Eating out ... 30 minutes out: ethnic fare up north
European Bistro111 E. Main St., 512/835-1919
One of the sources of the term "bistro" (romantic but unsubstantiated) is the Russian word veestra (quick), supposedly shouted by rude Cossacks demanding attention in Paris eating establishments after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. A different opinion is that the term comes from the French bistreau, meaning "cheerful innkeeper." While the second definition certainly applies to the European Bistro in historic downtown Pflugerville, everything about this restaurant is quite the opposite of quick. And therein lies its beauty.
To begin with, the establishment represents the realization of a lifelong dream for sisters Anni Zovek and Piroska Althauser. Natives of Hungary, sixtysomething Zovek and fiftysomething Althauser acquired the 100-plus-year-old building (originally a general store and later a series of restaurants) and spent six months painstakingly renovating the interior themselves, including installing the pressed-tin ceiling 18 feet above the floor. Zovek says, "If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen. The other merchants on the square thought we would never open. But we knew what we wanted. And we had scaffolding."
The result of their labors is a graciously unpretentious ambience of intimate dining alcoves, gently oscillating ceiling fans, white tablecloths, twinkling lights, and Eastern European classical music -- an apt atmosphere for the traditional Austro-Hungarian empire dishes that they serve. "The recipes come from our grandmother," says Zovek. "She was the cook for the bishop of Slovenia and, as you know, priests like to eat well. He had very high standards, and we cook using her same methods."
And, believe me, the culinary results of these traditional methods embody the very concept of slow food. In college, I had a Yugoslavian roommate whose mother's dictum was that it should take the same amount of time to eat a meal as it did to prepare it. In this same spirit, European Bistro is absolutely not the place to come for a quick bite. These are meals to be savored at leisure in good company, appreciating the subtly complex layers and combinations of flavors that can only be accomplished by meticulous, methodical, and loving preparation of time-honored recipes.
I confess that I knew little about the cuisines of Mitteleuropa beyond goulash and chicken paprikas. Without giving it much thought, I accepted the received notion that the food was heavy and unimaginative. Well, European Bistro has taught me differently. And just as 19th-century Austria-Hungary was multicultural, influences from neighboring Germany and Russia (France, too) are apparent throughout.
The menu carefully provides both Hungarian and English names for each item but, counter to current menu-writing style of waxing eloquent about each included ingredient, this menu's plainspoken nomenclature simply does not prepare you for the intricate flavors of the food. For example, "duck liver with onions and peppers" doesn't convey the reality of a tenderly melded hash of minced liver, onions, tomatoes, and piquant green Hungarian peppers served over feathers of handmade spaetzel-style dumplings.
Also counter to current trends of upscale food presentation, what you order at European Bistro is exactly what you get -- no foofy arrangements on the plate and not a food tower (or even a garnish) in sight. The plainly presented food stands completely on its own. The layers and complexities are found in the flavors, not in the presentations.
Every meal begins with a plate of housemade Hungarian bread, one dark and herbed aromatic, the other white and slightly sourdough, accompanied by a tiny crock of caraway-infused spread made from feta and farmer's cheese. "This is Hungary's chips and salsa," asserts Zovek, the welcoming embodiment of a cheerful innkeeper.
Appetizers include cloud-light crepes filled with chicken, mushrooms, or beef napped in light Hungarian wine and cheese sauces, as well as my favorite: lightly breaded, pan-fried cauliflower accompanied by made-from-scratch mayonnaise. Savory, meat-filled Russian piroghi (boiled dumplings) are served with dilled sour cream.
The richly flavorful, traditional Hungarian hen soup is a succulent cup of molten gold, pure essence of slow-cooked chicken, gracefully enhanced by tiny diced vegetables and a lovely herbed dumpling of farina (happily infused with chicken liver upon request). This is the chicken soup that dreams are made of.
