Testing One's Mettle
Will Bridget Dunlap's new restaurant shine or tarnish on the Eastside?
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Aug. 9, 2013
Tue.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm; Sun., 11am-9pm
Bridget Dunlap, the Queen of Rainey Street, has ventured out of the Downtown entertainment district to stake her claim in the Eastside with Mettle, which seeks to define East Austin dining under the leadership of the impeccably credentialed chef Andrew Francisco (Vespaio, Olivia).
The space is perhaps a bit too literal in its homophonic play on the name of the restaurant, with a towering rebar sculpture dominating the bar area and a repurposed glass chandelier in blues, greens, and browns descending on the dining room. The masculine industrial decor is mediated by a Queen Anne's lace motif on the walls and servers' aprons, which doesn't make much sense but is pleasing to the eye.
Each of Mettle's three menus – lunch, dinner, and brunch – includes Francisco's playful riffs on bistro classics, but the dishes sometimes fail when the execution is secondary to the tinkering. Our first visit for a midweek lunch was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. The pork belly quesadilla ($9) was so greasy that I couldn't take more than two bites, while the French dip ($14) tasted mainly of horseradish, which I suspect was meant to disguise the dry, overcooked short rib. Most egregious was the grilled cheese sandwich ($10), which had the barest suggestion of cheese between thick slices of crisp pain au lait. The flavorless, greasy fried green tomato brought nothing to the sandwich; the dominant flavors were spicy mustard and caramel, an inexplicable condiment that detracted from rather than added to what should have been a simple, excellent rendition of a classic dish.
Thankfully, dinner was a bit more successful. We started out with the vegan chicharron ($5), tapioca pearls that puff up and turn crispy when flash-fried. They are dusted with a vegan "bacon" powder and served with two house-made salsas that popped with bright flavor. My husband's flatiron steak ($28) was nicely cooked and served in a flavorful veal reduction. The accompanying potato chip gratin was a disappointment in that the house-made potato chips were crisp and delicious, but were drowned in a thick béchamel that cooled and congealed far more quickly than we could eat them. My spaghetti ($21) featured al dente noodles resting in a parsimonious portion of star anise-flavored pork broth and topped with a soft-boiled egg, too-salty duck prosciutto, and a serviceable chunk of braised pork belly. The result is a muddle: Is it pasta or is it ramen? Our charmingly awkward waiter shared our bemusement regarding the sparse descriptions on the dessert menu and attempted to explain the intricate concepts behind Pastry Chef Finn Walter's "creations." We finally gave up and punted with the brioche ice cream with dulce de leche ($5), a tidy and beautiful pairing of intense vanilla with silky caramel.
Ice cream turned out to be a point of contention when we returned for brunch, our most satisfying meal at Mettle. I ordered the fried chicken ($14), served with a scoop of maple ice cream in a waffle cone, ostensibly a play on chicken and waffles. "Why would you serve ice cream with hot fried chicken?" my husband groused as he watched the ice cream melt onto the wooden block that served as my plate. I was too busy doling out "taste this!" hunks of the rich, piping-hot bone-in thighs to our companions and slathering the ice cream and cone in the strawberry umeboshi garnish to quibble over the utility of such a choice. My friend's French toast ($12) was mildly flavored and not too sweet, grilled pears and lime serving as a mellow complement to the dense bread. The grilled fruit ($6), squares of pineapple, watermelon, and cucumber doused in chili and sesame oils, were the morning's big surprise, the chili balancing nicely with the refreshing seasonal cultivars.
Because this is a Dunlap operation, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the signature cocktails. I highly recommend both the New York sour ($10), a marriage of Templeton Rye, lemon, and Malbec, and the mojito ($10), a brunch cocktail that gives the Cuban classic a Texan twist with grapefruit and Topo Chico.
Chef Francisco is to be commended for making an effort to be interesting and creative in his role of executive chef, but he would do well to remember the fine line between being novel and being a novelty. Right now, Mettle skews toward the latter, but there is potential there for true innovation rather than the culinary equivalent of jazz hands. Watch this space.