Restaurant Review: Backbeat
Vintage-inspired bar is everything but retro
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., July 1, 2016
Mon.-Thu., 4pm-12mid; Fri.-Sat., 4pm-2am; Sun. 2pm-10pm
Unprecedented expansion may be lately herniating the local hospitality scene, but, for now, Austin's craft cocktail bars seem to be an exception. Austinites like to drink, but the more focused a place is on shots, the less attractive it looks out of college. Whatever one's age, cocktail bars deliver on the Hollywood promise of adulthood – the wild gesticulation and tossed heads after someone lands a zinger. They are for your best self, the one that doesn't deliver leaden pickup lines after downing a few purple hooters.
Backbeat, the latest project from Drink.Well owners Jessica and Michael Sanders, sets the scene better than most. The interior by Jamie Chioco (inspired by the Blue Note jazz era) – all rich wood, Klein blue, and brass, brass, brass – sparkles after sunset. But you'll want to get there just before dusk to appreciate the thoughtfulness of the design. In the summer evening hours, the skylight shining down from the minimally outfitted rooftop deck shoots out a column over a banquette, and the slightly askew concrete gray geometric tiles lend airiness in a space that otherwise has more to absorb than reflect. It's a rare bar that can have nocturnal sex appeal without suffering a hangover at first light.
But for a place with zero kitsch, the cocktail menu is surprisingly irreverent. The offers are corralled into three sections: "Upbeat," brighter cocktails with a focus on seasonal fruit and citrus; the headier "Downbeat," featuring darker spirits and more challenging liqueurs; and "Offbeat," a catchall for oddball drinks in the tiki category or otherwise. One of the best of the bunch, the Japanese whisky-based Moon Bridge ($13) is no longer on the menu, but there are plenty of sophisticated options to fill its place. Peachy Blinders ($12) doubles up with Speyside and Islay Scotch – and fortified wine to boot – but the creme de peché still pokes out enough to merit the name. The Pickup Artist ($12) is a mint julep on the surface, but given the medicinal kick of Fernet-Branca. The tap Sherry Cobbler ($8), a favorite in form, is given a citrus-bitter complexity from grapefruit. With packed ice, it's a great refresher coming out of the summer heat. Many of the cocktails update midcentury recipes that have been left behind in the macho worship of pre-Prohibition culture. The Prado ($12) has the easy appeal of a good, not-overly-sweetened margarita, but the thick dessert drink Pink Squirrel ($12) may be a harder sell. Still, credit is due for the reconsideration of the oft-maligned forms. The cocktails are supplemented by local beers, fortified wines, and some seriously celebratory Champagnes, but start with a cocktail even if you move on later.
The snacks menu is mainly about indulgence. Developed by Justin Bumbalough, it could have been lifted from one of those soft-focus guides from Esquire or Playboy that caused so many Midwest insurance agents to fantasize about trysts with Pucci-clad flight attendants. A good portion of it is sourced, from a reputable salumi and cheese board ($16) to simple roasted Castelvetrano & kalamata olives ($5). The oysters (market) are East Coast and mild, but we would have liked a little variety. There's probably no space for a full raw bar, but a choice of three or so would have been welcome.
Of the house plates, the pork/chicken pâté melt ($12) is the breakout, a balancing act of nutty Gruyere and pungent Dijon aïoli, offset unexpectedly with shaved fennel. Although the menu is ever evolving, creative takes on forcemeat are somewhat of a theme. Past menus have combined rabbit rillette ($10) with red curry, and chicken liver mousse ($9) with blackberry jam and chive. This past Saturday, the choice was a gently biting meatball served with cooling labneh ($9).
The two vegetarian dishes provide a bracing counterpoint to the heartier bar fare. The beet salad ($9) may be the only dish in Austin using the ingredient that still has the capacity to surprise (I almost feel like inserting a spoiler warning). Instead of using chunks of roasted root, Backbeat smears a puree directly on the plate and tops with a frisée, radish, pine nuts, and fennel (both frond and bulb) salad tossed with a poppy seed dressing that bears little resemblance to the cloying varieties you find on grocery shelves. The caponata ($10) is a little more straightforward in form, but even that dabbles with eccentricity. The eggplant, tomato, and vinegar are all there, with a couple of clever substitutions. Kalamata olives are a brine surrogate for the more typically used capers, and tarragon stands in for the occasionally used fennel, bringing the anise flavor more assertively to the surface.
All in all, the formula is very similar to Drink.Well's, but the Sanderses have refined all the things that make that such a popular neighborhood haunt. And they've made some necessary tweaks, too. The counter ordering system at the former has everyone crammed behind the bar, but Backbeat brings the staff out for table service – creating a friendlier environment in the process. The food is friendlier with cocktails. Even the bathrooms seem more carefully thought out. It's easy to see why so many people are bandying about the phrase "Drink.Well 2.0." Practice, it seems, does make perfect.
Backbeat1300 S. Lamar, 512/551-9980
Tue.-Wed., 4pm-12mid; Thu.-Sat., 4pm-2am; Sun., 2pm-12mid