Monday, January 3, 2011

Congress Austin

Happy new year!

I hope all of you had a wonderful holiday season, and a great start to your 2011. As is typical, my holiday was filled with no small amount of feasting, trips to Lubbock and Minneapolis, and relaxing time spent with family and friends. I could not have asked for better.

Part of the aforementioned feasting included a New Year's Eve visit to Congress, a brand new venture that had literally opened for business that very evening. Congress is part of a trio of spaces at the bottom of the swanky Austonian - there is the more casual Second Bar + Kitchen, which is open for both lunch and dinner and is a standard order-off-the-menu proposition; Congress, which is the more upscale, prix fixe sibling; and Bar Congress, which connects the two spaces. The all-star cast here includes David Bull as executive chef (formerly of the Driskill Grill and Mansion on Turtle Creek); June Rodil as Beverage Director (formerly of Uchi and winner of the Texas Best Sommelier award in 2009; Plinio Sandalio as Pastry Chef (formerly of Textile in Houston); and Adam Bryan as Bar Manager. Austin is lucky to have a culinary team of this caliber, and the energy and enthusiasm here is palpable.


The dining room at Congress is elegant and imtimate, with only about fifteen tables plus a couple of private dining areas. The seating was very comfortable - perfect for settling in for a long, luscious meal.


We started with an amuse of celery root purée topped with parmesan foam and a bit of truffle. It was warm and delicious, and the flavors melted together delightfully on the tongue and left me wanting for more.

Next was a utterly fascinating concoction that I truly in my wildest dreams would never have thought up. A chilled cauliflower panna cotta was layered with uni and an uni meringue, bruléed, and topped with a bit of caviar and gold leaf. I know...what? It was unusual, to say the least, and I definitely enjoyed the experience, although I think those at the table who were less fond of the flavor of uni were also less fond of this dish.


Any skeptics were won over by the next plate, a hamachi sashimi served with soba noodles, hearts of palm, and a bit of white miso. The miso was fragrant and light, and paired perfectly with the hamachi. Between bites, we secretly wondered what deft person was in the kitchen tying the soba noodles in knots.


The salad course was next. Arugula was lightly dressed with a grape agro dolce and joined with a bit of artichoke confit topped with burrata cheese. The burrata was the suavest lover, so damn smooth and creamy that my tongue paid little mind to the sharper and tangier flavors found in the dressing and the arugula. I again found myself wishing there was more of this dish to enjoy.


I didn't have to pine for long, though; next up was a bit of white snapper, served atop a smidge of white bean mousse and cuddled up with the finest piece of serrano ham I've ever had the pleasure of meeting meating eating. The dish was garnished with a bit of bottarga and a sliver of crisped mizuna. Simply lovely.


Although at first blush the next course appeared comparatively unadventurous, it may well have been my favorite of the meal. A ribeye cap was finished with the most amazing, smoky espresso rub, placed atop puréed potatoes, and offered up with a bit of smoked caramel (just looking at those words makes me catch my breath). Absolutely fantastic, and the flavors were so rich and arresting that I was left satisfied, even though there were only a few bites on the plate.

My "When Harry Met Sally" dish of the meal.

The cheese course arrived next - a beautiful wedge of coupole paired with a clementine beignet - again, a very nice balance between creamy-smooth and tart-sweet.


The last official course was a bittersweet chocolate terrine served with a bitty pile of cocoa nib crunch, raspberry sauce, and crispy gianduja. It was not long for this world.


These tiny babies came with the check - presumably to sweeten the bill within. I had stepped away from the table when they arrived, so didn't hear what they were...but they tasted all the world like oatmeal whoopie pies. Really refined oatmeal whoopie pies, though, of course.


Overall, an excellent meal, particularly when you consider that this was officially Congress' opening night. The service was attentive without being overbearing; friendly without being cloying. The food was all spot on. If I had to express reticence over one thing, it would be that I think the portion sizes were a smidge on the small side. Multi-course tasting menus have to tread a fine line - diners neither want to leave hungry nor uncomfortably full - but given the choice, I guess I'd prefer to risk approaching the latter end of the spectrum, because spending a bill or two (or more) per person and wanting to snack afterward is just irritating. Full disclosure, however: in anticipation of this meal, I barely ate anything all day, so by the time we started eating around 9:30 p.m., my usually voracious appetite was in full force.

Also, be prepared for the fact that there is no printed wine list. June will steer you right, but if you want advance notice of how much your wine is going to set you back, you cannot be shy about asking. [EDIT: I've been assured that a printed wine list will be available by Wednesday. That's what I get for being on the scene too early - thanks for letting me know, guys!]

Those minor comments aside, I definitely enjoyed my meal here and am very much looking forward to exploring more of both Congress and its sister spaces, Second and Bar Congress. A huge word of thanks to Dave Shaw for helping us get reservations and putting up with my incessant queries about when their opening day would be. And congratulations to David Bull and the rest of the Second & Congress team for pulling off what promises to be a bright spot in the Austin dining scene.


  1. Okay, those are some of the fanciest plates of food I've ever seen. Yum! I'm all about any place that serves a "cheese course".

  2. ...we will have a printed wine list by Wednesday. As fun as it is, I simply cannot do that to June. She is quick tempered and likes to kick...


  3. Looks so good! Great pictures also :)

  4. Wow- the food looks amazing. Still giggling over the "When HArry Met Sally" reference- although judging by the pic, I'm sure it's right on target. That's a bit anoying about not having a wine list- while I do usually request a reccommendation- I like to know what I'm paying in advance. I'll be sure to ask.

  5. Scott, thank you for letting me know! I've edited my post accordingly.

    Shelley, see Scott's comment above. Thanks, all, for the sweet comments!

  6. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos and feedback on the experience. It definitely is a spot I plan to visit one day for a special occasion and there isn't anything you had that didn't look absolutely mouth-watering to me.

    I'm picturing you with your rabbit ear lights on in the restaurant. Were you wearing them?

  7. Jodi, thanks so much for the kind words! I wasn't wearing my rabbit ears, but I did break them out for every one of these photos. I am sure our server was just rolling his eyes at me, but he was very discreet and I never saw it. :)

  8. What a well thought out review and such beautiful pictures. It inspired me to invest in a MUCH better camera to truly capture beautiful food. Looking forward to trying this spot out.
    You're spot on about a tasting menu needing to find the balance between someone walking away still feeling hungry or feeling completely and grossly stuffed. Very challenging balance to find.

    Thank you for taking the time to review.



  9. Jetté, thank you so much for your thoughtful and kind comments! The photos for my blog are actually taken with a pocket-sized point-and-shoot, a Canon S95, which I LOVE. In indoor/evening settings, I usually supplement the lighting with a two-headed booklight by Mighty Bright. It is a relatively low-budget setup and works great, although I'm afraid it pretty much plasters a nerd badge on my forehead.

  10. Wow! THe food looks amazing! I'm looking forward to trying Congress soon!

  11. The terrine photo nearly knocked my eyes out. Nice colors and composition. Thanks for the appetite!

  12. John, that is a HUGE compliment coming from you, since I consider you one of my photography mentors/teachers. Thank you!

  13. I am so insanely jealous of this right now. All I have at work is cereal. damn it.

  14. Great review, Michelle. Can't wait to try this one.


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