The simply presented salads that precede the entrées include a sweet, vinegary shredded cabbage; a marinated cucumber and onion salad drizzled with sour cream, and a marinated combination of potatoes, sweet red peppers, and onions.
Of the almost 30 entrées, the one that impressed me most was jaegerschnitzel, usually a humble dish. This plateful of crisply breaded, meltingly tender veal fillet is elevated to ecstatic levels by a dynamite sauce of stock, wine, herbs, and lots of mushrooms ("mushroom gravy" on the menu). I also fell for the sautéed rabbit, dressed with a lovely golden reduction of saffron and sweet Hungarian wine and accompanied by potato dumplings, which had a smooth density unlike anything I've tasted. Another winner is a simply and perfectly roasted Cornish hen, attended by baked chestnut-and-mushroom stuffing and a captivating sour cherry sauce. (Be aware that all entrées are very generously portioned, and you simply must save room for dessert.)
The desserts. Ah, the desserts. Piroska Althauser has been a pastry chef for 30 years, studying and working in Hungary, Austria, and the U.S., and the restaurant's repertoire includes eight different cakes, a variety of tarts and puddings, eight types of cheesecakes, kolaches with five flavors, and dessert crêpes with various fillings. (Not every dessert is available every day.) I would have to return to European Bistro 20 more times to sample all the possibilities, but so far, the Hungarian-style desserts I've concentrated on have left me transported.
First in line has to be the amazing strudel of grated tart apples and the lightest of flaky puff pastry. This one always seems to be just coming out of the oven, and it's served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream or simply in its own naked glory. Another favorite (especially for vanilla lovers like me) is the house-specialty Hungarian golden dumpling sauced with a delicate vanilla sabayon and vanilla ice cream. Dessert crepes are filled with different ingredients at different times -- mine had bananas, vanilla pudding, and drizzles of chocolate and caramel. (The kitchen employs someone whose sole job is to produce the restaurant's delectable crêpes and dumplings.)
I should mention that the modest wine list includes a number of inexpensive Hungarian and Romanian wines ($15-20/bottle), as well as some of the usual suspects from France, Australia, Germany, Italy, Chile, and California. They also serve a goodly list of Czech, German, and Dutch beers.
I have never thought of Pflugerville as a dining destination, and I never thought of Hungarian food as something for which I could develop a craving. But European Bistro has changed my mind on both counts, and I won't be surprised to hear that Austin is beating a path to that door. It's well worth the drive. - MM Pack
Baris Pasta & Pizza1501 W. Pecan (Heatherwilde & FM 1825), 512/898-8900
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-11pm;
Saturday, 11am-10pm; closed Sunday
The once-bucolic farming and ranching community of Pflugerville has undergone a major urbanization in the past few years, morphing into a thriving bedroom metropolis of Austin. As suburban monolithic homes multiply like fire-ant mounds in the pastures of far North Austin, every conceivable form of fast-food chain restaurant has accompanied the subdivisions. Lately the dining scene there has begun to globalize, with some independent ethnic eateries beginning to realize the market potential. Those that have, such as Baris Pasta & Pizza, have been warmly welcomed by Pflugervillians.
The restaurant is named for the village in Italy where the family resided before their ancestors migrated to the States. Family members settled across the Atlantic in Queens, one of the definitive hotbeds of Italian culture and food in New York City. Rumors of this direct connection to the American cornerstone of the red-and-white-checked tablecloth is what led us to eat at Baris to see what the fuss was all about.
Baris is in the strip center anchored by the Albertson's supermarket, and when you enter you find a comfortable and understated family-oriented establishment. The walls are covered with the requisite publicity photos of famous Italian-Americans, calling to mind the decorations of Danny Aiello's pizzeria in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. An exuberant air-conditioner keeps Baris a tad on the chilly side for our tastes, so taking a sweater along isn't out of the question.
