Review: Restaurant Jezebel
800 W. Sixth St in the Cirrus Logic building. 512-436-9643, www.restaurantjezebel.com.
Hours: 6:30-10:30pm Tue-Sat, by reservation only. Dress code (from the website): “Jezebel has a Jacket Required policy for gentlemen. Ties are not required. Blue jeans & cowboy boots are OK; flip-flops are not.”
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
2015 UPDATE: Restaurant Jezebel has closed
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.31.13
The day after a fire peeled the naked lady paintings from the walls at Restaurant Jezebel and cast a Pompeiian pall over its towers of white china, I stood with chef and owner Parind Vora in what was left of his business on Congress Avenue. It was July 17, 2010. Although Vora talked about reopening in just a few months, Jezebel wouldn’t come back until Halloween of 2012, and not on Congress but rather on West Sixth, across from Hut’s Hamburgers.
This is the review I never got to write for the Statesman. I’d eaten twice at the old Jezebel, for lobster bisque and sauteed snails and forbidden foie gras. But before I could decide on a star rating, the fire gave its own review. Because of that post-traumatic interview, I know Vora better than I know any chef in Austin. I sacrificed a measure of anonymity for that story. In return, I got a window into the rebuilding of a restaurant from the ground up, and the chance to work a shift in the new kitchen (read that story here).
In the weeks before and after that kitchen shift, I visited the aggressively eccentric new Jezebel twice, wearing the jacket dictated by the dress code. Things went right; things went wrong. The fact that I know the guy? Take it however you like, but I was offered no extras, and I paid full price.
Full price means $85 for four courses, $125 for seven. Going exclusively with fixed-price menus at those prices, Jezebel shares exclusive local company with David Bull’s Congress, which charges $75 for three courses and $125 for seven. Wine pairings at Jezebel start at $45 and $75, respectively, and can rocket anywhere you want to go from a winelist that includes killer bottles like the Scholium Project’s Naucratis verdelho at $53 to a $3,400 bottle of 2007 Le Pin Pomerol.
The menu depends on you, partly. You’ll be asked your thoughts on: game meats / spice levels / allergies / raw fish / foie gras / favorite Beatle. My answers: born to be wild / the more the merrier / none / swim to me / “fatty liver” is my middle name / George.
Based on that interview, Vora freestyles a menu from a forager’s pantry of meats, vegetables, sauces and surprises. And because the only way to see a menu at Jezebel is to order it for yourself, I’ll walk you through my four-course and seven-course experiences. Bring somebody you like when you have dinner here, because you’re in it for the long haul, anywhere from 2½ to four hours for the whole show.
(Clockwise from top left: Woodcock over curry-leaf peanut sauce and garlic puree; andouille sausage and poached fugu tail; moulard duck breast and what can only be called "sturgeon surprise"; vanilla bread pudding)
Amuse: Warm olives in tart balsamic vinegar, a callback to the olives at the old Jezebel. A dish meant to be eaten with your fingers, which felt like touching my own eyeballs. It was alien and unsettling.
► Wine: This was the baseline $45 pairing, with wines chosen by steward Joel Stellner. Modestly priced half-pours from off-list bottles, for the most part. The first, a San Pedro Castillo de Molina red from Chile, was a cheap shot whose undisciplined fire would scorch most any food, from a bottle way under $10. It didn’t belong at a nice place. A bad omen, but it was the only letdown in Stellner’s well-orchestrated, intuitive wine presentations.
1st Course: A two-front sensual attack. On one side of the plate, crisp veal sweetbreads with smoked paprika dry vinaigrette, not a dressing but a wide stripe of desert spice. The sweetbreads carried the same crackly on the outside/soft on the inside as popcorn shrimp or chicken nuggets, with a much more satisfying payoff. On the other side, a knobby tile of poached lobster over a fried green tomato with passionfruit aioli. Tropical sweetness meets sour Southern crunch, catapulted over the top by the gleam of bacon fat and the earthy counterpoint of a shaved black truffle. This is the tour I signed up for.
► Wine: Kumeu River pinot gris from New Zealand was the right cold companion for the lush excess, with oily petrol and sharp fruit. This one lists for $58 at Jezebel.
2nd Course: Snacktime at the Zoo with woodcock and kangaroo. Woodcock is a spear-billed gamebird “served with the head so you know it’s truly woodcock,” Vora said when he presented the dish at table, something he did at one point or another for every table in the room. The liver-colored meat — as aggressively gamey and satisfying as a deer-camp cookout — rested on a sauce of peanut and curry leaf and a garlic puree with all of garlic’s essence but none of its hot breathy bite, a feat accomplished, Vora said, by boiling and straining the garlic as many as 12 times. The head looked like it’d been startled to death, a dessicated mohawk of disheveled feathers crowning that scimitar of a beak. It was a bit of morbid dinner theater I could have done without. Vora described the Cajun-blackened kangaroo as somewhere between ostrich and elk, which was game-meat Greek to me. I’ll say it had the texture of thick-cut sirloin with a blood-iron edge, finished with saffron-curry sauce and cauliflower puree.
