Comfort, Upgraded

Zax Pints & Plates mixes boutique beers and a bistro menu – with predictably mixed results

Zax Restaurant & Bar

312 Barton Springs Rd., 512/481-0100, http://www.zaxaustin.com
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10:30pm; Sun., 11am-3pm
Chicken Roulade
Chicken Roulade (Photo By John Anderson)

Zax Pints & Plates

312 Barton Springs Rd., 481-0100

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm, Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm
On any given night, South Congress buzzes with activity. Chauffeur-driven limos converge for private parties at the new Palmer Events Center with regularity. Meanwhile, gawking tourists and even just curious residents line up under the Congress Avenue bridge to watch the nightly marvel produced when millions of bats launch out of steel and concrete crevices, commencing their nocturnal flights. There's no doubt about it, south of the river is happening these days. As South Austin comes into its own as the city's urban pulse, it has attracted a mass of new businesses, eager to catch the tide of trendy singles, young families, and hip professionals always looking to get out, to see and be seen, and to be entertained. Among them is a modest restaurant occupying a corner of Barton Springs Road and Riverside, the space formerly inhabited by Al Capone's. Zax Pints & Plates, an establishment that is half bar, half restaurant, seems to have latched onto the mania for South Austin sweeping through the city's psyche. Like a giant trawling net, this restaurant is catching some fish.

After the aging, anachronistic Al Capone's closed several years ago, the owner remodeled the space, updating it, bringing it into step with the current restaurant fashion. The low ceilings were removed, the walls opened up. The resulting space is reminiscent of a small-scale bayou plantation house, with its hardwood floors, a perimeter of sunny windows, and an airy cathedral ceiling featuring exposed wooden beams. The space is therapeutic in its openness, but utterly without pretense or design gewgaws that bespeak the architects' influence. It is homey and altogether casual.

The menu is one of those that seem to have been culled from a greatest-hits list of hotel room service. Indeed, the restaurant's chef and co-owner, Jeffrey Lynd, spent several years working the kitchen at the Lake Tahoe Hyatt (in addition to a tour of duty in San Francisco's thriving hotel and restaurant industry). And though he switched careers for a period, he never managed to shake the cooking bug. Mike Baldwin, the restaurant's other partner, meanwhile came to the business from the bar side. A former high tech executive, Baldwin quit the business to pursue his passion for beers and beer brewing. The two met through a mutual acquaintance and began to exchange ideas. Zax Pints & Plates represents the marriage of Lynd's and Baldwin's visions: new American bistro cuisine paired with boutique beers and microbrews. The resulting mix works, with only some minor tinkering required.

The menu flutters with the foods that have come to signify American bistro cuisine: fluffy crab cakes made from Gulf blue crabmeat ($6), classic Caesar salad ($7), meaty burgers smothered with blue cheese ($7.50), and herby roasted chicken (not to mention a large selection of great beers on tap, and a full bar serving specialty cocktails). Fundamentally, these are old-fashioned comfort foods that have been duded up with fancy sauces or toppings to suit the new American palate. At Zax, a steak with french fries becomes Grilled Sirloin With Frites ($16) (Dubya's White House freedom fries be damned, Americans still love all foods French) luxuriating in a green peppercorn gravy and piled high with homemade shoestring fries. The steak is thick, the meat is juicy, but the green peppercorn sauce is a little too sweet for my taste. And while it makes me happy when I see restaurateurs going the extra step to make their french fries from scratch, I must say that I prefer mine double-fried. It makes them crisper yet surprisingly less greasy.

At Zax, Lynd reinvents the ubiquitous seafood pasta and cream sauce, serving it Cajun style with a spicy red pepper base that cuts the fulsome butteriness of pure cream ($15). It is a dish that, while pleasant, is nevertheless of the type that would make Dr. Atkins shudder in his narrow grave. The same sumptuous sauce also appeared on Lynd's chicken roulade, a daily special featuring chicken breasts rolled around a spicy crayfish, sweet red pepper, and bread stuffing ($14). The chicken stood up to its sauce admirably, though I was a little frustrated to be served the same one twice. A Roasted Half Chicken ($10) is comfortingly spiced with lemon and herbs, served atop a polenta that is firm, cheddary, and tastes more like American grits than its Italian counterpart. Paired with a yeasty Real Ale Fireman's #4 ($4), the dish sits squarely at the heart of the American comfort-food revolution.

Appetizers and desserts come in predictable flavors. Among the first courses, the fried calamari with spicy tomato sauce is a trustworthy choice ($8). Steamed mussels in parsley, white wine, and butter broth is a little more adventuresome by Texan standards ($8). Served with chewy rolls, I soaked up every drop of the broth, but the mussels themselves, which should have come to the table steaming, seemed as though they had been pre-prepared, then rewarmed just before serving. Moreover, they were just a shade past done. The dessert roster, featuring ginger crème brûlée, individual Italian cream cakes, or a dense chocolate torte (all $5) is utterly unsurprising.

Competent? Yes. Inspired? Rarely. Reliable? Always. These are the foods you order from hotel room service when you just want to hunker down under a soft down comforter, turn on pay-per-view, and pamper yourself through service therapy.

The only problem at Zax is that the service part is a little creaky. Rather than operate like a well-oiled machine, the youthful service staff at Zax run amok, like some ebullient and untrained stallion. The waitstaff at Zax is startlingly green. They forget the kitchen's specials, even when those specials have not changed all week. They will bring one person's drink to the table and forget to bring the other. They introduce themselves to you, sit at your table, and mispronounce the items on the menu. For a place that offers a top-notch beer selection, they know very little about the 20-some varieties the bar keeps on tap, and they know even less about the wine the bar serves. On the other hand, they are friendly and earnest; and their good-natured incompetence makes it hard to even work up a lather over the fumbled service. If this is the kind of sophomoric service that defines the American dining experience – and more often than not I am convinced it is – then it fits in comfortably with Zax's image of itself as a new American Bistro.

But in this noisy, unfussy environment the restaurant's mostly young clientele seem not to notice or care about too-familiar waiters. For the South Austin yuppies, the cuisine at Zax is simply familiar food to wash down with the yummy beer and the cool cocktails. For the families that come with their small children, this casual restaurant offers parents a chance to get out for a reasonably priced, decent meal in an environment not easily disturbed by rowdy youngsters. In this sense, Zax's wholesome blend of good food and boutique beer may be just the thing to thrive in its South Austin location. end story

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