Opened quietly in December in the space formerly occupied by the Woodland, South Congress newcomer Little Barrel and Brown – the latest concept from the owners of Italian bistro Botticelli's, just up the block – bills itself as specializing in New American cuisine. With a few operational tweaks, New Comfort might be a more appropriate descriptor.
Though the mason-jar drinking glasses and cloth napkins connote elegant home cooking, there's an unresolved tension in the restaurant's identity, manifested in the walk-up nature of South Congress businesses and the host staff's aggressive discourse of reservations. On our first visit, my husband and I arrived at 6:30pm without a dinner reservation, thinking that the early hour would render that formality unnecessary. The hostess peevishly explained that almost all of the tables in the restaurant were booked, then seated us at an inhospitable banquette table right next to the door. Meanwhile, the restaurant remained fairly empty for at least another 45 minutes, slowly filling up with customers representing both the lumpen tourist masses and the well-dressed destination diners who've undoubtedly racked up frequent points on Open Table.
Surprisingly, there were also children aplenty, from babes in arms to a barefoot urchin straight out of Paper Moon who bellied up to the bar next to her dad like a pro, lacking only a bindle for full hobo cred. With this information in mind, we made a dinner reservation for a return visit with our kids and ended up dining in the presence of exactly two other parties. Meanwhile, every other restaurant on South Congress teemed with humanity. There seems to be a disconnect, then, between who LB&B wants to attract and who it's actually attracting. Unfortunately, the food doesn't help clear that up.
The menu is divided into five quadrants: "little snacks"; appetizers; soups, salads, and sandwiches; entrées; and sweets. While I can't help but wonder what the purpose of a "snacks" menu is outside the context of happy hour, we liked the pleasantly flavorful caramel corn ($6), flecked with black pepper and fleur de sel. However, it was served in huge, unmanageable hunks that exploded messy dust all over the elegantly appointed table when we tried to break them apart. The house pickles ($6) were somewhat inconsistent: While the beets were tender and delicious, some of the other vegetables present could have been brined a bit longer, perhaps with some aromatics to make them a bit more interesting.
From among the appetizers we sampled, we enjoyed the arugula salad ($8) the most. A generous mound of baby arugula is dressed with a bright and flavorful Zinfandel vinaigrette, with added pop from mustard seeds. Although the menu promised Brie, the salad was accompanied by a powerful bleu cheese that my husband disappeared before I could sample. Should LB&B ever offer lunch service, this would make a perfect midday meal.
The entrées were somewhat hit-and-miss. The fried chicken ($18), steeped for two days in a marinade of buttermilk and Frank's Red Hot, was tasty but greasy, the breading slippery and wanting crunch. The veggie plate ($16) consisted of an excellent risotto made with "forest mushrooms" and spinach alongside a conservative portion of sautéed rainbow carrots and wee brussels sprouts, as well as a salad of tiny greens studded with radishes and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette.
The scallop dish ($24) was the biggest head-scratcher from among the entrées we tried. Three or four midsize scallops – a touch overcooked but not ruined – sat atop a bed of bacon-studded orzo swimming in a pungent pool of balsamic vinegar and garnished with out-of-season, out-of-place blackberries that made no sense in the dish. Perhaps chef Russell Dougherty could have reduced the blackberries with that balsamic vinegar and incorporated both sore-thumb ingredients more subtly and gracefully into the dish.
For dessert, we opted for the buttered cornbread sundae ($10). The word "sundae" sets the expectation of a careful layering of flavors promising the perfect bite every time the spoon plunges into the dish. It was a profound disappointment, then, when this "sundae" turned out to be a collection of ingredients – grilled cornbread, caramel popcorn, a scoop of potent bourbon ice cream – placed miles apart from one another on a plate pooled with caramel. While each component was delicious, the dessert serves as a metaphor for the restaurant itself: innovative twists on American comfort food, some nice flavors, puzzling (if not maddening) choices, the overall experience muddled by hiccups in execution and an overall lack of warmth and depth.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.