The Point About DemiEpicurious
Evaluating an Austin restaurant according to a legendary master's exacting standards
311 W. Sixth, 478-2200
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm; Bar: Monday-Saturday, 4pm; Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm
Go to the kitchen to shake the Chef's hand. If he is thin, have second thoughts about eating there; if he is thin and sad, flee. -- Fernand Point
I found this quote on the DemiEpicurious Web site. Fernand Point (1879-1955) was one of the great French chefs and teacher to such star cooks as Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Jean and Pierre Troigros. I'm sure that the main reason the Demi folks chose Point was because, like its proprietors, Executive Chef Robert Barker and Operations Director Don Rhode, Point was a sizable man accustomed to the pleasures of the table. Interestingly, and I assume unbeknownst to the powers at Demi, several of Point's other culinary philosophies are a perfect fit for the restaurant.
Success is the sum of a lot of small things done correctly.
Demi's location was once the home of Caruso's, Sasha's, Sfuzzi, and most recently Sardine Rouge. When you first walk through the door, the familiar bar area has a few new pieces of art, but, thankfully, it hasn't changed all that much. We ordered ice-cold Manhattans ($5.50). The friendly bartenders knew exactly what they were doing and made generous drinks.
All vestiges of the old décor melt away when you walk into the dining room. The whole area is now open, with beautiful artwork created from jumbles of micromesh steel. Two steel pyramids in the center of the room do double duty as art and a place to stage the servings. There are two big, inventive chandeliers, hanging from the ceiling and draped with glass beads. One big change: Sardine Rouge's custom art glass wall is gone, which allows the bustle of the city to show through. Tables have room between them, which makes getting in and out easier and assures that your neighbors are far enough away that you won't have to whisper intimacies. Those neighboring tables might have multiply pierced 25-year-olds in jeans or 75-year-old women in their Sunday best. Everyone is welcome.
The general feel is happy, warm, and fun. Customers that are enjoying themselves make a certain kind of buzz. That's what you hear in the Demi dining room. Never too loud, the conversation is more like good background music. The seamless service is professional in an invisible way. And it's not just the customers that seem happy. Waitstaff, food folks, bartenders, everyone. The team works together like a finely tuned symphony orchestra whose musicians had played together for years. You can tell that they had been through rigorous training and had a leader that was picky about getting everything right. But just like good musicians, they were so well practiced that they could have fun. Of course, without good food and wine, none of this would matter.
It is the sauce that distinguishes a good chef. The saucier is a soloist in the orchestra of a great kitchen.
The concept behind Demi is simple. If you have two or more diners at a table, the dishes come set up for sharing. An appetizer, salad, and main dish split between two people would be enough for a meal. Fortunately, the prices and the staff's willingness to package up your leftovers allow you to go ahead and try more than you need. Which is what we did.
On our first visit, it took 25 minutes to get our first course. There were three large parties in the restaurant, and the workers in the open kitchen were like an ant mound in the rain trying to get all their plates out at the same time. Even with the bustle, the sous chef was standing at the outer edge of the open kitchen, examining every plate to make sure it was perfect. The obvious attention to small details, along with the ability to watch the show in the kitchen kept us occupied and made the wait worthwhile.
We started off with Hazelnut Dusted Calamari ($9.50) in a little bed of ancho-chile-tomato sauce surrounded by cilantro-infused oil and topped with shaved Pecorino Romano cheese. Pornographically rich and delicious, the squid was tender, and the hazelnut batter was just as lush as it sounds. Next up, the Steamed Mussel Pot ($12) was a generous portion of very tiny mussels swimming in broth with an overpowering herbal aroma and chunks of chorizo floating through.
Manager Sally Stride was wandering the floor offering wine suggestions, so I asked her advice. She made two brilliant recommendations: The Kairanga Chardonnay from New Zealand ($8.50) for the calamari and a glass of Veuve Clicquot Champagne ($11.50) for the mussels.
For the next course, we chose to split three dishes. Since the big tables were winding down, these came out more quickly. Our waiter brought all three at the same time, explained what each was, and left us to our own devices. The dishes looked lovely and carried the delicious aromas of intense reduction sauces.
The Study of Texas Rabbit ($16) was made with three different cooking techniques. They wrapped the tenderloin in Serrano ham and baked it. The leg was slowly braised and served with its sauce. Finally, the front-leg meat is slowly cooked in a confit. All came atop a savory bread pudding flavored with the rabbit's liver and with a delicious sauce made from the intense pan juices.
Poussin Grilled Under a Brick ($14.50) was fall-apart tender, served in a tower with garlic mashed potatoes as the base, topped with the most unbelievably delicious braised mustard greens (they wouldn't tell, but I think they put a tetch of maple syrup in them) and crowned by the chicken. A few crispy fried parsnips added a nice sweet crunch.
