Bess Bistro on Pecan
After one visit, you won't be returning for a chance glance at Ms. Bullock
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., Feb. 9, 2007
Bess Bistro on Pecan
500 W. Sixth, 477-2377
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11am-4pm; Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-11pmwww.bessbistro.com
Local foodies who keep up with Austin's burgeoning dining scene already know about Bess Bistro, so I'm not going to waste space discussing the famous owner or complain about the "please, no cameras on premise" policy. Instead, I'm here to tell everyone why Bess Bistro is my favorite new place to go for a hearty meal, a glass of wine, and a fun time either alone or with friends. And no, I can't report a single celebrity sighting on any of my many visits. Nor do I care. I go there to enjoy myself.
Bess Bistro is located in the basement of the historic Stratford Arms building, which has been lovingly restored over the past four years. The original columns, arches, iron railings, and old timber have been carefully preserved. They are enhanced by etched glass, antique mirrors, custom tiles, and an impressive pewter bar, custom-made in France. Ms. Bullock herself (Sandy, to her staff) is responsible for the design and decor of the space, and it should be a great source of pride. She has created a beautifully appointed restaurant that is cozy and intimate without being kitschy or pretentious. And rather than placing the focus on herself, she wants to make sure that everyone knows Bess Bistro's success belongs to Executive Chef Brenton Childs and sous chef Chris Howard, both with ample experience in some of Austin's best fine-dining restaurants.
As always, I prefer sitting at the bar when I dine alone or with my husband. The bar staff at Bess is among the friendliest, most knowledgeable, and efficient in town. I usually start my meal with the Bess Cocktail ($6.50), a glass of demi-sec sparkling wine served over ice, topped with a squeeze of fresh lime. It is like drinking sparkling honey, and the lime just balances the sweetness beautifully. I am in love with this drink. We like to share an Artisinal Cheese Board ($12), which comes with three different varieties of cheese plus delicious prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds. Another worthy starter is the semolina-crusted artichoke hearts, tossed with crispy fried spinach and Parmigiano Reggiano and served with classic aioli for dipping. On a cold Tuesday night when we were in the mood for something warm and soothing, the Chicken Potpie Special ($10) and the Shepherd's Pie ($13) were exactly what we were pining for. Both come in individual sized cast-iron skillets, and they are equally comforting. The potpie filling of chicken, fresh carrots, and peas in a perfectly seasoned creamy sauce, is topped with a wonderfully flaky crust; the Shepherd's Pie is just lovely: spicy and warm, topped with a crown of golden mashed potato.
We are big fans of the classic Croque Monsieur ($9), made on sourdough bread topped with excellent country ham, Gruyère cheese, and béchamel sauce, served with their crispy pommes frites. We have been lucky to be at Bess on a couple of occasions when the chefs were having fun in the kitchen, making off-the-menu specials. One such dish was a roasted-pomegranate-glazed boneless quail, served with a side of light-as-air quail-liver mousse. On another visit, the quail was stuffed with bread crumbs, wild mushrooms, and triple cream Brie. These luscious little treats speak of potential menu delights for the future and ably demonstrate that these chefs can make much more than an excellent ham sandwich.
I have also enjoyed great convivial meals with friends in the cozy dining room. The portions are great to share or to indulge in without overeating. The Creole Shrimp Bess ($11) are pan-fried with garlic, blackening spices, vermouth, and butter. The dish is served with grilled ciabatta, which we used to sop up every drop of the sauce. The Chopped Cobb Salad ($8), chock-full of bacon, chopped egg, and avocado cubes served with warm goat cheese croustades, makes a great light entrée. Among the menu entrées, the Porcini Crusted Halibut ($23) is a winner: perfectly seared and served over braised green cabbage, topped with jumbo lump crab and vermouth cream sauce. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin ($25) is fork tender, served with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, buttered broccolini, and a cabernet demiglace. The Breaded Pork Tenderloin ($17) is similar to a German schnitzel, pan-seared with sour apples, dried cherry sauce, and German potato cake. The Seared Chicken Paillard ($18), tender fillets of chicken breast in a lemon butter caper sauce served over perfectly tender-crisp asparagus, is delicate and flavorful. Wednesday diners should not miss the Braised Beef Shortribs ($14), served over pearl barley pilaf (yes, barley!) with roasted garlic and cabernet demiglace. This is the best short-rib dish I have ever had.
You won't regret saving room for dessert at Bess Bistro. The kitchen delivers a dessert selection that is as varied as the rest of the menu. The tangy lemon tart, a silken flourless chocolate torte, the homey apple crisp, a spectacular tres leches cake, or the superpopular Texas Snowball (rich brownie à la mode) are all equally delicious. If you are too full for sweets, try a glass of limoncello, grappa, or one of their specialty cocktails. I'm sticking with the Bess. If you go and sit at the bar, remember that the seat in front of the TV is mine.