Great Aspirations

Si Bon Reflects the Bold Dreams of Peter & Cara O'Brien

Si Bon

801 S. Lamar, 326-8323
Tue-Thu, 6-10:30pm; Fri-Sat, 6-11pm

Si Bon

photograph by John Anderson

Ever since energetic young chef Peter O'Brien blew into Austin several years ago, he made it clear that his goal was to be self-employed. His dream was to have his own small restaurant where everything could be done his own way, from the decor to the style of service to a menu featuring his very personal culinary creations. After stints at Granite Cafe, the Bitter End, Cafe Azzuro, and Bertram's, O'Brien finally got his wish last year. He and his wife Cara opened Si Bon. The enthusiastic young couple took the cottage that formerly housed the Skyline Grill and gave it an understated makeover. Cara O'Brien designed and made everything from banquette cushions to window treatments to the tiny lampshades on each table, creating a space that is small but very inviting. Fresh flowers grace the tables in the softly lighted dining room. Well-informed waiters present dinner menus, the house wine list, and a captain's wine list, and knowledgeably review the daily specials. Silverware is replaced between courses from a linen-lined antique tray, and the tabletops are cleared of crumbs regularly. The overall effect is very pleasant.

Although the young restaurateurs are off to a good start, that's not to say there haven't been a few missteps. The tables are very close together, giving the room an intimate feel but also precluding any possibility of private conversation. (A planned expansion that would open another dining space could give diners a little more breathing room.) In the early months of operation, Si Bon waiters would offer each new table still or sparkling water, creating the impression that the water was complimentary. However, diners were being charged — a one-time price of $2.50 for unlimited glasses of the bottled water — but the price was mentioned only in very tiny print at the bottom of the menu. Some patrons were surprised to find the charge padding checks at the end of the evening and complained. Offering only bottled water is standard procedure in countries with limited potable water, but the United States is not one of those countries. I noticed in more recent visits that the staff was quick to mention that a charge for the water would appear on our bill, and the price has been moved to the top of the menu in larger print, which solves that problem.

Finding one descriptive term with which to characterize chef O'Brien's cuisine is quite a challenge. Classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America, O'Brien often applies French technique to American regional ingredients. His food can fluctuate wildly from strong, robust flavors to dishes where quality ingredients are given minimal treatment so that their true essence should shine. He always seems willing to err on the side of bravado rather than timidity, which is commendable but it can make for uneven dining experiences. In the past six months, I've had one truly regrettable meal, one exemplary dinner, and a visit where two of our four meals were excellent and two were merely passable. In the overall scheme of things, Si Bon is still a young restaurant with great aspirations that has yet to find a consistent groove.

My first meal at Si Bon consisted of an Osso Bucco ($19) mired in an overwhelmingly concentrated demi-glace with no sign of the accompanying potato and celeric purée mentioned on the menu. It was paired with a la carte side orders of drastically undercooked Mediterranean risotto with so much rosemary that it tasted resinous, and herbed polenta griddle cakes ($3) that were among the best things I've eaten in a restaurant all year. The unremarkable meal and the bottled water routine put me off somewhat and it took a few months for me to return. When I did, the second experience was a marvelous revelation. Dinner got off to an auspicious start with appetizers and soup. The appetizer of Black Mussels stewed with Sherry Peppers ($6) presented large, succulent bivalves in a hearty sherry broth that would have made a meal in itself. The soup was a cold, creamy Tomato Provençal ($5.50), garnished with sliced avocado and a black olive tapenade with a briny tang that brought the entire dish together. An entree of perfectly medium-rare Mustard Crusted Lamb Noisettes ($19) fanned on a pool of red wine laurel sauce accented with a cool mango chutney offered a wonderfully subtle balance of flavors and textures. The side order of polenta cakes were just as marvelous as I remembered: a crisp outer layer created by the griddle's kiss and a soft, savory center. The finale was a dramatic Mango Souffle ($10), an ethereal cloud of tropical mango paired with a decadently rich, bittersweet chocolate sauce, worth every penny of its price.

Three friends joined me at Si Bon on a recent Saturday night. We all ordered seafood, with varying degrees of success. The Almond Roasted Salmon ($17.50) was seriously overcooked, but the bed of warmed spinach and lovely tomato ginger beurre that came with it were delicious. The seafood special of Paella ($20) with lobster, shrimp, mussels, and chicken sounded irresistible but didn't quite live up to its billing. All the components of the dish were arranged in a circle around a large mound of rice cooked in a flavorful tomato broth with no discernible hint of saffron. The advertized seafoods were there as well as a whole chicken leg and a good size serving of the sherried peppers that appear on the appetizer menu. The dish made an enjoyable meal, but it didn't resemble any paella I've ever seen before. The Sautéed Sole ($20) accented with an elegant lemon caper brown butter sauce and braised red cabbage ($3) was truly outstanding. I encouraged my companions to try the souffle (which they loved) and this time I opted for the Lemon Tart ($5.50) with raspberry sauce. The tart has a wonderfully astringent lemon curd filling sprinkled with sugar and caramelized with a torch, rendering a perfect contrast to the wafer-thin layer of crunchy caramel. The only drawback was a very durable crust, which should be easy to correct.

At the end of a Si Bon meal, the total amount of the check is written on a little printed card and delivered to the table on a small antique silver tray. Diners who sign the guest book receive a charming thank-you card in the mail. One side of the card offers a quote from Art Buchwald which says, "Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening." On the other side is a handwritten note from the young proprietors thanking guests for spending the evening with them. It's a lovely personal touch like many of the others that make Si Bon a special place to dine. I'm looking forward to the day when a consistent performance on the part of the kitchen will make "dinner the evening" every time.

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