Bertram's by Miguel Provides Luxurious Tastes of Mexico
By Meredith Phillips, Fri., May 1, 1998
1601 Guadalupe, 476-2743
Mon-Thu, 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11pm; Sun, 11am-2pm
The low-slung limestone structure that Rudolf Bertram built to be a general store in 1862 has since seen a lot of change in use, if not in structure. Besides a store, Bertram's has served downtown Austin as a Tex-Mex restaurant, an Italian place, and a barbeque joint, among other things. Without firsthand experience of these businesses, it's impossible to judge which suited the building best. But a visit to the current incarnation confirms that the space is well-suited for its present purpose, an upscale restaurant featuring interior Mexican cuisine.
Often touted as the most romantic spot to eat in Austin, Bertram's actually looks a little like a shotgun house from the main dining area: long and thin, with no walls separating the bar from the hostess stand from the 20-odd tables. The limestone walls are hung with woolly Mexican rugs in warm colors. The ceilings are wood-beamed, the floors brick tile. Sunny flowers brighten every table and the hosting and bar area, and indirect lighting, wooden tables, and cloth napkins give a light, clean feel to a structure that might otherwise resemble a lodge.
The romance comes in once you descend the stairs to the basement. The low-ceilinged, candlelit cave downstairs is the perfect dinner spot for non-claustrophobic couples. And there's even more hidden away: Groups ranging in size from eight to 200 can request one of three private dining rooms.
It's clear right from the start who the star of Bertram's is. In fact, the menu even calls the restaurant "Bertram's by Miguel." Miguel Ravago received great acclaim for his former partnership in Austin's Fonda San Miguel restaurant, and more publicity recently for a book he co-authored with Marilyn Tausend, Cocina de la Familia, nominated for a Julia Child award (which it won; see this week's "Food-o-File"). As executive chef at Bertram's, he continues to break ground with new recipes and high standards for Mexican cuisine.
Bertram's focuses exclusively on dinner and an elaborate Sunday brunch. The dinner menu is small but varied. Entrees range in price from $9.95 for the vegetarian Stuffed Zucchini to $19.95 for the Fish Stew, crowded with everything from scallops to mahi-mahi.
While we pondered the menu before a recent dinner, we were presented with a snack of jicama strips and green and black olives, resting in a tiny glass bowl of citrus chile sauce. The friend I ate dinner with started her meal with a Nopalito Salad ($4.95), strips of prickly pear pad, tomato, and onion in a light vinaigrette over mixed field greens and garnished with avocado, more tomato, and cotija cheese. We traded plates back and forth so I could share in the salad and she could have some of the Chile Ancho Relleno appetizer ($5.95), a cool, marinated ancho with a goat cheese-ricotta filling. Topped with crisped white onions, this version of a Mexican stuffed pepper was a far cry from Tex-Mex breaded and fried poblanos full of runny cheese. The result was a happy balance of crisp versus creamy textures, and a subtle contrast between tang and sweetness, with hints of heat.
For dinner, my friend ordered the Grilled Tuna Steak ($17.95) with a minty tomatillo salsa. The large piece of fish was sided by a colorful raw slaw of shredded carrot, zucchini, and red pepper, white rice, black beans, and the fresh corn and flour tortillas that put any from a bag to shame. Our only complaint was that the fish was cooked slightly more than the requested "medium."
During my first visit to Bertram's a few months ago, I ate an extraordinary chipotle-rubbed ribeye, grilled pineapple, and mashed yucca-potatoes entree ($16.95), so I knew going into the review that Bertram's had a lot of potential. As a test, I opted for something without immediate appeal. Duck can be a hit or miss food, and while I hate to admit it, mole doesn't taste complex and sophisticated to me, it usually tastes burned and wretched, therefore topping my list of things to avoid. So the Duck Enchiladas ($16.95) with almond mole was a tough test. After two corn tortillas stuffed with duck piccadillo, a coarse-cut mixture of meat, plump raisins, almonds, potatoes, and carrots swimming in a rich, topaz-colored sauce, I'm happy to report that my blanket distaste for mole was put on hold, at least temporarily.
For most of us, Bertram's is too expensive for a spontaneous meal. But for a special occasion or out-of-town guests, it ranks in my personal top three. My dinner guest agrees; she commented that she hadn't been that eager about a restaurant in a long time. The only uncomfortable part of the meal had to do with the service. During the meal, the manager fired our waiter within earshot and view of our table. The waiter continued to attend to us by filling our water glasses, and taking dessert and coffee orders, but he also suggested that we look at his portfolio of artwork — surprising for an upscale restaurant. We suspected that as the reason they asked him to leave.
The Sunday Brunch (prix fixe: $19.95) offers an unlimited amount of food, but it can be logically broken down into three courses. The chef and his assistants stand in the middle of bountiful buffet tables, suggesting what to eat when, and how to go about it. The first course consists primarily of cold salads, including ceviche, potato and artichoke, nopalito, escabeche, Oaxacan vegetable, and hearts of palm. The overriding sensation of this course is light, sweet, crisp, and vinegary vegetables and fish. Waiters come frequently to the table to replenish your tortillas and supplies, and provide new clean plates.
The second course is entrees. The morning we went, we were served chicken in mole poblano, Michoacan-style meatballs in a tomato chile sauce, conchinita pibil (barbecued pork in banana leaves), and pollo en Coca, chicken thighs cooked in a sauce including prunes, raisins, chipotle chiles, and Coca-Cola. These are complemented by rice, beans, corn pudding, potatoes stewed in tomatillo sauce, and sautéed onions. Unless brunchgoers request otherwise, they are served a portion of each of the entrees. It was notable how the meatballs, conchinita pibil, pollo en Coca, and mole poblano each feature small pieces of meat in a reddish brown sauce. But apart from a shared sweetness, the flavors of these dishes of Mexico — roasted nuts and chocolate, tomato, fruit juices, and Coca-Cola — vary widely.
The third course is dessert, with a rich bread pudding and piloncillo (Mexican raw sugar) sauce, a coffee and an almond flan, a vanilla pot-de-creme, and fruits poached in wine.
Brunch at Bertram's is undeniably indulgent, both because of the price and the fact that it's three courses, one of which is dessert. But along with the satisfaction of a well-filled stomach, I left with a feeling of satisfaction about Austin, a city that can support an eating experience of such a high level, both of quality and culture.