Restaurant Review: Destination Dining Downtown
Former Driskill luminaries dazzle again at Congress
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., April 22, 2011
Congress200 Congress, 827-2760
Tuesday-Thursday, 6-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 6-11pm
Those of us who followed chef David Bull's early Austin career eagerly anticipated his return to the local dining scene. Dining at the Driskill Grill in its heyday, with Bull at the helm and Josh Watkins as sous chef, was truly one of the best experiences available in an Austin restaurant. Bull broke many food aficionados' hearts when he departed for Dallas, so the news of his return with a venture of his own, in partnership with Driskill alums Jeff Trigger, Scott Walker, and Jeff Rhein, earned a collective sigh of relief from Austin's discerning diners. The partners' ambitious trio of venues is anchored by Congress, a very upscale, fine-dining establishment that mirrors the quality of the dining experience established when they took over the Driskill years ago and manages to raise the bar even higher.
As in their previous venture, the partners have spared no expense to ensure the quality of the venue, from the minimalist yet welcoming interior to the most comfortable restaurant chairs ever, with touches of color provided by cobalt-blue crystal glassware. It's sophisticated and elegant without feeling stuffy or pretentious. The next thing you notice is the service: experienced and pleasant, well-informed and polite. Bull has made sure his staff comprises Austin's best, for both the kitchen and the front of house. For example, award-winning sommelier June Rodil not only has one of the best wine palates in the state, but she's an amiable and accommodating professional who knows the right questions to ask a customer in order to make the best wine recommendation. If you don't know much about wine, don't worry – Rodil is patient and down to Earth, ready to offer suggestions and ideas to pair with your dinner.
As in his previous endeavor, Bull offers two prix fixe menus of small but spectacularly presented items to choose from: three courses for $65 and his signature seven-course tasting menu for $110 (or $160 with wine pairings chosen by Rodil). The catch with the seven-course menu is that every diner at the table must order it; there's no mixing and matching. And because chefs like to play with their food, there are also a couple of dishes listed as "enhancements," which can be ordered in addition to the prix fixe menus. Our party of four tasted almost every item offered on the three-course menus. Shortly after ordering, the amuse-bouche arrived: a chilled spring-pea mousse topped with Parmesan-cheese foam. Next came light-as-air brioche rolls and our "enhancement," a terrine of compressed watermelon and foie gras with smoked poppy seed crema ($22), impressive to the eye and the palate although only big enough to yield one bite for each of us. I was tempted by the American osetra caviar with carrot-citrus mousse, but at $36, I had to pass it by. The beef tartare – topped with a fried oyster, black truffles, and Parmesan and served with paper-thin ciabatta chips – is one of the best renditions of that classic dish I have ever had. Though it costs an extra $10, the lobster salad was well worth the price: Minute slices of carrots with poached lobster, grape tomatoes, a hard-boiled quail egg half, and a white anchovy come perched atop a tower of iceberg (yes, iceberg) lettuce, resembling a sculpture drizzled with lemon-herb vinaigrette.
All four second courses were equally amazing. Seared scallops with grilled corn salad and apple bacon marmalade; lobster bisque with tomato jam and a lobster-ricotta fritter; garlic and chive potato gnocchi with braised oxtail, poached egg, and Parmesan; and seared veal sweetbreads two ways – one atop sautéed green tomatoes, and the other with goat milk ricotta. Bull came out to greet our table bearing a gift from the kitchen, a new item listed simply as mixed green salad. An artistic exercise in green, with meticulously arranged asparagus, haricots verts, fava beans, fresh pea sauce, fried ramps, and basil puree, the dish was simply divine.
From the main courses, the grilled rib-eye loin with spinach, garlic puree, and foie gras beurre rouge dazzled, and the Thumbelina carrot ravioli with carrot puree, lemongrass oil, and fresh shiso surprised; it was perhaps my favorite of the four. The rack of lamb with salsify chips, cardamom yogurt, and candied orange was beautifully cooked and pleased my dining companion, though I prefer lamb paired with savory flavors rather than sweet, purely a matter of personal taste. Sadly, I was honestly disappointed with my own choice. The yellowtail snapper with a pistachio and Meyer lemon crust, spring peas, and golden potatoes was overcooked, and the lack of a sauce rendered it dry.
Desserts are ordered à la carte outside the tasting menu price, but are well worth the extra cash if you have room for them. We shared an eye-popping chocolate terrine with Gianduja and raspberry, which was as ethereally delicious as it was lovely to behold.
Dinner at Congress is quite the experience, its small, understandable flaws notwithstanding. These gentlemen intend to put Austin on the national gastronomic map, and that is no small feat. If you can afford to dine at Congress, by all means do it.