Fed Man 55: Second Bar + Kitchen (23)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 23: Second Bar + Kitchen
200 Congress Ave. at the Austonian. 512-827-2750, www.congressaustin.com/second.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.07.12
Determined to show how downtown Austin nightlife has evolved beyond Sixth Street, I took a couple of friends from high school to Second Bar + Kitchen this spring. How impressed were they? I don’t know. These women I hadn’t seen in 30 years spent most of our reunion bathed in the underglow of their iPhones, texting boyfriends back home. Social evolution, it seems, is immune to the charms of our restaurant renaissance.
SBK — if I can use that acronym for Second Bar + Kitchen —is a player in that renaissance because it’s part of another hot Austin acronym: VMU. Vertical mixed use. Put retail on the ground floor, stack the condos on top. And nobody’s more stacked up than the Austonian, downtown’s tallest building and the home of the Congress Austin restaurant trilogy that includes Second, Bar Congress and the flagship Congress, overseen by chef David Bull. SBK is the more casual of the three, a stylized urban lunchroom with a long white bar, intimate blue banquettes, spherical lightshades like giant pollen spores and a tall communal table along the front windows from which to see and be seen.
Second has a hierarchy of its own, doing lunch and brunch in the daylight and a dinner menu at night, all of them fortified by craft drafts from Jester King and Thirsty Planet, house wines on tap and the best gin and tonic in town. I’ve yet to draw a consistent bead on service across those times. It’s gone from razor-edged professionalism to displays of amateur neglect and even a bout of juvenile hostility. To be fair, SBK is trying to do a little of everything all at the same time. Dessert, for example, is its own forum of potential indecision, ranging from fruit gummies and brownie bites for a few dollars to $8 lemon curd brulee with cornbread ice cream.
Two of Second’s most modest dishes are among its best: pepperoni soup bubbling with marinara and mozzarella ($6) and fat truffled fries good enough to make my Austin Top 10 ($8). The Congress Burger ($12) brings ground chuck and brisket with sweet shallot confit, Gruyere cheese and horseradish pickles. A $12 guacamole with fryer-scalded chips like masa wontons and a dry collection of veal meatballs ($8) were minor league bar snacks that never quite made it to the bigs. But the pizza here is good enough to build a separate restaurant around, especially the Black and Bleu with truffle, blue cheese, pork belly and dates ($16). The key to that complex blend of earth, fat and twang as well as simpler pies like a pomodoro with basil is a crust with a crackery shell and a doughy spring in-between.
SBK leaves the high-concept cooking to Congress, but flashes of craft came through in a side of Brussels sprouts with mint and feta ($5), a beet salad with candied pecans and Camembert ($10) and a roasted airline chicken breast with amber skin, a toss of corn and soft sourdough and an electric undercurrent of lemon ($18). I’m not sure where the hamachi collar came from, but it was more like food on a dare for $22, an odd broken yoke of stringy roasted fish glazed like chicken wings. It was an anomaly among more gratifying entrees of shepherd’s pie with rabbit and pork shoulder with mascarpone.
And that thing I said about the evolution of downtown nightlife? Second Bar + Kitchen is still the place to show that off, even if your iPhone friends have better things to do.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants