Freshness and simplicity brighten palates in a former steak house
Reviewed by MM Pack, Fri., June 13, 2008
Parkside301 E. Sixth, 474-9898
Sunday-Wednesday, 4pm-12mid; Thursday-Saturday, 4pm-2am; closed Monday
The East Sixth Street dining scene has definitively jumped up a notch with the opening of this new venue for Shawn Cirkiel, whom Austin diners remember as the second chef/proprietor of the well-loved Jean-Luc's Bistro on Colorado Street. Culinary Institute of America-trained Cirkiel, who had previously honed his chops at Cafe Boulud in New York City and Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, captured Austinites' attention and palates with his confident French-influenced cooking, known for being both simple and sophisticated. Now, four years later, Cirkiel has opened Parkside in the circa-1880s Downtown building that most recently housed Dan McKlusky's steak house.
And what a transformation. The spacious interior has been stripped to its bones, graced by a few sleek, modern, urban touches (this could be an apt metaphor for Cirkiel's food sensibilities; we'll get to that shortly). Like a traditional British two-up, two-down semidetached house, the restaurant space is divided into four rooms, with a barroom and dining room on each floor and a wide, open staircase up the middle. Exposed brick walls, 12-foot ceilings of embossed tin, dark wooden floors, and an interesting mix of industrial lighting and retro fixtures all speak to the building's past lives. Urban-chic accoutrements include a shiny stainless-steel bar, black vinyl booths, horizontal unframed mirrors, and French cafe-style metal chairs and stools.
David Kinch, chef/owner of the internationally acclaimed Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., has said that there are two characteristics needed for a restaurant to transcend the ordinary: The first is that someone has a vision that isn't thematic and isn't decided by committee; the second is a sense of place, where the restaurant couldn't be what it is anywhere else.
Although it's still a bit early for a definitive conclusion, Parkside has all the makings of the kind of place Kinch describes. The restaurant doesn't lend itself well to themes or niches; it simply reflects the chef/owner's personal vision of how a comfortable, stylish restaurant should look and feel in Downtown Austin, and the eclectic menu comes across as if he's making food that he likes to eat and serve to his chef friends. Since the days of Jean-Luc's, Cirkiel's cooking has become even more stripped-down and streamlined – fresh, elegant, minimally adorned food that tastes like itself. Like the best modern art, it's as much about what isn't there as what is.
The physical menu, presented (only a little preciously) in typewriter font on lined paper, is as simple as the food. No string of adjectives describes the antecedents and components of each dish; it's simply garlic shrimp ($9) or macaroni ($6) or clams, fingerling potatoes ($17). It's up to you to trust the kitchen with the details, or you can ask the waitstaff. On my visits, the servers were able to competently deconstruct the ingredients and preparations, or they'd take themselves off to ask the chef. No faking it; how refreshing. Kind of like the food.
You can't get much more minimal than raw-bar seafood. Parkside really shines in this department, with a selection of East and West Coast oysters ($16-30/dozen), including the tiny, briny Olympias that require neither lemon nor mignonette to enhance them. Peekey toe crab (from Maine) salad ($8) and raw salmon with blood oranges ($9) are both refreshing contrasts of sweet sea meat and pleasantly astringent dressings, and the raw bay scallop with matchsticks of crisp pear in a mustard vinaigrette ($9) is just a stunning combination of subtle flavors and textures.
There's plenty of flash-fried seafood, too; the best bang for the buck is the sizable platter of calamari ($7), crisp, tender, and dusted with smoked paprika and plenty of salt. Crab fritters ($10), fried oysters ($9), and salt cod brandade fritters served with poached tomatoes ($7) are all nice accompaniments to a glass of white wine or one of the 20 imported beers. Parkside's Oysters Rockefeller ($9) are some of the best I've had, with a featherlight, herby sauce over the broiled bivalves.
Happily, Cirkiel has reprised from the Jean-Luc days his simply sautéed skate wing ($18), now served in brown butter with a sprinkling of capers and currants. The beef marrow bones ($12), accompanied by crisp herb salad and toasted house-made bread, are an absolute experience in rich flavor and textural contrasts; be warned that they take about half an hour to finish but are absolutely worth the wait. My New York strip steak ($29) was beautifully cooked and plenty big for two people; it also arrives with a sizable casserole of silky potato gratin.
Speaking of sides, the various vegetable and starch dishes are small meals in and of themselves. The sautéed brussels sprouts ($5) will make a believer of you even if you think you don't care for this crucifer, as will the halved winter squash ($5), roasted in its shell and nicely enhanced with maple syrup and salt. I'm looking forward to the summer veg selection.
From the dessert menu, Parkside is gaining quite a reputation for the wicked, wonderful doughnut holes ($7), dusted with sugar and cinnamon and served piping hot in a brown paper bag. They're so perfect that you hardly need the three dipping sauces that come alongside. Pastry chef/baker Callie Whigham, who has worked previously at Jeffrey's and Mars, prepares a daily selection of other desserts and breads, including terrific house-made sorbets and ice creams; her buttermilk ice cream is just delectable.
Downtown Austin is a better place because Parkside is there with chef Cirkiel at the helm, doing what he does so well. Don't be surprised when you see staff from other restaurants around town unwinding at the end of the night. And in case you're wondering about the restaurant's name, in view of the noticeable absence of any nearby park, it was named for the Bronx housing unit where the chef's dad grew up. Nice touch.