Fed Man 55: Texas French Bread (34)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 34: Texas French Bread
2900 Rio Grande St. 512-499-0544, www.texasfrenchbread.com.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Dinner is served Monday-Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.14.12
When the sun goes down, Texas French Bread clears the breakfast dishes, throws a sheet over the chalkboard menu and puts on a little bow-chikka-wow-wow. Call it Texas French Bread Nights, with the lights dimmed to boudoir soft-focus punctuated by the glare of a red neon sign that simply says “Dinner.” It’s the distillation of a once-sprawling franchise into this one last location, where coffee and sandwiches rule the day and the Willcott brothers rule the night, with Murph out front and Ben in the back. This rating covers dinner. The rest is just icing on the Hyde Park fudge cake.
It feels like a dinner party in here, one where the staff is still surprised so many people showed up. At least they’re showing up with wine, because that’s how you do it here. They’ll open your bottle, chill your whites in an ice bucket and keep your glasses full for a $6 corkage fee. Offer the staff a glass of your wine and maybe you’ll get a taste of something from somewhere else in the room. It’s a graceful, no-judgment way to learn the etiquette of bringing your own wine to a restaurant.
A cool Byron chardonnay complemented a rich peperonata salad ($9) of roasted red and yellow peppers with fresh mozzarella and a toss of anchovy for salty contrast. TFB showed off two of its strengths with a robust, fat-knobbed Italian stew with porcini mushrooms, tomato and carrots. The first strength: a penchant for taking the seasonal harvests from local farms and turning them not just into feel-good vegetable showcases but well-rounded dishes with big flavor and solid technique. The second strength: a bread basket with French, sourdough and ciabatta for mopping up the best of those dishes. Among the best of those dishes was a guinea fowl ragu ($17), electric with white wine, olives, capers and herb with polenta that acted as both companion and carrier, sending the flavors back like an echo down a canyon. At its heart lay dense nuggets of meat that straddled the line between domesticated and wild.
Even a more domesticated chicken got the respect of a deep roast with skin like crackled amber in a dish with roasted squash, potatoes and a fluffy white Middle Eastern sauce/aioli/garlic-wondercloud called toum. At $19, it hit the value midpoint TFB walks so well, with starters around $10 and main courses like black drum, hanger steak and pasta dishes from $15-$24. The menu changes with the seasons, so you might never see handmade pappardelle with chorizo again. But the firm cosine waves of pasta and the lean and dusky chorizo are in the shop’s DNA, just like the egg that topped it off: poached, then fried, with a golden yolk that broke on contact to finish the sauce and legitimize the dish like a gold-backed dollar.
With white shutters, a slate blue awning and olive bricks punctuated by the names of bread, the long and low TFB building could pass for a cozy French bistro, unassuming until you round the corner where the north side becomes a marquee with “Texas French Bread” writ large enough to be seen from the Capitol. It’s a visual metaphor for TFB’s split personality, an early-morning coffee face for the Austin of old and a farm-to-table face with a waiting list for the Austin to come.
(TOP: Guinea fowl ragu, roasted chicken, peperonata salad. INSET: Texas French Bread by day and the dining room at night, with bread and wine service. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants