Annies: Night & Day

Two very different sides of a popular Downtown eatery

Annies: Day & Night
Photo by John Anderson

Annies Cafe & Bar

319 Congress, 472-1884
www.anniescafebar.com
Monday-Wednesday, 7am-10pm; Thursday, 7am-12mid; Friday, 7am-2am; Saturday, 8am-2am

The morning got off to such an auspicious start. A couple of friends joined me for a late breakfast at Annies, and we found a parking space right at the front door of the new Down­town hot spot. The French-bistro-inspired design of the bright, airy dining space is very impressive – comfortable, functional, and inviting, with a pleasant view of the city's main thoroughfare. The cheerful young lady who seated us brought coffee promptly, took our order, and disappear-ed completely. Even though we were one of only three tables in the restaurant, our food was very slow in coming out and the dishes arrived at varying temperatures, a sure sign the kitchen has timing issues. The full English breakfast ($9.95) that sounded so good on paper was actually lukewarm and unremarkable: overcooked fried eggs that had begun to shrivel; limp, tepid bacon; bland instant grits; mealy chunks of Roma tomato that were definitely not grilled as advertised; a bowl of fruit salad; and a heavy pancake ($2 extra). My friend's migas ($5.85) were even more problematic. The cold clump of scrambled eggs and tortilla pieces bore the flavor of canned Italian tomato sauce rather than a fresh Mexican salsa, and the rubbery home fries glistened with fast-congealing grease. The Farmer's Omelet ($8.95) was the only clear winner that morning. It was hot and tasty, paired with a buttery pecan muffin. Though I really liked the space, the poorly executed food managed to squelch my initial positive reaction.

Knowing how busy Annies is at lunch, I hoped for better results on a subsequent visit. We arrived at 11:15am, and in a very short time the place was packed with hungry Down­town workers, eating in and getting food to take out. Diners put in orders as they progress through a cafeteria-style line and take a number flag to their tables. Food comes out quickly, and tables are bussed and turned efficiently, but it's difficult to decide who (line help, food runners, bussers?) gets the tip. The fast-moving crowd worked in our favor this trip. Our food arrived promptly and at mostly appropriate temperatures. The 10-inch Italian sausage pizza ($10) had a thin, toasty crust with a hint of cornmeal crunch and savory homemade sausage on top. The Chinese chicken entrée salad ($7.95) is colorful, crisp, and cool, complemented by tasty grilled chicken. The bistro burger and frites ($11) were almost a home run, with a thick, juicy patty topped with melted white cheddar and tangy grilled onions on a homemade sea-salt bun. The large side of shoestring frites had cooled to room temperature and dried out, the only misstep of this meal. We split a lemon mer­ingue tart ($2.95) that was as delicious as it was lovely, with a puckery lemon curd encased in a cookie crust, crowned by a curly bouffant meringue. In fact, our hats are off to the bakers here, as the breads and pastries were the most consistently good items we tasted.

My initial desire to write about Annies stemmed from my curiosity about how the historic hardware-store building would be transformed into a three-meals-a-day bistro with updated Apple Annies dishes during the day and innovative chef Mark Schmidt overseeing the kitchen during the dinner hour. I had been a big fan of Cafe 909, the successful destination restaurant in Marble Falls run by chef Schmidt and his wine-savvy wife, Shelly. I expected the pair to make a dynamic contribution to Annies' success when they were prominently featured in all of the restaurant's opening publicity. My original plan was to try all three meals – a kind of "day in the life at Annies" approach – and have cocktail aficionado Wes Marshall cover the bar. Alas, by the time I made it into Annies, I was disappointed to find both the Schmidts already gone. And the only evidence I detected of the fresh, farm-to-table culinary aesthetic for which chef Schmidt was known was in the menu descriptions, rather than on any of the plates we were served. That was one of many disappointments here. – Virginia B. Wood

Annies: Day & NIght
Photo by John Anderson

Annies Bar & Late-Night Menu

We used to live in the urban Northeast, and the bar at Annies is almost identical to the little tuck-in neighborhood bars we liked to haunt around Boston's Copley Square or Manhattan's Nolita. These ground-level places had windows open on the world and busy bars full of friends and regular customers. Most had music, and the best had low-key jazz. Bartenders displayed a sense of pride, lavishing their creations with the extra attention you never find in pick-up joints. Whether they chose new inventions or tried-and-true classics, everyone got a great drink. Ultimately, customers became regulars as they kept coming back for top-notch ingredients, careful attention to recipes, and a roster of creative drinks.

The bar at Annies certainly has the feel of one of those places. We recently sat at a window table where we could see the crowds outside but still enjoy the music inside from Ephraim Owens' ingenious improvisation on his tilted-bell trumpet. Annies turned out to be a great place to sample classic cocktails. I asked for a Manhattan ($8), expecting the standard "which bourbon do you want?" query. Instead, they offered a choice of rye whiskies. Our server was even conversant in the flavor differences! Finding rye anywhere in Austin is a struggle, so this felt like paradise. We decided to press our luck and see if the bar could possibly deliver a classic Sazerac ($9). Indeed, there was the requisite rye, Peychaud's Bitters, and the once-again legal absinthe.

Here are just a few things that set Annies' bar apart from most of the competition:

• The bartenders frequently refer to antique bar books, hunting for the oldest – and therefore most accurate – version of a drink.

• They carefully measure with real jiggers instead of the faster but much less accurate "count and pour" system.

• Annies bartenders make all the classic cocktails as well as their own new creations, but all are made with an almost obsessive fixation on quality.

Annies joins a very small group of bars where things are done right.

Annies Bar & Late-Night menu is available from 3pm to closing and has a number of welcome choices, perfect for someone wandering the late-night streets of Austin looking for generous portions of comfort food. The menu describes the steak frites ($18) as "bar steak & pommes frites." On the night we were there, the bar steak was a hanger cooked precisely to order, with just a hint of a rich dark savory sauce and served with a substantial portion of crispy fries. The whole thing was simple and classic, but the quality of the ingredients, careful preparation, and fair price (you can pay more for appetizers than this whole entrée within a few blocks) make it a winner. The moules frites ($12) are also a bargain. The sauce has a nice hint of saffron, and the quantity of chorizo is well chosen so as not to interfere with the sweet freshness of the mussels. For the ultimate comfort food, Annies' mac and cheese ($6) spends its last few minutes in the pizza oven so that it comes to the table bubbling hot with a crispy top.

And what about wine? Though we were disappointed to discover that Shelly Schmidt had no input in Annies' wine program and had already moved on from the restaurant, we found some pleasant surprises that work nicely with the menu, two-thirds of the choices being food-friendly, European wines. In most cases, the prices are very fair, especially by Downtown standards. In the whites, the Masi Masianco ($6.50/glass, $26/bottle) has light, lemony aromas which match up nicely with the moules frites. Char­don­nay lovers should try the Drouhin Saint-Véran ($7, $28), a quaffable Burgundy at a bargain price. Château de La Chaize ($20) is always a bargain for red-wine lovers, full of cherry and black pepper aromas and ideal with the grilled sal­mon ($20). If you want something a little stouter, say, for the steak frites, Alvaro Palacios' Herencia Remon­do La Montesa Rioja ($9, $36) is a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha that is a great example of how wonderful inexpensive Rioja wines can be. Between the atmosphere, the music, an interesting wine list, and an obsessive-compulsive devotion to outstanding cocktails, Annies' bar is the type of place that makes me wish I lived Downtown. – Wes Marshall

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