► Wine: I might have heard Stellner say it was Chateau Lafon-Rochet, a French red he decanted even for our shortened pours. It started out like rubber, peeling out to raspberry to keep up with the fuel-injected food.
► Across the table: As exotic as my plate was, my guest got fugu, the Japanese pufferfish notorious for its poisonous parts. But that applies to the liver and skin, and danger wasn’t an issue with the poached tail over roasted red-pepper broth, and the meat itself was firm and mild. It shared a plate with milk-poached andouille sausage, raising the question: Does link sausage have a place in an $85 prix-fixe? I say it doesn’t, unless it’s made in-house with proteins in keeping with Jezebel’s eclectic oeuvre, like rattlesnake or wild game or seafood.
Intermezzo: A frozen, ice cream-style foie gras pop with a chocolate shell. Heavy-handed for a palate shifter, but who’s turning down a foie gras fudgsicle?
3rd Course: Tender, ruby slices of moulard duck breast with a sweet-hot raspberry chipotle glaze on parsnip puree. The words by themselves are description enough for how good this was. Also on the plate: fat slices of sturgeon the color of rainclouds at twilight, with a robust, chewy texture so much like pork I wrote in my notes, “You know those flying pigs we hear so much about. How about swimming pigs?” Well, that’s because it was pig, after all. Vora confessed the mistake later, which proves the point I’ve made before: Even if a restaurant clocks me as a critic, they still have to cook the food, and sometimes the food has ideas of its own.
► Wine: Celler Can Blau 'Bula' a carignan red blend from Spain, young and sharp-tongued, with big, tannic fruit.
4th Course: It seemed like formless dessert particles floating in the void had coalesced into two spiral galaxies, one with vanilla bread pudding, a pistachio crisp and candied blood oranges, the other with peppermint chocolate semifreddo and vanilla ice cream. Edible astronomy designed by pastry chef Michelle Antonishek.
► Wine: Gruet Blanc de Blancs Sauvage from New Mexico was bready and soft, not too sweet. A sparkling finish from one of my favorite producers.
(Clockwise from top left: Foie gras tartare with pickled okra; boar chop with rep-pepper puree over low-country grits; lobster poached in bacon fat over a fried green tomato and passionfruit aioli along with veal sweetbreads with a dry smoked paprika vinaigrette.)
Amuse: Those warm olive eyeballs again. But this time I left a few, knowing that the four-course had left me uncomfortably full, and I had seven courses ahead of me this time.
► Wine: For the seven-course, the basic pairings chosen by the house are $75. I thought about just getting a few full glasses and spending less, but Jezebel doesn’t have a by-the-glass menu. They’ll open a bottle if you want a glass, but you’re in the awkward position of having to ask for prices, and it could be embarrassing the way your face turns red because everything’s over $20 a glass. With a custom-built menu, the $75 option puts the pairing responsibilities in their hands — and within your reach. This time, Stellner started with another hot, cheap red, a garnacha tintorera blend from Spain called La Huella de Adaras Almansa. I was skeptical. This one burned the fields, too, but this time just enough to get ready for the crops to come
1st Course: I knew Vora couldn’t reinvent the wheel every time, and these were similar to the veal sweetbreads from the four-course.
► Wine: A Tuscan sangiovese pureblood Rosso di Montalcino from Altesino, a wine whose heart-shaped bouquet danced with the chiffonade of rose petals that played grace notes around the aggressively seared sweetbreads.
2nd Course: Raw marlin painted with meadowy spirulina, a dish finished at the table by stirring a maple-dotted egg in its half shell and pouring it over the fish. I didn’t feel self-conscious about sopping the plate clean with a warm buckwheat roll. The staff, whether for show or for real, seems happy as Mom at supper when you clean your plate.
► Wine: Skin-fermented sauvignon blanc creates the Prince in His Caves “orange wine” from the Scholium Project. It takes the volatile grape’s foot off the gas for an aroma like hookah smoke, all toasted molasses and orange peel. Its cold, brisk bite shot points of light through the richness of the fish. My favorite among the 12 wines I tried at Jezebel, on their list at $112.
Intermezzo: The seven-course got two intermezzos, two shifts in the gearbox, the first a pumpkin bisque with the comfortable holiday spice of argon oil, the second a thyme gelato that carried its cool herb like an Igloo courier.
3rd Course: Two delicate bites of quail poached in bacon fat, served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and an intense herb puree that I recognized from my kitchen shift, because I helped make it.
► Wine: Another Tuscan red, this one from Argiano, a cab-merlot-syrah blend. I’d have gone with white for birds and greens, but with a flavor profile somewhere between earth and sky, this red did the job.
