The Austin Chronicle

Food on Fourth

A guide to small plates and good drinks for barhopping in the Warehouse District

October 29, 2004, Food

219 West

219 W. Fourth, 474-2194
Monday-Friday, 5pm-2am; Saturday-Sunday, 6pm-2am

Proudly declaring itself "the second-best bar in Austin," 219 West does a stellar job of being just about all things to all people. They are blessed with a nice space that includes a small outdoor seating area, a spacious bar, a comfortable elevated area for viewing the crowds, and an intimate downstairs hideaway. The mostly professional crowd ebbs and flows during the evening; it's sometimes elbow-to-elbow and occasionally sparse enough for a quiet tête-ô-tête. The owners have paid obvious attention to little touches that count: Comfortable furniture is grouped for conversation, good music plays at a level that allows conversation, and there is a blessed absence of hovering smoke – the sign of a really good smoke remover. We were especially pleased about the last point, because you'll want to get a whiff of a lot of things at 219 West.

Let's start with the wines. The wine buyer at 219 West is always on the search for great wines at bargain prices. At our visit two weeks ago, they had three wines, all of which normally cost $30 or more per bottle, on special for $4 per glass. Most bars would sell similarly priced wines for at least $12 per glass, but the buyer had gotten a great deal and passed it on to the customers. In addition, I'm hard-pressed to think of any bar, other than in New York or Las Vegas, that has as good a wine selection as 219 West. Finally, besides that stellar list of wines, Wednesday nights they open some big guns and offer you a sampler for a very fair price. Last week, for instance, they poured 2000 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour, 1991 Joseph Phelps Eisele Vineyard Cabernet, 2000 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel, 2001 Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc, and 1998 Chalk Hill Chardonnay. If you could buy all of these at a store (and you can't), they would cost more than $350, and double that at a restaurant. 219 West was pouring the sampler for $30.

You'll also want to catch the aromas of some of the foods they offer. We tried a number of their offerings, all designed to be easy to pass around, but large enough to add up to a fairly priced meal. Their Brie With Olive Tapenade ($8) was actually even better than advertised. Instead of Brie, it consisted of two nice wedges of triple-cream St. Andre cheese, along with a healthy scoop of delicious tapenade and several crisp, buttery croutons. My favorite dish was their Grilled Asparagus With Lump Crab ($8.50), which had about a dozen freshly grilled asparagus, dressed with only salt and a little lemon and oil and topped with fresh lump crab meat. Our server recommended the Jalapeño Crab Dip With Warm Pita Bread ($7), a rich, cheesy concoction chock-full of crab meat. Sticking with seafood (and white wine), we tried the Spicy Cajun Shrimp Skewers en Brouchette and Blackened With Dirty Rice ($8.50): two skewers of four grilled shrimp, one blackened, the other paired with a jalapeño strip and wrapped with a piece of ham. The only disappointment was the rather bland dirty rice.

We decided to end with burgers and fries. The Mini Bacon Cheeseburgers ($6.50) came three to a plate, were about three inches across, and had just the right smoky, cheesy flavor. Someone did a masterful job in cooking those little burgers and keeping them so juicy. We also tried the Mini Caprese Burgers ($7), with crisp prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil. On these, the mozzarella was about the same size as the burger, something that wouldn't make any sense with a full size burger. On the mini burger, it created a unique and delicious taste. We capped the meal off with Spicy Cheese Fries ($3.50), a dish that probably violates every code of the American Medical Association, but mama mia, were they good.

219 West has some sort of special nearly every night. In addition to the Wednesday night wines, they have a 16-foot projector for Sex and the City on Thursdays and football on Mondays. And lest you think it is only a place for wine and food, they have a nice selection of beers and several bartenders who know how to make classic drinks, including a dynamite Manhattan ($6), correctly.

219 West is an attractive, comfortable place with exceptional food, great drinks, and a stunning wine list. I'm curious – second-best to whom?

Málaga Tapas & Bar

208 W. Fourth, 236-8020
Monday-Tuesday, 5pm-12mid; Wednesday-Saturday, 5pm-2am

Austin is a fairly sophisticated food town. You would think there would be more of a clamor for tapas, but Malaga remains the only place in town for the real thing. True, there are several places that serve some dishes that are from a tapas cookbook, but Málaga is still the only place in town a Spaniard could walk into and feel at home. And while many of the customers come only for the hopping bar scene, a foodie looking for Spanish cuisine and wine can find some wonderful things there.

