There are certain combinations of words we don't expect to encounter in the same sentence, such as "Waco" and "distillery," for instance, or "fine dining" and "bargain." However, there is indeed a busy blue corn whiskey distillery up the road in the Baptist stronghold, and none other than Jeffrey's has joined the list of local fine dining restaurants offering great bargains on bar food during daily happy hours. Some friends joined me in the Jeffrey's bar on a recent stormy evening, and we ate our way through the happy hour menu, discovering some hits and misses along the way.
First, a word about the setting and the service: The corner bar is cozy with low lights, soft background music, and tasteful flowers on each table. The experienced staff greeted regulars and newcomers warmly, handling umbrellas, canes, and rain gear with ease, making everyone feel welcome and pampered. Our evening started with a complimentary bowl of warm gougère, the French cheese puffs whetting our appetites while the designated cocktail drinkers at our table waited for gin and tonics.
We began our menu exploration with a split of Jeffrey's famous dueling fried oyster preparations ($15/$7.50) – the original, former chef David Garrido's signature crispy oysters on yucca root chips with habanero-honey aioli, and oysters Octavia, chef Deegan McClung's creation on sea-salt potato chips with a Bacon Royale and tomato aioli. The oysters were the source of a pitched battle when McClung's debuted in 2009. Jeffrey's regulars were outraged that a menu favorite had been replaced, so a contest ensued, and the split offering emerged as a compromise. The more savory Octavias were the clear preference at our table, but at the reduced happy hour prices, partisan oyster lovers could enjoy a full order of each with Champagne in luxurious economy.
Up next was a bowl of fresh Burrata ($10/$5), a handmade Italian cheese simply dressed with fruity olive oil and Portuguese fleur de sel, served with crisp, buttery crostini. The mild cheese is soft and spreadable, equally satisfying on the crostini or on slices of warm, rustic rosemary bread. We also slathered steak tartare ($15/$7.50) on the crostini and rosemary bread after finishing off the delicate pommes gaufrettes that accompanied the very salty raw beef dish. Following beef with more beef, we sampled crispy short ribs ($15/$7.50), toothsome bites of beefy essence complemented by a rich reduction of their braising liquid, a garlicky classic persillade, and shaved horseradish, paired with dainty carrot beignets. The short rib bites were another favorite, one we would each order again.
Then came the menu's heavy hitter – the Jeffrey's burger ($20, burger; $3 for cheese; $3 for house bacon; $8 for foie gras/half-price dining happy hour). Most of the burger's components were really excellent: There was a nice char on the house brioche bun, the condiments were exemplary, and the tangy Redneck Cheddar had a nice bite. But a thick, tough slice of house bacon overwhelmed the burger, making it difficult to cut or bite through successfully. A thin, crisp slice of bacon would have sealed the deal – a perfect half-priced upscale burger. The evening's major disappointment came with the foie gras chaud ($20/$10) because the flavor of the slab of seared goose liver was totally obscured by too many sweet elements on the plate. It was served with sweet lemon madeleines as a base, with a thick smear of sweet and tangy mustang grape jelly as a condiment, plus a blanket of cloyingly sweet and soapy lavender honey foam as a garnish. The luscious foie could not compete. Even at half price, the dish was not a bargain.
A couple of missteps aside, Jeffrey's half-price happy hour menu is a great way to introduce yourself to this West Austin bastion of fine dining for some economical pampering or for regulars to experience established menu highlights on a budget.
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