A recent lunch visit amazed us with how popular Baris is at the noon rush. The place was packed with a mix of moms with small kids in tow and blue- and white-collar workers, most chowing down on the quickly served lunch specials (Monday-Saturday, 11am-3pm, $4.95). We opted for regular menu items, starting with a medium (14-inch) "Special" pizza with all of the ingredients (anchovy on half) for $11.25. The topping ingredients are high-quality, though we would have preferred the tomato sauce be a tiny bit more robust, and the crust is OK (but not the thin, crispy variety found all over NYC). The uniformity of the crust suggests a sheet roller rather than the advertised "hand-tossed," but the overall taste is fine. One small problem is that the anchovy is intensely salty. Proper Italian anchovies are salt-cured and oil-packed, but generally the salt is rinsed off before application (a suggestion for the kitchen crew).
Next, a tossed salad ($1.75, a mix of mundane iceberg lettuce with tomato and pepperoncini) arrived. The dressing saves the pedestrian dish. It is a rich Italian-style vinaigrette intensely flavored with tomato (and available for sale, bottled). Entrées were the Pasta Sampler ($5.95) and the Low Fat Spaghetti, With Basil, Garlic, and Olive Oil ($5.25). The Sampler contains portions of lasagna, manicotti, and cannelloni in a large rarebit. The flavors are fine, but the items exhibit a bit too much uniformity. The overall taste is of tomato sauce and ricotta, with one of the items containing spinach. No problems here, but we feel a sampler should be composed of items with different rather than homogenous tastes. The spaghetti is properly al dente and the dish simple, just like we wanted. We would have preferred a stronger-tasting olive oil and more garlic to make the dish really shine.
Dinner on another visit was a cut above the lunch experience, but the room was sparsely filled with diners, the lights up too bright, the air conditioning colder than during lunch, and the sound system set on an obnoxious easy-listening FM station (complete with obtrusive commercials). The owners should invest in a CD system and buy the soundtrack to Big Night, among the countless available sources of fabulous Italian dining music.
We started with a baby cheese pizza (10 inch, $4.75), figuring it might be a better way to judge the crust and sauce. It is fine, but again, a few more herbs and a slightly crisper crust would nudge it closer to perfection. Next came Johnnie's Salad ($4.95), which is far superior to the previous salad mentioned. It is large (easily big enough to be shared), with a nice, crisp mix of romaine, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, and mozzarella, topped with that zesty house dressing. A side order of sausage ($2.75) is served in a pool of truly robust tomato sauce that is excellent. The sausage has a nice undertone of fennel and a nice snap (another note to owners: schmear a dab of that sauce on the pizza and it takes the pie over the top).
Entrées were the Chicken Carchovie ($7.95) and Baked Eggplant Florentine ($7.45). The chicken is a sautéed, thin breast topped with a garlic-and-white-wine cream sauce with artichoke hearts, accompanied with a side of spaghetti. Overall the dish is delicious, but could be better with more garlic. All in all, for the price, it's a bargain. The eggplant is a pleasant amalgam of smoky roasted eggplant slices, tomato sauce, spinach, and mozzarella. Again, we got exactly what we expected with this dish and were satisfied to the last bite.
The service during lunch was efficient, pleasant, and unobtrusive. The service at night was marred slightly by a tabletop full of empty dishes lingering a tad too long (especially given that there was no crowd), but the waitperson was otherwise efficient. The menu covers all of the standard Italian menu bases, including hot and cold subs, calzones, and stromboli, all in the $5 to $6 range. Beer and wine are available, but the selection is somewhat limited.
Baris gives the diners of Austin's northern hinterland a solid source for the kind of Italian cuisine you want (and expect) from your basic Italian family-style restaurant. The portions are large, the prices ridiculously low, and the quality is fine. True, a nudge here and a schmear there, a little extra sprinkling of this or that, and it could take that next step up in taste, but who are we to say? Crowds of folks like it just the way it is. - Mick Vann
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