Fed Man 55: Justine’s (16)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 16: Justine’s
4710 E. Fifth St. 512-385-2900, www.justines1937.com.
Hours: 6pm-2am Mon, Wed-Sun. Kitchen until 1:30am. Closed Tue.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.26.12
Justine’s is a vinyl LP in a digital world, a place where the whole album still matters. They play the French greatest hits — snails, duck confit, steak frites — but it’s the rest of the record that brings me back. The wine, the pâté and little pickles, the reconditioned old house, the fact that they sell cigarettes on the bar menu. And then there are the records themselves, the shelves of vinyl that bring together Son House and charcuterie, Albert King and Côtes du Rhône.
Pierre Pelegrin and Justine Gilcrease opened Justine’s in 2009, and they tapped into a counterculture hungry for exotica and ironica, both of which fit neatly into a 1937 bungalow on the far East Side. Three years ago, charcuterie was more of a novelty than it is now, and Justine’s put together a board with duck liver mousse, pork rillette and rabbit terrine, all made in-house. A recent version brought sunset slices of dry pork sausage with pools of nascent fatty moonlight, a country-strong terrine of duck and wild boar and a mousse with all of the best connotations of Underwood’s Deviled Ham ($14), a dinner-party starter with a cold glass of Kuentz-Bas Alsace muscat whose half-sweet embrace extended equally well to a half-dozen escargots resting like pudgy aristocrats in baths of butter and garlic ($7). They’re all threads in a rich and unruly tapestry, where even onion soup with a broiled crown of Gruyere cheese and a whole steamed artichoke with drawn butter challenge your sense of taking it easy before the serious stuff arrives.
Justine’s lubricates your appetite for destruction with a bar that can pour a nice dry draft of Kronenbourg beer or introduce you to a flirty French wine for around $30 from a list unafraid to describe a rosé as raspberry lip gloss and a red as unicorn blood or a one-night stand. Somehow, you can picture exactly how that tastes. The bar’s cocktail regimen can’t run with the artsy crowd, though, not with splashed-together drinks like a sloppy French 75 with a wedge of lemon like you’d get at Luby’s, seeds and all.
Service is a study in temperament here. Catch the host at a bad tick on a busy night and he’s kind of a wanker. One tick later, he’s the wingman helping you seduce your date. The waitstaff has been cordial to me, mostly, even when I was a table of one on a Friday night or that guy reading a book at the bar. Except when a 20-something supermodel waitress got all pissy when I said, “Yes, ma’am.” "For anybody under 30, that's really insulting," she said. When I think back on all the crap I took in nine years of food service, I would have been happy with “yes ma’am.” And I’m a dude. This is why people dream of buying a place just so they can fire your ass. Just so we’re clear: If I’m 20 years older than you and I call you ma’am or sir, it’s not because I’ve mistaken you for your mother or father. It’s out of the courtesy I learned from my own parents, the ones who took the time to teach me manners.
Meanwhile, stepping away from the soapbox: The serious stuff at Justine’s includes a steak tartare that brings together baby bites of vermillion beef with the big forward flavors of capers, onions and horseradish, bound by a tiny raw quail egg like golden mortar. Scoff at the $16 price, but with a side of salted shoestring fries and a careful stack of butter lettuce leaves and vinaigrette, it’s a full meal. That’s equally true of crisp-skinned duck with frisée and fries for $16 and a blushing pink fillet of Arctic char for $22, both of which came from one of the best new developments at Justine’s, a menu du marché that liberates the kitchen to work outside the French standards on the main menu.
The fish, for example, capitalized on the late summer harvest of peppers, arugula and cucumber. Instead of a safe beurre blanc sauce, the kitchen matched the salmon-like taste of the fish with garlic purée for earthy balance. From that same menu board came a dessert cold enough to frost and catch my breath at the same time, just a few scoops of white grape sorbet as delicate as shaved ice embedded with tiny Champagne grapes frozen like pearls in the snow. Icy insurgents making a stand in the oafish domain of the crème brûlée.
In Justine’s courtyard for a midnight supper during Austin’s spring-style fall, you can close your eyes and feel like you’re far, far away from it all. Or just open them, and voila, you’re in a deserted light industrial zone 5 kilometers east of downtown. Same difference.
(TOP: Neon enticements at the gates of Justine's; a charcuterie board with ham mousse, saucisson sec and duck/wild boar terrine; the all-French wine list includes value-priced reds. FIRST INSET: From left: Grape sorbet with frozen Champagne grapes; Arctic char with garlic purée; broiled escargots. SECOND INSET: Justine's is a restored 1937 bungalow in a light industrial section of East Austin. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants