Restaurant Review: Destination Dining Downtown
You had me at mustachioed barkeep
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., April 22, 2011
Second Bar + Kitchen200 Congress, 827-2750
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-12mid; Friday-Saturday, 11am-2am; Sunday brunch, 11am-4pm
My first meal at Second Bar + Kitchen occurred in January, shortly after it opened. I sat at the crowded bar for lunch, the white noise of a hundred conversations in my ears. The space was so original, so thoroughly unlike any other in Austin, that I almost fancied I was in some other town.
Indeed, Second Bar + Kitchen is a restaurant with an atmosphere that seems too urban to be Austin. Maybe it's the lofty floor-to-ceiling windows that suffuse this Downtown corner locale with light and endow the space with a Mediterranean tree-house atmosphere. Or maybe it's the incredible cocktails with romantic names like Tennyson Tumbler and Red River Revival, made by a steampunk barkeep with a waxed mustache. It could be the late-night service that keeps the restaurant bustling well toward midnight. These elements join with a cuisine that is noisy and brash and altogether self-assured, even when it falters.
Chef David Bull's menu fundamentally deploys a cosmopolitan take on traditional bar fare but gives it a twist. French fries ($6) are infused with truffle oil and accompanied by seared foie gras ($20 with foie gras). Fried pickles ($5) are paired with Gorgonzola cream and a fire-truck-red hot sauce, and sandwiches are accented by house-made aioli, relishes, jams, and confits instead of ketchup and mayonnaise. Pizzas hold significant territory on Second's menu. But the pizzas here are a far cry from the throwaway cheese-and-pepperoni versions from many bar kitchens. Great pizza begins with the crust, and Second has mastered this art with a thin crust that is crisp yet chewy, full-flavored yet meek enough not to overpower the ingredients on top. Second's pizza bianco ($15) – ricotta and Grana Padano topped with homemade sausage and fresh arugula – is an inspired study in contrasting tastes and textures.
Like aggressive flavors? Second Bar + Kitchen has got 'em. Take the short-rib sliders ($12), a popular lunch item served with crisp waffle potato chips. These pulled-beef sandwiches on brioche are not dissimilar to a good ol' Texas barbecue sandwich, but bolder and topped with melted cheese. The combination is sweet and salty, with a serious spicy streak and a tendency toward messiness. Or consider the chive gnocchi with tomato confit, Grana Padano, and spinach ($10) at dinner. The first bite smacks of lemon, but this settles into genteel competition with the vibrancy of roasted tomatoes and black olive puree. It is delicious.
Like iconoclastic taste combinations? Yep, Second's got them too. Pastry chef Plinio Sandalio has developed a roster of desserts that hitches bacon to ice cream and sticky toffee pudding ($8), foie gras to buttercream and oatmeal cookies ($4). Those who choose to dive in won't regret it. Second's truffle-dense brownie ($3) topped with smoked ganache and orange Pop Rocks was among the most delicious sweet bites I've sampled in years.
But in spite of (or perhaps due to) Second's easy confidence, the kitchen and the service can falter. I was completely underwhelmed by a lunchtime roast chicken served with black-eyed peas, escarole, and brioche ($16). The chicken was well-flavored, but the black-eyed peas, escarole, and brioche mingled into a limp and mushy pile beneath it and added nothing to the dish. Likewise, a salad of grilled radicchio, escarole, and pancetta ($9) arrived at our table looking less perky than we imagined it would. The leaves were chopped into smallish pieces and tossed together in a messy heap. I give the kitchen credit, though, since it tasted much better than it looked.
In the same vein, service can be uneven. Second Bar + Kitchen seems destined to become one of those places that's a victim of its own popularity. There are times when the smallish indoor dining area is just too loud, or when the waitstaff simply can't keep pace with demand. But I predict resiliency for this upstart newcomer to Austin's dining landscape, and I am eager to watch what new adventures it will offer.