One thing about running races: You never really notice what you have passed. Over the last few years, Austin food has been a success story by almost any metric – new restaurants opened, media coverage, James Beard nominations – but it still has had trouble building an identity separate from the pillars that have always stood: barbecue and Tex-Mex. Part of that is that instead of following the earlier trajectories that pulled from our specific cultural heritage, Austin has dug deep into New American, a term that lost all meaning as soon as there was an Internet, and a big reason why culinary Austin's head is rested firmly in its palm.
Before eating at Café No Sé, it seemed fitting that the name of the South Congress Hotel's first restaurant embodies that blank spirit where anything in the kitchen is possible as long as it is difficult to pronounce. But I guess narratives don't come that cheaply. No Sé is indeed New American, but it has a stronger POV than the phrase would imply. Sure, there's a travelogue of ingredients from burrata to laffa to Kewpie mayo, but they don't define executive chef Michael Paley's kitchen as much as cucumber, broccoli, and arugula. If all that sounds more like shopping than cooking, well, you know what No Sé reaches for.
But Café No Sé does more than just allude to California in the menu. It seems to argue for transporting the entire culture east – from a fetishistic use of greens to the whitewashed dining room by Waterloo Workshop with Michael Hsu Office of Architecture and Studio MAI. Even the shelves that wrap the back left corner of the space approximate a television idea of Berkeley academia. Imagine all the fun you will have Sunday morning trading bons mots about the Stahl House over a kouign amann.
Indeed, brunch is perhaps No Sé's raison d'être, and when the sun-dappled interior makes the most sense. Brunch remains a lucrative afterthought at some of the best rooms in town. Why bother really when decent (and free-flowing) mimosas are all it takes to have people beating at your door? No Sé does the opposite, serving a too-orange mimosa in a juice glass for $11, while putting considerable thought into the menu of easy egg dishes, salads, pastries, and a scattering of non-egg mains.
There's no flash in any of the salads. Greenhouse lettuces ($10) have a Southwestern architecture, and the chicken salad ($13) toys with Indian flavors, even if the garam masala transmits depth more than a sense of place. Chopped kale ($10) was lively, but perhaps too aggressively vinegared for a main. Puffed rice added needed crunch.
Other dishes similarly avoid airs. Both the pork sandwich ($14), spread with mustard and jam, and the cheeseburger ($15 with an add-on of egg) work solidly within their form. Creamy muesli ($9) and banana-filled ricotta hotcakes ($12) don't fuss things up with trend ingredients. The chicken schnitzel ($18), unfortunately, was a bit shake-and-bake by way of Thomas Keller. The dish needed a little jazzing – even with a squirt of lemon, the salty Parmesan fell flat.
For purists, there is poached egg on the menu, oozing on bok choy and purple hull peas ($13), but it's not the only egg trick. There's a soft-boiled egg on avocado toast ($11) with a little pickled carrot and crème fraîche, a simple scramble with arugula and bread ($13), and a crackling fried egg with tumbled speck and romesco ($14). None of the dishes are impossible to make at home, but Paley obviously drills his kitchen with the basics. The soft-boiled whites are custardy, the scramble is fluffy, and the fried egg is perfectly sunny-side up. Elementary perhaps, but refreshing.
A lot of the brunch dishes float throughout the menu, making other services feel less distinctive, but there are some highlights available only for the pm meals. Chief among those is the poke bowl ($14) with big-eye tuna joining a jolting array of flavors from olives to grapefruit, and a charred fennel side ($6) that adds another strong flavor, bottarga, unapologetically. The gnudi ($21), with grilled corn, sugar snap peas, and basil, feels a little out of season, but although the butternut squash soup ($9) is garnished with an herb – chervil – that is almost synonymous with spring, the liver moussed cracker topped with root vegetable confetti takes it back to our endless late fall. The sticky lamb ribs ($16) are a treat too. Cider vinegar cuts through the fatty meat like a Western Kentucky black sauce.
Executive pastry chef Amanda Rockman's desserts fall perfectly with that menu, regardless of the time of day. There's chocolate, but stick with either her signature Basque cake ($10) – a winter wonder of orange, fig, and coriander – or the buzzy kir royale paleta ($7) with Prosecco poured tableside. Or just order one of the croissants, as correct as any you will find in town. A stronger beverage program would be nice (the bigger reds in particular don't have all that many complements), but maybe that will come in time.
And despite the general successes of the food, the service desperately needs to be tightened up. Part of the struggle is that some of the tables are arranged too closely together, forcing the waitstaff to take ant farm routes back to the kitchen. But part of that seems to be institutional. The host desk feels disorganized, and the experience doesn't improve once seated. All of the waiters seemed to be able to recite the menu with awkward ease, but many of the fundamentals (refilling water glasses, checking on the table, bringing a check before the next presidential election) were ignored. The servers did all have perfectly rolled up pants. Maybe Jenna Lyons has settled on a new career.
That keeps Café No Sé from being a triumph, the kind of place you want to linger through starters and mains and after-dinner drinks. They may have brought the sun and the food, but in Austin, the illusion only lasts for so long.
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