Restaurant Review: Texas French Bread

Triumphs and missteps at a classic Austin name

Photo by John Anderson

When we first reported on the planned transformation of Texas French Bread from a full service bakery to a farm-to-table bistro with a bakery component back in 2010, we were intrigued by the ambitious undertaking brothers Murph and Ben Willcott had set for themselves. The infrastructure of the now-76-year-old building needed some attention; it would be necessary to create a new traffic pattern between the baking area and a full kitchen line that included a wood-fired grill and hood systems; and TABC regulations required that the bathrooms be upgraded before they could apply for a very desirable beer and wine license. After three years of planning and fundraising which even included the sale of Community Supported Restaurant shares, the remodeling work was started late last year and completed in mid-January. The final component, an attractively landscaped and covered dining patio, made its debut at a garden party in the spring.

These days, Ben Willcott has moved on to another career and Murph Willcott runs the family business, indulging in his new passion for wine and sharing news and his thoughts about the business via a must-read regular email newsletter. The new bistro has an airy, convivial feel to it, with polished concrete floors, whitewashed walls, and plenty of sunshine from the rediscovered windows now hung with pleasant white linen drapes. Tasteful gray banquettes line two walls of the room with two-top tables, while two- and four-tops and one tall community table with stools dominate the center of the room.

The bistro now serves breakfast and brunch in addition to sandwiches and salad at lunch and a full menu at dinner. They definitely hold fast to the original farm-to-table aesthetic, with seasonal menus that change as often as the cooks shop at local farms and farmers' markets, all proudly listed daily. You can't go wrong at breakfast or brunch here, what with expertly made dishes featuring local eggs with yolks of brilliant orange complemented by house breads – think eggs Benedict on ciabatta ($15), Grand Marnier French toast ($10), a spinach and chèvre omelet ($10) paired with fluffy banana walnut pancakes ($10), or a gluten-free buckwheat crêpe ($15) with ham, Swiss cheese, and an egg.

Dinner still bears a French country influence, but our most recent visits revealed some Italian and Mediterranean inspirations and flavors as well. Our group of six decided to celebrate Bastille Day at Texas French Bread and quickly found ourselves surrounded by like-minded diners. The restaurant seemed understaffed and somewhat overwhelmed by the unexpected crowd, but they maintained good humor and did the best they could to keep diners happy. We opted to share several appetizers, and each choice proved worthy of ordering on its own. Fried green tomatoes ($12) were accented with two condiments – one of fiery harissa and the other a more emollient yogurt sauce. A square of baked polenta ($14) was paired with arugula, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and blistered shishito peppers – a walk through the Texas summer garden. The half-price specials in honor of the holiday were a bowl of mussels in savory broth with house bread ($7) and a bowl of perfectly crisped frites ($7) with wonderful aioli for dipping. The drinkers at our table indulged in $7 glasses of a French Rosé to toast liberté, égalité, and fraternité. (Although it's still possible to bring your own wine with a corkage fee, the eclectic wine list features vintages from France, Italy, California, and Oregon, and Murph loves to talk about it.)

Entrée choices were equally understated, with four proteins and one pasta paired with startlingly fresh vegetables or greens. A flaky fillet of trout amandine ($24) rested atop lightly steamed beans of a brilliant green hue, while a thinly pounded pork Milanese ($17) was fork-tender and well-matched with a lightly dressed salad of arugula and radicchio. The grilled quail ($17) surrounded by squash, small smashed potatoes, and purslane wore the salty kiss of anchovy butter and was probably the most skillful plate on the table that night, although I was very impressed with the steak frites ($27), dressed with a verdant green chimichurri-inspired salsa and another helping of those dynamite frites. The TFB rendition of that French bistro staple is as good as any you'll find in town.

The food here is simple and unpretentious because the kitchen obviously walks the talk – they're stocking the best quality fresh local ingredients and then setting the stage for them to shine on their own. I admire and respect what they're doing and want them to succeed, but there were a few glaring missteps that need some attention. The vegetarian offering of the evening was a pappardelle ($16) with roasted cherry tomatoes, basil, and shaved Parmesan. Yes, the pasta was made in-house and really lovely, but the flavors were beyond subtle; the dish had almost no describable flavor profile at all. My dinner guest added sea salt from the shaker and the last of the herbed olive oil that had been served with the bread to give it some oomph, but my thinking was the dish was too "homestyle" for a $16 restaurant plate to begin with.

Our only other disappointments were with dessert and came as a genuine shock. We ordered several, including the butterscotch budino ($7), a lemon curd tart ($7), a chocolate ganache tart ($7), and a slice of coconut cake ($7). The buttery and lightly salted budino was dreamy satisfaction, but the coconut cake was dense and heavy under a pouf of slightly crystallized seven-minute meringue frosting. Both tarts had delightful fillings – a marvelously tangy lemon curd and a velvety dark chocolate truffle ganache, but their crusts were too durable to cut with a fork. The crusts honestly tasted as though they'd come out of a package, which surely can't be true in a from-scratch bakery. Even cookie dough crusts in any self-respecting French bakery should be tender and flaky. Now is not the time for Texas French Bread to forget to "dance with who brung you." – Virginia B. Wood

Texas French Bread

2900 Rio Grande, 512/499-0544
Mon.–Thu., 7am-9:30pm; Fri., 7am-10pm
Sat., 8am-10pm; Sun., 8am-3pm

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Ben Willcott, Murph Willcott

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