Changing of the Guard

Chef Shawn Cirkiel's Confident Cuisine at Jean-Luc's Bistro

Veal with potato risotto and whole grain mustard sauce
Veal with potato risotto and whole grain mustard sauce (Photo By John Anderson)

705 Colorado, 494-0033

Luncheon: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm

Happy Hour: Monday-Saturday, 4:30-6pm

Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm

Valet parking available

When the news got out last summer that chef/restaurateur Jean-Luc Salles had sold his 6-year-old French bistro to a twentysomething chef not too long out of culinary school, I'll admit I had mixed feelings. I was pleased Salles had found a buyer when he was ready for a career transition but disappointed at the thought of changes at one of the city's most reliable eateries. With trepidation, I envisioned some fusion-happy young hotshot with a need to make outrageous culinary statements at the helm of one of my favorite restaurants. I'm glad to report that one meal during the opening week at the newly revamped bistro was all it took to put those unfounded fears to rest. Jean-Luc's new owner is no trendy young culinary gunslinger -- he's a mature and confident chef with the kind of cooking skills that don't go out of style.

New chef/owner Shawn Cirkiel grew up around a family vegetarian restaurant and went on to graduate with honors from the Culinary Institute of America. He did stints at New York's Cafe Boulud and the Napa Valley restaurant of vintner Domain Chandon before returning to Texas to create his first business with his family's backing. Cirkiel's well-considered and subtle changes in the decor and menu at Jean-Luc's have managed to make the popular downtown bistro uniquely his own without drastic or jarring shifts. White shutters have replaced the lace cafe curtains, and walls of glass bricks now divide the dining rooms. There's new art on the walls, and the pastis bottles are gone from the tables. Just a few minor changes and it's someone else's restaurant altogether. The menu, too, has undergone revisions. Where Frenchman Salles served traditional Paris bistro fare, young Cirkiel's cuisine features simple, seasonal items that reflect a French influence. In my opinion, his cooking demonstrates a maturity well beyond his years, displaying confidence in his chosen ingredients and preparation methods. It's good food, well prepared, reasonably priced, straight up, no frills. I like it.

A friend and I dropped into Jean-Luc's on a chilly evening between Christmas and New Year's and were rewarded with a delightful meal. Dinner began with Onion Tarts With Shallots and Manchego Cheese ($7) and Proscuitto With Bosc Pears and Potato Cake ($8). The tarts were actually homemade crackers topped with generous dollops of a creamy onion-shallot mixture and a festive garnish of frisee paired with thin slices of the assertive Spanish cheese. The proscuitto arrived wrapped around some tender young greens beside a golden crisp potato cake with a generous sprinkling of tiny pear cubes. Both dishes offered pleasant contrasts in flavor, color, and texture to whet the appetite. The cold winter evening called for soup, and the Winter Mushroom Broth ($6.50) With Bleu Cheese Croutons fit the bill. The rich, dark vegetarian broth was bursting with earthy mushroom flavor, perfectly augmented by meaty slices of mushroom and the slight tang of bleu cheese on the crisp crouton. A colorful salad of roasted beets and goat cheese with pistachios ($5) rounded out this portion of the meal.

The featured entrées that evening ranged in price from grilled tofu with foraged mushrooms and baby vegetables ($15) to a rack of lamb ($24). Our polite and helpful waiter was very enthusiastic about the evening's lamb special and also pointed out that one of the fish dishes would feature black cod rather than the skate listed on the menu. We allowed ourselves to be guided by his suggestion about the lamb and were eager to try the cod since it's a fish not often seen on Austin restaurant tables. We chose a bottle of Domain Chandon pinot meuniere ($45) from the light red section of Cirkiel's well-chosen wine list and could not have been happier with our dinner. The thick, buttery filets of cod arrived sporting a crisp salt crust and were matched with a marvelous, velvety braised cabbage. The lamb, cooked just medium rare to my specifications, was surrounded by a mirepoix of winter vegetables and slices of roast pear in a red wine reduction. The flavors were clean and straightforward, the preparations simple. It's confident, perfectly timeless cooking, irresistible to trend or fashion, not unlike a Chanel suit.

Jean-Luc's luncheon menu is equally inviting. Start with a bowl of silken Yukon Gold and Leek Soup ($4) to ward off the winter chill. Fans of the restaurant who loved the Hangar steak will be pleased to find it at lunch as the major component of the Hangar Steak Spinach Salad ($10) with a light vinaigrette studded with tasty chunks of applewood smoked bacon. There are special-composed salad options and hearty sandwiches made on the toothsome house focaccia bread. The restaurant has recently added both lunch and dinner service on Mondays, due to customer demand.

No review of the Jean-Luc's dining experience would be complete without mentioning the dessert creations of pastry chef Phillip Speer. Before joining Cirkiel's Jean-Luc's team, the young pastry cook most recently honed his chops making desserts for the San Gabriel Restaurant Group in the Taproot Breads kitchen.

Speer really caught my attention this summer with a Pear and Green Tea Sorbet that was a very popular item on the new restaurant's opening menu. The taste and texture memory of that voluptuous sorbet have stayed with me lo these many months, putting it on the top of my list of best sweet bites for 2001. When I returned to the restaurant for the review, I was disappointed not to find it waiting for me, but that way I was forced to sample new and different offerings from this talented young man.

We were so curious about the desserts, in fact, it was necessary to sample four selections between the two of us (purely for the sake of consumer education, you understand). Our favorites were the Dark Chocolate Cappuccino Soufflé ($6.50) smartly baked in a coffee cup and offered with plain cream anglaise or the sauce spiked with your choice of liqueurs ($5-$7 extra). A shot of Kahlua in the sauce that was then poured into the center of the soufflé was a particularly wonderful choice, adding a whole new dimension to the rich chocolate and coffee flavors and aromas. The hands-down winner of the evening, however, was Speer's inspired twist on morning comfort food. The Pumpkin French Toast With White Chocolate Ice Cream ($5.50) offers two warm slices of pumpkin bread French toast paired with a melting scoop of mellow white chocolate ice cream. It's warm, cold, spicy, and mellow all at once, a truly satisfying dessert.

After checking out the inviting list of very reasonably priced dessert wines and cordials, we've promised ourselves to return to Jean-Luc's some evening soon to sample the Chef's Selection Cheese Plate ($9) with some of their many port offerings.

In the wake of last year's tragedies and overall changes in the economy, diners around the country, as well as in Austin, seem to gravitate towards reliable, comforting, affordable dining options. Diners seeking simple, sophisticated cooking in an affordable fine dining atmosphere will certainly find it at Shawn Cirkiel's Jean-Luc's Bistro. end story

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Shawn Cirkiel, Jean-Luc's Bistro

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