A Change of Taste

Bertram's Cooks Under New Chef Tim O'Brien

by Virginia B. Wood

Bertram's Restaurant and Bar

1600 Guadalupe, 476-2743

Lunch 11am-2pm, Monday-Friday

Dinner 5-10pm, Monday-Friday (until 11pm Saturday & Sunday) One of the true chal- lenges for a reviewer comes when you've found a restaurant you really like, you've shared it with friends and they like it, and you're all set to write the review when you hear that the brand new management is hiring a new chef. I found myself in this predicament last fall a few days before my review of Bertram's was about to run. I tracked down the rumor, and new general manager Tom Hoopingarner said yes, he had just hired chef Peter O'Brien to replace Craig Sullivan. My review instantly became obsolete. Nevertheless, I'm happy to report my feelings about Bertram's remain positive, overall, despite the changes.

When I returned to Bertram's recently, I didn't see one person I recognized from my previous visits. The general manager, chef, pastry chef, and many of the wait staff were gone. The Texas regional cuisine has been replaced with a broader spectrum of choices, perhaps what might be called American regional food. There are only a few dishes from the previous menu, notably the popular Fried Green Tomatoes ($4.95) and the Roasted Quail Stuffed with Cornbread ($15.95) (but don't be afraid that the whole Bertram's menu is now skewed towards carnivores; there are vegan, vegetarian, fish, fowl, and pasta options aplenty). I was most distressed that the excellent, meal-sized Mediterranean Salad and Spinach Salad had been dropped, but once I sampled the replacements, I was somewhat placated. One of the most exciting and tasty salads I've encountered in some time is the Sautéed Pecan Crusted Goat Cheese Salad ($6.95), a refreshing melange of field greens tossed with a wonderfully astringent citrus vinaigrette, pear slices, apple matchsticks, and tiny sections of orange and tart Ruby grapefruit, sprinkled with chopped pecans. A perfect balance of temperatures, textures, and flavors with a very eye-appealing presentation, it was an inspired and elegant creation. My dining companion chose a Caesar Salad ($5.25) and it was substantial, with a very assertive traditional Caesar dressing -- rich with tempered egg yolks and tangy with mustard, lemon, garlic, and anchovy -- garnished with shaved asiago cheese and hot croutons of fried polenta. This is not one of the ubiquitous Caesar salads with a pale imitation of the legendary dressing. This is the real deal, and the polenta croutons are divine.

Some dear friends and I celebrated surviving the holidays with a recent dinner at Bertram's, and the only sour note was completely uninformed (though friendly) service. Our waiter was a pleasant enough fellow and eager to please, but he did not have a clue about the food he was serving. Though he was able to recite the evening's specials, our hapless waiter knew nothing about how anything was prepared, making necessary a few trips to the kitchen. He was unable to inform one of my friends that his entrée choice was made with red wine, a fact which probably should have been listed in the menu description and would have precluded his ordering it, had he been informed. I'm not making a point of this to humiliate that particular waiter, since waiters are now as touchy as vegetarians in Austin these days. My point here is that for an upscale restaurant with an intricate, challenging menu to be successful, it needs well-trained, well-informed waitpeople to describe, explain, and sell that menu. And knowledgeable waitpeople with good communication skills make the best money and generate repeat customers.

Despite the service, our dinner that evening was very enjoyable and our choices reflected the varying regional American dishes on chef O'Brien's winter menu. We began with crisp, warm potato nests crowned with cool dollops of crème fraîche and bejeweled with three different flavors of domestic caviar from Illinois. This dish, also featured on the chef's New Year's menu, was a pleasing contrast in temperatures, flavors, and textures. We agreed that we could have eaten several more of these little gems had they been available. We then sampled offerings of beef, fish, and buffalo and were not disappointed.

The Buffalo Prime Rib on Cowboy Beans ($19.95) was a dinner special which at some point may become a regular menu item. The large, dense serving of meat was seasoned and cooked medium rare, topped with a tangle of crisply fried thin onion rings. This was my first taste of buffalo and I was pleased to find it tender and not at all gamey. The accompanying cowboy beans were a mixture of five different beans in a wonderful smokey base, evoking flavors of a rustic outdoor meal cooked over an open flame under the Western stars. It was, however, a mighty ranch-hand sized portion and since I hadn't been working the herd all day, most of the tasty platter of beans went to waste.

The other meat dish we tried that night was truly satisfying: a hearty Midwestern Flat-Iron Pot Roast ($13.95) served atop a bright red sauce of roasted root vegetable purée and pan drippings deglazed with a good red wine. The roasted carrots, celery, turnips, and beets gave the sauce a delightful earthy sweetness that complemented the fork-tender beef without being cloying, and the horseradish potato cake added a good tangy counterpoint. At this point, I'd like to add an FYI to chefs and menu writers everywhere: In the recovery decade of the Nineties, it is a great service to customers to know when alcoholic beverages are used in the preparation of any dish. A mention of the wine or spirit in the menu description should suffice.

The desserts we sampled that evening were the product of Austin's premier patissier, Alain Braux of Amandine Bakery. After such substantial appetizers and entrées, we were pleased to end our meal with a hint of sweetness from Amandine's ethereal sorbets.

The charming, restored historic building in downtown Austin that houses Bertram's was home to Austin's first general mercantile and is more than 100 years old. The restaurant features several comfortable dining rooms and banquet accommodations. My opinion is that Bertram's has a bright future if the management focuses on staff education and training and the energetic and creative young chef Peter O'Brien concentrates on consistency so that his talents can shine. n

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