Planning to dine at Arro had me reminiscing about my experiences at French restaurants in Austin over the past 40 years: I had my first-ever crepes and quiche at the original Pecan Street Cafe in the early Seventies, my first salade Lyonnaise and steak frites at Chez Nous in the Eighties, one of the earliest farm-to-table meals served in Austin at Jean-Luc's French Bistro in the mid-Nineties, and truly elegant haute French cuisine at Aquarelle during the past decade. Where would Arro fit in?
Opened in the summer of 2013, Arro is a French bistro from ELM Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Easy Tiger). Chef Andrew Curren and his wife, Mary Catherine, are running the kitchen; Craig Collins and Devon Broglie developed the bar and wine list; and award-winning sommelier Scott Ota is one of the managers of the restaurant. The often-used restaurant building, which previously housed Haddingtons and Thai Tara, has been transformed into a light, airy space with a secluded patio and offers late-night weekend kitchen hours in a neighborhood known for heavy bar traffic. The first thing to note about Arro is that it is very popular – reservations are necessary and not always easy to come by. We showed up early on an away-game Saturday evening and were only able to snag a two-top on the patio, which was pleasant and quiet. On a weeknight, our group of six showed up for a 6:15pm reservation and the dining room soon filled up around us, creating a noise level that precluded much conversation. The new cinq à sept happy hour that started last week with appetizers such as raclette, charcuterie, frites, breads, and cheeses, plus drinks in the $5-7 range, is sure to mean even bigger crowds, earlier. Be advised.
My visits to Arro are a study in contrasts. Our first dinner there of steak tartare ($15), lobster bisque ($9), steak frites ($23), roasted grouper with a vegetable mélange ($26), profiteroles ($9), and an almond tart ($8) was as sublime a meal as a restaurant critic could hope for. Each course was properly proportioned, flavors and textures were well balanced, every component of each dish was carefully executed so as to present a harmonious whole. The service was knowledgeable with good suggestions, and the ambience on the patio was pleasant. Based on that seamless first experience, Arro hit the bull's-eye.
Unfortunately, our second visit was somewhat ragged. Our party of six ordered six different appetizers, entrées, and desserts with mixed results and longish gaps between the courses. My meal of French onion soup ($8) and cassoulet ($25) was my least favorite on the entire table: The onions in the soup were caramelized to the point that it tasted like molasses syrup thinned with strong sherry, the beans in the cassoulet were seriously underdone, and the duck confit was wincingly salty. My bone-marrow-loving friend was disappointed to find mushrooms and bread crumbs masking a small serving of bone marrow ($11), and the bread that accompanied it was over-grilled to an acrid burn. Friends who chose the lobster bisque and dainty vegetable tart ($8) were much happier with their choices, and a stuffed quail entrée competed with a filet of grilled amberjack for the winningest entrées. The best deal on the table was the $25 prix fixe menu with lobster bisque, mussels and frites, and a chocolate pot de crème, but here again, the mussel broth was overpowered by the kitchen's heavy hand with sherry.
As a baker by trade, I really appreciate Arro's excellent breads and pastries. For my money, Easy Tiger bakery honcho David Norman is one of the best bakers in town right now, and we found Arro's bread service ($2 per person) with flavored, whipped butters the perfect way to begin a French meal. I'm now a serious fan of Mary Catherine Curren's desserts – her delicate, buttery tart crusts and crisp shortbread wafers are heaven to a crisp-cookie-lover like me. The salted chocolate chip cookie sandwich with Cognac ice cream ($7) on the new happy hour menu has my name all over it. I'll be going back to Arro, but with a mindful eye toward the dishes that are executed to my tastes.
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