4th Course: Milk-poached foie gras with slivers of onion fried in potato starch with a side of collard greens. Country diner liver-and-onions reimagined for a diner where the men have to wear their dress overalls.
► Wine Cold Gruet Blanc de Blancs Sauvage again, with an astringent bead ideal for high-tone comfort food.
5th Course: A tiny grilled boar chop trimmed to just the bone and the noisette was deceptively mild, letting bolts of cardamom crash through a roasted red pepper puree over low-country grits.
► Wine: Gardens of Babylon from the Scholium Project, a petite sirah blend like pearled ruby, with deep, unapologetic fruit, stealth tobacco notes and an oaky tannic streak to counterbalance the creamy grits. It’s $91 on Jezebel’s list.
6th Course: Foie gras tartare was like sentient avocado, a raw and almost living thing gathered with pickled okra, blue cheese, toasted cumin and tomatoes smoked with sandalwood. I’ve never tasted anything like it.
► Wine: San Pedro de Yacochuya torrontes from Argentina with honeydew, honeysuckle and floral honey. Stellner suggested that the wine’s salinity filled in for capers, absent in this dish but forever part of tartare lore.
7th Course: I’ve had a warm chocolate tart with mint chocolate chip ice cream before. But a deconstructed root beer float with vanilla panna cotta, raisin puree and sassafras in foam and sorbet form? Never. And that’s too long.
► Wine: An earthy Waugh Cellars pinot noir for the chocolate and mint, a get-it-done glass of Voveti prosecco for the root beer.
(Parind Vora is the chef and owner of Restaurant Jezebel and the adjacent Bar Mirabeau.)
So that’s the food and wine. What about the room? Jezebel is part of an expansive space on the first floor of the new Cirrus Logic building that includes Vora’s more casual Bar Mirabeau. This week, that breakfast, lunch and dinner spot rolled out a new menu that rounds out a lineup of burgers, grilled pizzas, crabcakes and housemade gelato with petite filet, sea bass and wild boar shepherd’s pie. You’ll walk through Mirabeau to reach Jezebel in the back, eight tables sequestered behind panels of scrolled glass that create an inner sanctum of plantation chandeliers, candlelight and a new gallery of naked ladies by painter Tom Darrah to replace Jezebel’s fallen, um, angels? Music plays a heavy hand, with foreign-language polybeats and boutique jazz, a full tick too loud.
I’m in favor of the jackets-required dress code. The internet went cataleptic over it, but what mortifies me is that a nice restaurant ever had to put “no flip-flops” in writing in the first place. Drag for you, bro. Of course, there had to be a Kings of Leon wannabe at the next table wearing a zip fleece and logging boots, perpetually lit from below as he texted. Look, a dress code that’s not enforced makes the rest of us feel like chumps. Chumps in jackets, but still. Vora said the guy was wearing a jacket when he came in but shucked it at the table, a loophole he says he’s closed since then. The dress code dovetails nicely with precise, cordial team service that means everybody at the table gets their plates with a smooth, simultaneous drop.
At Jezebel, I heard French, Spanish, Portuguese and some loud Hollywood English. Beside each table is a cart for bread bowls, for wine, for personal effects. They shake cocktails from a rolling cart fitted with the bar captain’s equivalent of a field kit. The carts reminded me of the scene in “The French Connection” when Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle stands in the cold street while his prey sits in the clubby Copain having his lunch carved at tableside. The feeling comes back when the after-dessert petit fours arrive by cart, an array of chocolate truffles, macarons, gummies, brittles and fiddle-faddle. By then, you’re full-to-bursting in Pythonesque proportions. Just one more mint. It’s wahfer-thin.
Now I’ll come back to the inevitable Congress/Jezebel comparison. Both do prix-fixe at the top of what the market will bear. Both have symbiotic relationships with their more casual counterparts next door. But where the food at Jezebel’s Bar Mirabeau (now called Tapasitas) is a work in progress, with a cocktail bar no better than the party bars of West Sixth, Congress can count its Second Bar + Kitchen and Bar Congress among the best food and alcohol programs in Austin. There’s clearly more money in that operation, and Congress is better-dressed for the job. But on a level playing field, I’d have a hard time picking the better cook between Bull and Vora. Bull builds more disciplined plates; Vora brings more rogue flavor to the table.
Rogue, maverick, independent. Whatever you call Parind Vora, nobody else is doing what he does at Jezebel. Not for the gluten-free pescetarian vegan (no, really). Not for Mario Andretti (his F1 celebrity guest). Not for the omnivore on safari (life is short; eat the fugu first). Jezebel asks a lot of questions before dinner; you’ll ask some of your own afterward. Most of my answers came back “yes.”
► Related story: Behind the scenes at Jezebel
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)