Bitter End Bistro & Brewery
Does the pub grub myth extend to the Bitter End?
Brewpub Hours: Monday, 11:30am-1am; Thursday-Friday, 11:30am-2am; Saturday, 5pm-2am; Sunday, 5pm-1am
Kitchen Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-12mid; Friday, 11:30am-1am; Saturday, 5pm-1am; Sunday, 5pm-12mid
It's something of a cliché that no one expects the food at a brewpub to be spectacular. However, that doesn't mean that the Bitter End (part of Reed Clemons' San Gabriel Restaurant Group) does not strive to break the mold. Over the years, since this Warehouse District fixture has been serving up its signature brews in a lively, convivial (and minimally smoky) setting, a series of accomplished chefs have worked hard to provide better-than-pub-grub fare to accompany the fine beer made on site. While the menu has morphed and evolved during the chefs' various tenures, the legacy is simple, hearty, and satisfying fare.
The most successful area of chef Reggie Ferguson's offerings remains those pub-food mainstays: appetizers and shared finger foods. Sandwiches are fat, and quesadillas and nachos are well built and substantial. Rainbow trout fritters ($8), a definite winner, are crunchy mouthfuls encasing fluffy centers, accompanied by snappy chipotle/lime sauce. I'm particularly impressed by the generous bowl of curried mussels ($10), which may offer the most complex flavors on the menu: Plump mollusks are prepared with chunks of onion, garlic, and red pepper, all napped with a spicy but not overwhelming yellow curry. The best deal for sharing is the big platter of deep-fried calamari ($7.75); Bitter End's version is one of the best crisp, piquant, and tender, with no resemblance to the ubiquitous fried rubber bands.
Preference in pizza crust is a highly personal matter, but the ones emerging from the brick oven ($7.75-8.50) suit me just fine: chewy, golden brown, with just the right amount of salt. However, these perfectly cooked crusts deserve more vibrant toppings. According to the menu, the Hill Country Tomato Pizza includes both roma and locally grown heirloom tomatoes (in April?), along with spinach, garlic, mozzarella, and provolone. A great idea, but in actuality, the tasteless, thick-sliced romas hardly lived up. The rich smoked bacon and caramelized onion pizza is more successful, except that the menu promised Gorgonzola, which was inexplicably replaced by mozzarella. (Maybe they were out that day; the Cobb salad also contained no blue cheese.) I look forward to tasting the Adobo Chicken Pizza; perhaps the requisite zest lies there.
Entrées have a distinct traditional-Texas slant (with a few nods in the Mediterranean and Caribbean directions) and are designed to lay down a solid foundation for the brews. Don't look for dainty here. I'll always order game on a menu, and chicken-fried antelope ($16) with jalapeño cream gravy is an admirable riff on a venerable Texas favorite. If you're feeling flush, the simple Venison Tenderloin in apple/bourbon reduction ($26) is starkly lovely. I also recommend the Grilled Flat Iron Steak ($16), sliced and dressed with a deeply flavorful shallot demi-glace. Meat entrées come with various grilled veggies and mounds of either cheesy mashed potatoes or jalapeño polenta; the breadbasket offers pecan biscuits and an oddly endearing mild jalapeño/honey butter.
The sizable salmon fillet in a crunchy corn crust is quite nicely prepared and perfectly complemented by a swash of spiky tomatillo and roasted corn salsa. Unfortunately, someone forgot the salt in the base of spinach-flavored Gruene (get it?) rice.
Dessert choices vary from day to day and carry on with the no-frills theme. Choco-heads should be quite satisfied by the megaslab of dark-chocolate terrine, way too big and dense for just one person. As was the supersized serving of very tasty, but not crisp, apple crisp. I've been eager to try cajeta pound cake, but it hasn't been available on my last two visits.
I confess to not being much of a beer drinker (I hang out with them, though); wine is my tipple of choice. As such, I'm most gratified by Bitter End's extensive, thoughtful, and somewhat unusual wine list. I particularly like that they offer several Texas wines by the glass, as well as the bottle. It makes total sense that an establishment whose stock in trade is lovingly crafted beers would also serve locally produced wines. Would that more Austin restaurants follow suit and promote the well-respected winemaking that burgeons in our own back yard.