Fed Man 55: Congress (2)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 2: Congress
200 Congress Ave. at the Austonian. 512-827-2760, www.congressaustin.com.
Hours: Tue-Thu 6-10pm, Fri-Sat 6-11pm. Closed Sun-Mon.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.04.13
UPDATE: Congress has closed
If there’s one thing I learned from the proletarian pushback that followed my five-star review of David Bull’s Congress for the Statesman in March 2011, it’s that Congress has about as much street cred as the political body with which it shares a name.
For the street-level electorate, there’s nothing coolly ironic about dinner at $125 per person, nor even $75. No sardonic style points for starched tablecloths, high technique and formal service. In the tricameral body of Congress Austin, the flagship Congress itself is the Senate, while Second Bar+Kitchen (No. 23 on the Fed Man 55) is the more populist House, and Bar Congress is where the Independents go to drink and cherry-pick from the other houses.
The sentiment goes something like this: Throw that much money into the operation, and it’s only a story if Congress doesn’t get five stars. Maybe Congress isn’t the U.S. Congress at all, but the New York Yankees of the Austin Restaurant League. But it would be wrong to judge Congress for what it isn’t — quaint, boot-strappy, eclectic, “weird” — rather than for what it is: luxurious, professional, precise, delicious.
No matter the elitist scolding I got for my first review of Congress, I stand by those five stars today. Some things have changed. They’ve lost sommelier June Rodil, and they had to fill the void left when pastry chef Plinio Sandalio took a job at the Carillon. I liked the stay-puffed texture of a coconut blanc manger from Erica Waksmunski’s dessert menu, especially the red kuri squash sorbet that came with it. But I lost my way in the push-and-pull of fig and pine nut and orange that kept a chocolate dessert from finding its sweet spot. Even so, Congress has few rivals at this level. The Carillon, certainly. Wink to a lesser extent. Definitely the resurrected Jezebel. The challenge is staying strong now that newness of the whole thing has worn off.
The $75 three-course option at Congress offers four or five choices in each course, administered in a room set in breezy canvas and leather tones, with upholstered chairs and banquettes beneath a ceiling as tall in effect as the Austonian tower above it. Transactions with the staff — main waiter, second waiter, bread-and-water steward, sommelier, often chef Bull himself — are conducted just above a librarian’s whisper even when there’s a lot to talk about. The wine pairings are something to talk about, one of my favorite parts of Congress under Rodil, who left in the fall to join Paul Qui at his new restaurant. Her place was filled by a Congress veteran, Paula Rester, whose wine-pairing work at Vino Vino speaks well of how she’ll do in her new role.
Rodil laid a solid foundation with a list unafraid to express personality along with prestige. Her particular love for Chauteau Musar Hochar from Lebanon brought a cabinet of adjunct Eastern spices to a dish of roasted whitefish called lingcod that was part of a three-course dinner this fall. “Every bottle is different, like a surprise,” Rodil said as she assembled a three-course pairing for $25 that also included Jean Paul Brun sparkling rosé with beef tartare (“it brings out the juiciness”) and a half-dry JJ Prum riesling with a toasted tete de cochon (“it cuts through the richness of the pig”). The $50 pairing with Congress’ $125 seven-course menu carried the same kind of inspired surprises. Not in the mood for surprises? Congress can handle a $330 Domaine Maume Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru Burgundy with boutique grace.
The success of any wine program rests on the kitchen, really. The trick is rising to the level of dishes like black gnocchi with truffle, a study of earthbound flavors with the sweetness of golden corn, a firm undercarriage of potato, the ancient exhale of shaved black truffle and the wild-card flora of huitlacoche. It’s one of those “watch this” dishes that a kitchen run by David Bull and Rebecca Meeker can pull off. Speaking of which, watch this: Lay down a square made by two right triangles, one of rice, the other of silky beef tartare. Top with fried oysters for crunch and brine. Finish with kimchi for heat and acid.
Or start with a row of apple and fig dodged with walnut and mountain caviar, a plant with seeds that have a briny pop reminiscent of fish eggs. An interesting salad, but nonetheless a side player to the rest of the plate, a trio of squares with the checkerboard contrasts of a victory flag, contrasts created by blocks of pork belly and tofu. It’s a Garden of Eden construct that can’t decide whether it’s good or evil, but the flag motif seemed less ambiguous in the weeks surrounding Austin’s inaugural F1. If there were one restaurant to represent Austin among the players of that rarefied circuit, Congress would be it.
(TOP: The dining room at Congress. FIRST INSET: Congress is the fine-dining flagship of the three-part Congress Austin at the Austonian; apple and fig salad with a terrine of pork belly and tofu (left); beef tartare with fried oysters and kimchi. SECOND INSET: Plum and coconut salad; coconut blanc manger with red kuri squash sorbet; black gnocchi with truffle and huitlacoche. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants