Elegance Never Forgets
Reed's is the place for St. Valentine's Day
Reed's Jazz and Supper Club
9901 Capital of TX Hwy. #150, 342-7977
Monday-Thursday, 5-11pm; Friday and Saturday, 5pm-1am
Our assignment: Find a très romantic spot for Chronicle readers to take their sweeties for St. Valentine's Day. While Austin is blessed with several excellent restaurants ripe for an amorous encounter, we thought it would be nice to focus on an elegant newcomer. Reed's Jazz and Supper Club had potential. Jazz is certainly sensuous music, and a couple of finely fashioned drinks followed by a good meal could work wonders for lovers.
Reed Clemons is one of Austin's major restaurateurs. He owns Mezzaluna, the Bitter End, and part of the Granite Cafe. After struggling with Mezzaluna II, he decided to close down, redo the interior, and reopen as Reed's Jazz and Supper Club. His goal was to conjure up a New York-in-the-1930s look with movie-style elegance that was still comfortably modern. Imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stripping off the formalwear and donning all-black Prada. The transformation is wonderful.
Thankfully, the cacophonous din is gone, due in part to the addition of what must be thousands of yards of thick, red velvet drapery. Both in the upstairs restaurant and the downstairs bar, the curtains are everywhere you look. The mural going up the staircase, the open kitchen, and most of the dining area walls have been covered with rich red velvet. Besides the elegant look, the drapes completely muffle the sounds, something the place desperately needed. But don't think that means a stuffy, serene setting. Quite the opposite, depending on what time you go.
Early in the evenings, Reed's downstairs bar and music area tends to be populated by the 40-plus crowd. It is quiet with conversations and a pleasant jazz piano in the background. The lighting is romantic, the tables and stools have enough room for movement and privacy. Music lovers can get close, sit in comfortable chairs, and listen to high-quality jazz. After about 8pm, the crowd starts getting younger, more stylish, and definitely more eye-catching ... and a lot louder. Still, with more than 100 of Austin's beautiful people, all eager to talk, rub shoulders, and be seen, the vibrant feel remains classy, and you can still hear your neighbor and the music. Many of the noisy, cavelike, cement-covered places in town could learn something here.
Walking upstairs, the energy level seems to drop, and the elegance level seems to rise. Again, the tables are spaced nicely with comfortable chairs and booths that allow you an easy sit for a long meal. The sound is so well managed that you can't even hear the band downstairs. The jazz upstairs is from the Forties and Fifties, with the emphasis on Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Ben Webster. The staff-to-customer ratio is high, so there is always a feeling of bustling activity as wait staff rush around keeping everyone happy.
Our first visit was on a Wednesday night. We started at the bar with an arctic-cold Vodka Martini ($6.50) for my wife and a glass of Rancho Zabaco Zin ($7) for me. Hers was delicious, but mine had the prune flavor of a bottle that had been open too long. We ordered a plate of Blue Crab Cakes ($8.50) from the bar menu. They were coated with panko and jammed with crab. The presentation was plain, but the food was luscious. Our server was knowledgeable and seemed to be close by whenever we needed her. Both owner Clemons and the bar manager were hovering around, stopping to talk to everyone, and paying attention to every detail. Given the quality of the drinks and food, and the nice jazz sounds and comfortable surroundings, Reed's emerges as one of our favorite bars in town.
Upstairs, food is the center of attention. The menu is mostly traditional and familiar, with a few interesting new ideas. On our Wednesday visit, we started with two exceptional salads. The Wedge With Apple-Smoked Bacon ($5) would make a nice meal by itself. Improving on the standard steakhouse version, the dressing was handmade with Danish bleu cheese, and the bacon was thick and smoky. We also had the opulent Warm Spinach Salad ($7) with a sweet-and-tangy warm vinaigrette, candied walnuts, and the same bacon that came with the Wedge.
