetbreads and a dessert of peanut butter mousse with a chocolate graham cracker crust. I’ll save the Three Napkin Burger for a 50 Burgers, 50 Days report.
 
I’m still trying to reconcile the notion that this is a tavern and not just a rechristening of Zoot with a full bar, duck nachos and more sandwiches. The evolution includes a happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. with half-price bar appetizers, plus specials that include two-for-one burgers on Tuesdays and fried chicken on Thursdays. BC Tavern already feels more relaxed than Zoot, if that was one of the goals. That could be the Boodles gin talking, of course. Or that $12 glass of Quinta do Noval port with a chocolate-cherry brownie bomb. But it's no matter for easy dismissal. Fion Wine Pub is just a door away, with 40 beer taps versus BC's four.
 
Fion doesn't have mac and cheese with truffles or the makings for a proper martini, but it can be argued that Bee Cave already has a tavern, or even taverns, if you count the bars at Iron Cactus, Verde’s, Waterloo Icehouse and Little Woodrow’s. But a tavern with the legacy of Wink and Zoot behind it? BC Tavern has that category all to itself.
 
BC Tavern 
11715 Bee Cave Road. 477-6535, www.bc-tavern.com.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Bar 4 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until midnight Friday-Saturday.
Rating: A month of half-priced food isn’t a reliable barometer for a full rating. Ratings generally will be assigned to restaurants after six weeks and two or three visits.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)