Like any tapas bar in Spain, Málaga concentrates on a group of dishes that they prepare regularly. We tried most of them, but our favorites came down to a pretty consistent group. The Piquillos Rellenos ($6) are roasted sweet red peppers with goat cheese and capers, drizzled with olive oil and served with an herb bread good for soaking up the olive oil. They are delicious with a fino sherry. Viuras Serrano ($8) are perfectly fresh grilled sea scallops with fresh basil leaves and Spanish serrano ham, again with that nice drizzle of olive oil. We tried the scallops with La Yunta Torrontes ($6) from Argentina, a floral but dry wine that matched up nicely with the clean sea smells of the scallops.

Málaga has several good meat dishes, but there are three we like to order together so we can use the different sauces with each meat. Their Lomo à la Plancha ($7) is simplicity itself: beef tenderloin, nicely seared, served with a few slices of pita bread and some garlicky aioli. Málaga had the good taste to offer Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon, a blockbuster wine at a bargain price ($5.50), and it matched up beautifully with the beef. Ditto the Cordero Cacereño ($7.50), a fresh, young lamb with garlic and rosemary. This dish comes with a fresh-tasting yogurt dipping sauce, which we actually like better with the Pollo à la Andorra ($6) – a chicken breast that has been pan-sautéed and is served with an aioli spiced with some of the Piquillos Rellenos. Delicious.

I especially like Málaga's wine list: more than 40 wines by the glass and over 400 by the bottle, including a nice selection of sherries. Málaga also offers wine flights for folks interested in sampling, and they do regular wine classes for those interested in learning about Spanish wines.

In Spain, people have lunch around 2pm, and restaurants reopen for dinner at 9-10pm. Between 5pm and 6pm, all the small street-side tapas bars start serving little snacks, and they keep serving until the wee hours. It's not uncommon for tapas lovers to go to several bars, because each has its own specialty. Here in Austin, we have only Málaga. Thankfully, the quality is very good.

Saba Blue Water Cafe

208-D W. Fourth, 478-7222
Monday-Wednesday, 4pm-12mid; Thursday-Friday, 4pm-2am; Saturday, 5pm-2am

Saba Blue Water Cafe offers what they call "shareable plates." What that means is they bring you a couple of small plates to go along with the dish you order. Don't get the idea these are small servings. On our last visit, two of us ordered five items and left sated without eating half of what was on our plates. We started off with Masa Fried Oyster Tostadas ($7), a plate of delicious, crispy oysters sitting on a crunchy yuca chip with cilantro cream and salsa, which arrived hot and fresh. We also ordered their Crispy Vegetable Spring Rolls ($6), which were a little less inspired, but still good. They were crisp, as advertised, but a little greasy, and the dipping sauce was unexceptional.

We moved up to the Mu Shu Pork ($7), a nice, small serving of pulled pork with some barely sweet crepes and what they called "Asian BBQ sauce." Whatever the recipe, the sauce was nice, and we enjoyed the fresh veggies that accompanied it. The Fish Tacos ($9) use fresh, tender mahimahi and finish with an aioli that was redolent with smoky chipotle flavor – in fact, almost too much so. We finished with Steak Churrasco ($8), which came with a chimichurri sauce. Again, it was nicely grilled, and this time the sauce was perfect.

Chronicle readers love the drinks at Saba – it tied with the Brown Bar for Best Cocktails in this year's "Best of Austin" Readers Poll. They sell tons of drinks, none more than their Mojitos ($6), but they also carry a nice selection of wines by the glass and give you a generous pour. White wine lovers should try the Villa Frattina Pinot Grigio ($6.50) or Goldwater Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc ($9.50). If you're in the mood for a red, try either the Fife Whaler Zinfandel ($7.50) or the Guigal Cotes du Rhone ($7).

My only complaint with Saba is a minor one – something that other patrons might not mind or could even prefer: It is busy, loud, and aimed more at the bar crowd than the food crowd. If you happen to be thirsty and want a snack while you're waiting for dinner, Saba fits the bill nicely; it's a great place for a drink, and the food is good.

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