For the main course, we decided to concentrate on the beef side of the menu. Reed's steaks are dry aged for 21 days then cooked in a 2,500-degree oven. Both the eight-ounce filet mignon ($21) and the 20-ounce Cowboy Cut Bone-in Ribeye ($28) were thick, well-marbled, and cooked perfectly to order. We tried their béarnaise sauce ($3) on the steak. It was lusciously rich, thick, and airy, with intense tarragon flavors. The wine list ranged from value bottles (like Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir, $28) into the expense-account stratosphere. We chose a bottle of Guigal Cote Rotie ($60) that was just right with the steaks.
For sides, we started with asparagus ($6) and hollandaise sauce ($3). The asparagus was crispy and thick, and the sauce was just right. We also had the White Cheddar Mashers ($5) which were so good, we took about half of them home for lunch the next day. Our desserts were also top-notch. The Warm Chocolate Cake ($6) was a bitter-chocolate version of the undercooked cake on virtually everyone's menu. Winner for the night was the White Chocolate Cheesecake ($7), a cross between flan and cheesecake that tasted better than either. Our waiter recommended pairing it with a glass of Tuaca ($6). He was right.
Reed Clemons was constantly moving from table to table, talking to people, playing the genial host. There were two other managers wandering around, checking people's satisfaction. Our server was a career man; professional, polished, and funny. What a difference it makes to be served by someone who looks at waiting tables as more than a stopgap on the way to something else. He left us feeling fussed over and focused on. When we returned for our second visit, he remembered our names and treated us like family.
Our second visit was on a Friday night. Again, we started in the bar, this time with Manhattans ($7) that were ice-cold and generously poured. Reed's Calamari Fries ($7.50) are cut into strips instead of circles and served with a slightly picante tomato sauce. The calamari was both crisp and tender, and we liked the change of shape.
The food on our second visit was even better than the food on our first. This time we decided to concentrate on the seafood side of the menu. We started with Sesame Tuna Tartar ($9), a scoop of sushi-grade raw tuna, hand-chopped with a sesame-and-ginger dressing, and topped with fried wonton skins for dipping -- an easy dish to screw up. Any variance from freshness would ruin the nice ocean aromas and sweet flavors. It was flawless. We figured that Reed's Salad ($6) must be good if he put his name on it. It was a nice blend of feta, mixed greens, and candied pecans, a nice addition to the Wedge and the Warm Spinach Salad.
My main course was the Miso-Saké Sea Bass With Shitake Dumplings ($21), a wonderful dish for those who prefer a lighter main course. I loved the fresh and perfectly sautéed sea bass, and the hint of miso and sake in the sauce was a welcome change from the usual restaurant fare. The dumplings were earthy and intense and filled with mushroom flavors. My wife's Seared Sea Scallops With Chive Beurre Blanc ($18) were substantial and sweet, served with a spinach risotto. The scallops were slightly oversalted to my taste, but she was completely content. The risotto would make a wonderful meal by itself: intensely flavored, cooked just slightly al dente, and full of fresh herbal aromas. It made a perfect bed for the scallops. We also tried three side orders. Thick Cut Onion Rings ($5) were crusty and nicely spiced. The Shoestring Potatoes ($5) were a huge order of crispy, salty potato heaven. And the Au Gratin Potatoes ($5) were a heart attack on a plate, gooey rich with white cheddar cheese and topped with bacon.
Our waitperson this time was also a solid pro and veteran of Clemons' other restaurants. She was more restrained than our first server, but still left us feeling like we were the only important thing in her life, chatting when we wanted to and disappearing when we didn't. As soon as we had an inkling of something we wanted, she was magically standing there with the object of our desire. By the end of the evening, after we had enjoyed the warmth of good food and abundant wine, she even engaged us in discussing some of the more remote byways of metaphysics. I love Austin.
Romance is a funny thing. With the right person you can feel it in the most mundane places, and with the wrong person even sharing a bed is insufficient. Clifton Fadiman quipped in pre-PC days about dependable aphrodisiacs: "They are two in number, the first being the presence of a desirable woman, the second her absence." You have to supply the desirable lover and the love. But our assignment is complete. Besides the good food, drink, and music, Reed's Jazz and Supper Club is a terrific spot for romance.
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