The beef short ribs were the best dish of that evening. The ribs were cut three-quarters-inch thick across the grain, leaving plenty of meat around small bones. The beef was fork-tender and the sauce was sheer nirvana. I even asked for bread so I could sop up the leftovers. One element that sets restaurant food apart from home cooking is the complex sauces that can be made from an assortment of rich stocks and reductions. Every Demi sauce was uncommonly tasty; in fact, they might be making some of the best sauces in town.
The wine recommendations were spot-on. Ms. Stride recommended that my wife try something new, the Chandon Pinot Meunier ($10.50), a relation to the Pinot Noir grape usually used in Champagne blends. Its elegant flavors matched especially well with the rabbit. I ended up with the J. L. Chave "Offerus" ($9), a wine noted for its barnyard character, something most people don't like. I love it, and it made magic with the ribs.
We ended the night with a plate of six artisanal cheeses ($12). They also offer a smaller three-cheese tasting for $7. The cheeses were well-chosen, with a wide range of tastes: intense and salty Colston Bassett Stilton from Nottinghamshire, England; an opulent triple-cream Camembert from Old Chatham of New York; a light and nutty goat's milk Garrotxa from the Catalonian area of Spain; rich and creamy Brillat-Savarin from Normandy, France; and a pungent goat's milk Crotin de Chavingnol along with a sublimely aromatic Epoisses de Bourgogne, both from Burgundy. A few delicious green apple slivers and pecans were there for support. The recommended glass of Cockburn's 20 Year Old Port ($7.25) was a perfect accompaniment.
If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony.
We went back a few nights later with two friends. There was a little bit of confusion about the reservations, but when we got there at 7:45, we were led straight to our table. The place was hopping. We started with Lobster Shooters ($4), which was a little chunk of lobster in a butter-laden corn broth that you toss back and enjoy. Yummy stuff, but a little overpriced for what you get. This time my wife tried the Red Endive and Spinach Salad ($9.50) tossed with tart Sherry Vinaigrette and liberally topped with Maytag Blue Cheese, lardons, and candied pecans. It was rich, tart, and delicious. I had the foie gras ($16) on a cinnamon brioche with brandy-soaked cherries. Luscious tastes, especially for the brioche, which was thick and jammed with flavors. The dish came with another winning sauce, decadent in its fat content. The small, silver-dollar-sized portion of foie gras wasn't quite enough, but the dish was delicious.
For the next stage, we again chose three dishes. The pork loin ($11.25) had spinach spatzle and a spicy creamed corn (as in heavy cream) and a little red pepper jelly. By this time, we were expecting impeccable preparation, and that's what we got. In addition, we ordered New Zealand Rack of Lamb ($20). This dish was directly from the world of comfort food. Mushrooms, asparagus, and another delicious sauce topped four little ribs and a chunk of Yorkshire Pudding. A glass of the Chave "Offerus" was a great accompaniment.
We also had pan-seared sea scallops ($17.75). Huge scallops, tender and browned on the outside, were served over the top of a parsnip purée with a stunning sauce made from cardamom, persimmons, and lots of butter. The recommended wine, Archery Summit Vireton ($12.75), an Oregon blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc, provided a nice contrast to the cardomom and persimmons.
We let our waiter pick the dessert, a Creole Banana Tart ($6) with a buttery crust made from gingersnaps, filled with rich banana custard and drizzled with dulce de leche. It was scrumptious.
I like to start off my day with a glass of champagne. I like to wind it up with champagne, too. To be frank, I also like a glass or two in between.
The whole wine system at DemiEpicurious deserves some serious praise. Besides having an intelligent list with loads of wines you won't find anywhere else, nearly every wine is available by the glass. You'll never again have to try to figure how to split a bottle of wine amongst people who order fish, beef, chicken, or vegetarian. Even better, they don't penalize you for buying by the glass. A glass costs one-fourth the price of a bottle, and they pour you one-fourth of the bottle.
Try to get a recommendation from Ms. Stride, who knows her wines inside and out. If you're not sure you want to try what she's offering, ask for a little taste. She'll happily comply. Good news for serious wine lovers: She'll also put together wine flights, a perfect match for the food concept. Demi joins a small list of restaurants where I look forward to the wine as much as the food.
My final impression of Demi was that there is a clear vision at the top and everyone knows their mission within that structure. There will doubtless be a few people who will find DemiEpicurious a little too slick. But don't confuse seamless with soulless. The experience is better for seeing a well-conceived plan implemented by talented people. I think the Demi team may be more in line with the teachings of the legendary Fernand Point than even they know. Based on my experiences at Demi, the whole crew appears to subscribe to the following: I'm not hard to please, I'm content with the very best.