Fusing Southwestern and Asian Cuisines Brio Grande
1112 W. Sixth Street, 499-0442
Dinner 5pm-12am, daily by Tom Philpott Flannery O'Connor wrote that "the lady who reads only books she thinks will improve her will always be disappointed, because she can never know if they have had the desired effect. But if by some chance she stumbles across a great novel, she will know that something has happened to her." An analogy could be made with food. A great dinner, like a great book, happens to a person. More than mere nourishment for the body, an ingenious meal can provide a veritable epiphany for the senses, a feast not only for the taste buds but also for the eyes and the nose. Of course, food imbued with epic grandeur cannot wisely be had every day, for this would jade the palate and ruin the body. It is perhaps for the best, then, that renowned chefs, those enchanters and magicians of flavor and presentation, command such a hefty price for their savories. Be that as it may, people should make a point of treating themselves occasionally, and I am happy to report a superior experience can be had at Brio, the new restaurant launched by the owners of Z Tejas. The kitchen, run by chef Raymond Tatum (formerly of Jeffrey's and 612 West), turns out dishes that, spaced out over the course of a leisurely dinner, approach the sublime character of great fiction.
The over-arching theme of Brio's cuisine - and, indeed, its glory - is the tasteful fusion of Southwestern and Asian influences with traditional Western techniques. While this combination has been the rage for some time on the West Coast and in Santa Fe, it is relatively untapped in Austin. The flavors, vibrant and often spicy-hot, with rice vinegar, ginger, lime, and cilantro, merge well. One lingering question: Why slip Italian-style dishes into the mix? Italian cuisine, at least the kind that sneaks into the Brio menu, relies on delicate flavor. Crusty rustic bread served with fruity virgin olive oil may be de rigueur in today's haute restaurants, but they do little to alert the Brio's diner to the racy flavors to come. In the interest of coherence and originality, Brio should stick to Asian and Southwestern inflections. Instead of the bread, the chefs could take inspiration from Barbara Tropp's China Moon Cafe in San Francisco and create an Asian-inspired pre-meal snack to greet diners, piquing their appetites for the delights that follow.
Such delights are considerable. With the exception of the well-made but out-of-place Margherita pizza ($7.95), every appetizer I tried I found superb. The Grilled Portabello Mushroom ($7.50) layers the earthy flavor of wild mushroom with the heat of a chili-pepper marinade, a rustic and spicy combination echoed by the accompanying wedges of grilled grits spiked with chiles. The latter, a variation of the Italian creation grilled polenta, is just the sort of departure from standard cooking that Brio does so well.
The Shredded Duck with Scallion Pancakes ($7.95), Brio's version of the Chinese concoction mushu pork, also makes a fine beginning. With an ample pile of shredded, spicy smoked duck, julienned cucumber, and mung sprouts, the diner creates a kind of taco, wrapping these ingredients in round, thin sheets of scallion-flecked pancakes. These elegant flat breads are something of a cross between homemade flour tortillas and crepes. The roll is then dipped in a sauce redolent of soy, ginger, rice vinegar, and garlic.
For a more traditional Western appetizer that works well with the menu's other offerings, try the Fresh Spinach Salad ($7.25). This simple dish combines spinach leaves dressed in a racy port wine-raspberry vinaigrette, a round of pungent goat cheese, encrusted with minced walnuts and then broiled, and a few small, poached red pears, sliced and spread into fans. The dish's color - green, white, and burgundy - are as sharp and contrasting as its flavors; they enchant the eye as much as its taste does the tongue.
The entrée menu, for its part, features outstanding dishes from both land and sea. The best may be the Sesame Salmon ($15.95), a flaky steak grilled to a perfect medium-rare and seasoned with a sweet-fiery combination of soy and wasabi. The steak rests on a bed of thick, sesame-oil scented udon noodles mixed with pleasingly bitter Asian greens. Providing color contrast atop the grill-darkened fish is a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The flavors and textures combine strikingly, and the dish seems to increase in nuance with each bite.
The Seared Drum ($16.95), too, inspires praise. The well-browned fish, separated into three crescent-shaped pieces, is fanned out over a creamy, surprisingly mild horseradish sauce - a crab-laced, sweet corn salad on the side for balance. To wake the dish up and add color, the chefs nestle a bit of assertive goat cheese, some puréed black beans, and a serrano-enlivened pico de gallo on a blue corn chip. Smear this combination over the fish and mix it into the sauce, and the dish springs to life.
As for meat, at least with regard to the two dishes I tried, the kitchen shifts gears, toning down the flavors and creating what might be called upscale comfort food. The Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($13.95) features tender, rosy pink pork medallions over a rich sauce of puréed cascabel peppers and cream. The sauce could use a bit more zip, perhaps a dash of vinegar and more heat from the chiles, as pork stands up nicely to assertive flavors. As it was, however, the plate worked well, rounded out with white beans and vinegary wilted chard. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin, too, satisfied; a cut of beef, criss-crossed with grill marks placed over a mild but delicious white-bean passilla pepper sauce. This dish included a wedge of potato pie layered with leeks and cheese. Something about the sauce and meat combination suggests homemade barbecue, while the pie hints at old-fashioned potatoes au gratin. Chef Tatum has perhaps created the ultimate picnic dish for gourmands.
Despite all the peppers, the food turns out to be quite wine-friendly. The staff - brisk, knowledgeable, but perhaps too eager to praise every selection patrons make - steered me in consistently interesting directions in wine choosing. The 1994 Caymus Conundrum ($33), a slightly sweet white, has a big, almost champagne-like flavor profile, and can hold its own with the spiciest food the kitchen turns out. The same can be said of the 1993 Kunde "Old Vines" ($27), a spicy zinfandel with lots of backbone. Before dessert, especially if you have worked your way through a substantial meat dish and need a break, treat yourself to a glass of the 1980 Warre's vintage port ($7.50). For that matter, this superb wine, with its intense fruit and mind-boggling finish, could easily stand in for dessert.
But then again, you won't want to ignore the creations of pastry chef Mark Paul. Those who worship chocolate will fall to their knees before his Grand Marnier Chocolate Pâté ($4.50), a dense triangle of bittersweet chocolate flavored with Grand Marnier and espresso. The pâté sits on a luscious coffee-infused creme anglaise, surrounded by assorted fresh berries. Equally decadent is the Brio Trio ($4.50), which layers three separate ganaches (made of white, bittersweet, and milk chocolate) between two thin wedges of chocolate cake. (The restaurant's beer list, which generally lacks imagination, could use a couple of sweet porters or stouts to pair with these fabulous desserts.) Diners seeking a lighter finish to their meals are well-steered to the seasonal fruit tart. Chef Paul currently fills his perfect, buttery pastry crusts with thin slices of baked sweet-tart pears.
If only the ambiance could match the overall brilliance of the food. The restaurant is located in an old woodframe house on West Sixth Street (the site of the old Olive's Pizza). So far, so good. But the bland decor - beige walls with white trim, white tablecloths - all but sterilizes the antique feel of the house. Worse still are the acoustics. On a busy night at Brio, with every table in the none-too-expansive dining room full and the bar packed with wine gulpers, the din can overwhelm quiet conversation and even the joys of the table. Luckily, a pleasant outdoor dining area provides a refuge from this aural tyranny.
On a busy night spent inside the dining room, dinner at Brio resembles a great novel with a few typographical errors, sometimes disrupting the illusions conjured by the author. Outside, though, with the cool breeze of Austin fall blowing, diners can experience the magic of Chefs Tatum and Paul to the hilt. They will know, like the lady mentioned by Flannery O'Connor, that something has happened to them. n