Bartlett's adds a dash of Austin to the chain-restaurant model and comes out on top
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Aug. 5, 2011
Bartlett's2408 W. Anderson, 451-7333
Happy hour, 4-7pm weekdays
The success of chain restaurants largely depends on each outlet in the chain being as much like all the others as possible. That kind of sameness makes chain eateries attractive to business travelers and customers who are looking for a predictable dining experience, but it limits their appeal to restaurant reviewers. For example, even though we were well aware that the one Austin outlet of Nashville-based fine-dining chain Houston's regularly showed well in our annual Restaurant Poll, we didn't consider it for review until it was announced that longtime local franchisee Tim Bartlett had bought the restaurant and turned it into an independent operation. We were curious about what, if anything, might change. Bartlett's recently celebrated its first anniversary, and we can assure you that if you're a Houston's fan, all the things that made it North Austin's go-to spot for business dining are still very much in evidence – the comfortable, clubby atmosphere; professional management; efficient service; and a reliably executed menu. Where changes are concerned, owner Bartlett has added some excellent new menu items both in the dining room and at the bar and is making a genuine effort to include local sourcing of ingredients whenever possible. Our recent visits to Bartlett's have revealed a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders, and we approve.
Seven friends gathered at a round table for Sunday dinner at Bartlett's recently. Our meal commenced with plates of grilled artichokes ($11) served with rémoulade sauce – big, beautiful thistles cut in half before grilling. The tangy rémoulade is just the right foil for the smoke-kissed leaves and hearts, creating a simple but perfect sharable opener. Satisfying a large group of diners with disparate tastes is often a problem for restaurants, but the Bartlett's menu features entrée choices to please every palate, including some new vegetarian and gluten-free options. Each person at our table ordered a different protein, and the kitchen ably met the timing challenge of delivering each individual dish at the peak of heat, moistness, and flavor. The hearty Texas burger ($13) arrived medium-rare, as ordered, napped with the famous Firehouse chili and cheddar cheese, and my medium-rare petite prime rib ($23) was pink and tender. Both the gargantuan double-cut pork chop ($24) and the simple roasted chicken ($18) were equally impressive; the big cut of pork was moist and flavorful despite its size, and the chicken tender and juicy under a skin crisped with herbs and apricot jam. Perhaps the most impressive plate was the day's fish special, an expertly butterflied whole trout dressed with a Creole pecan mustard sauce ($19) with flaky fish beneath the nutty coating. Bartlett's offers seasonal fresh vegetable side dishes with entrées, and we enjoyed thin, crisp fries; silken creamed corn; cheesy creamed spinach; and lovely roasted beets.
Entrée and side dish portions here are more than generous, and our server graciously offered to box up our leftovers. We opted to try all four of the house desserts ($7 each), rotating them around the table until we were stuffed. The nutty pecan brownie sits atop a pool of custard and caramel sauce underneath a large dollop of ice cream, and the bowl of warm apple-walnut cobbler wears a scoop of ice cream, as well. The sweet/tangy slice of key lime pie under a cloud of whipped cream is more than enough for three people, and the sauce on the hot fudge sundae is a voluptuous delight. Desserts here should be ordered to share.
A friend joined me last week to check out Bartlett's new After 5 menu, which offers small plates ($4-$15), a list of designer cocktails ($8-$10), a well-chosen selection of affordable wines by the glass ($6-$13), and $3 local craft brews on draft. We couldn't pass up another plate of those marvelous artichokes, and then filled out the table with peel-and-eat shrimp (six huge Gulf beauties, $9), a jumbo lump crab cake (excellent at $13), and the three-cheese plate ($15), which features selections from Antonelli's Cheese Shop. The cheese plate is an elegant addition to the menu – servings of three thoughtfully chosen cheeses paired with roasted red grapes drizzled with olive oil and herbs and an ample supply of whisper-thin buckwheat flour and cornmeal crackers to serve as a vehicle for the cheese and fruit. This dish made a truly delightful ending to our meal and spoke volumes about what Tim Bartlett has accomplished here: He has maintained the best parts of an already classy operation while adding the occasional Austintatious flourish to make it uniquely our own. Good show!