Although lately we have been wrapping it up in euphemism, accessibility has become the defining buzzword of late 2016 Austin dining. The breathless local food media hasn't had much time (or perhaps inclination) to analyze it, but it's obvious to even the casual observer that the flow of fussy, prix fixe concepts has finally hit the levee. All you have to do is look up to feel the drip of wax on your nose.
Never mind that the idea of the neighborhood concept is diluted when a restaurant doesn't serve the neighborhood it is actually in, or that the concept of casualness is meaningless in a town that posits athleisure as acceptable attire for a wake – Austin now wants you to relax, man. Many of this year's more prominent restaurants – the maximalized Gardner redux Chicon, the "all day" hangout June's, and the boozy sandwich shop Irene's – exist comfortably in that accessible space if not always matching it with an equally accessible price point. But Boiler Nine, the long-delayed La Corsha Hospitality concept in the Seaholm development, never seemed to fit comfortably in that trend – if only because managing three separate areas with three separate menus is an exceedingly ambitious undertaking no matter what goes on the plate.
Of course, La Corsha at its best has the rare ability to balance both accessibility and ambition. When it first opened, their Second Bar + Kitchen appealed to our big city airs by dividing the menu's lowercase ingredients with sexy interpuncts, but really their name was made with well-crafted pizza, fried pickles, and pommes frites. That sort of unpretentious luxe (helped by an expansive cocktail menu, of course) has since come to define Austin dining, becoming part of the DNA that has since spawned successes like Swift's Attic and Launderette. And truth be known, it is what works best here. So why not do it in triplicate – creating a different feel with each push of the elevator button? It's not as if they haven't juggled a triple threat before.
La Corsha has never really wasted much time in baby-naming. Boiler Nine is indeed located in the ninth boiler room of the former power plant, with the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows dominated by the stack. Decor has rarely been the strong point of any of the La Corsha restaurants, where jumbled custom touches (the less that can be said about the Downtown Second Bar + Kitchen's giant peace sign the better) meet catalog modernism and plenty of beautiful, upscale finishes. Of course, good or bad, none of that really matters at Second because the seats are so often filled with attractive people having attractive conversations.
But Boiler Nine is a different story, perhaps because the expanse of the building makes it often seem less full than it actually is. It was a good idea to go for Centre Georges Pompidou realness, letting the bones determine the environment. But the flourishes are confined to wood and a slap of white in the stools, table frames, and Eames-y Eiffel Tower chairs – oh and a grayscale cartoonish two-story mural that looks like a screenshot from 2009 point-and-click game Machinarium. A touch of texture, a touch of color, a potted plant – anything really would help the space feel less cold. If only they would let everyone huddle up in front of the wood-burning grill.
The offerings on paper are not that far from Second's, except now the capitalized ingredients are separated by pipes. But on the plate, they have a completely different feel thanks to executive chef Jason Stude's often inventive use of fire. The quick-pickled and grilled okra ($7) sets the tone early. Grilling can often render okra flat, burying the vegetal flavor in char. But the doubling of techniques finds the garden again, and the tangle of flour-battered onions somehow invokes the Southern fried preparation without being a deconstruction at all. Then he unapologetically serves the whole thing in shallows of Comeback sauce – Mississippi's famous remoulade-like dressing. The fire-roasted roots ($13) pull off a similar trick. Beets are nothing new, neither are carrots for that matter, but Stude gussies them up with a crumble of astringent feta, sunflower seeds, and fennel fronds. The sauce? That staple of the Tab and Virginia Slims set, green goddess, here given a basil-forward recharge. You've come a long way, baby.
Indeed, it's easy to imagine much of Stude's offerings in one of those cookbooks that sought to turbocharge your personal sexual revolution through cosmopolitan cuisine. Candied walnuts replace the traditional plain walnut garnish in the earthy muhammara ($10), refusing to recognize any poverty in the prominent cumin. The pan-charred squid ($12) reveals a little of the chef's Louisianan roots, throwing a little dried andouille with dried shrimp in their take on Hong Kong XO sauce. The charred and shaved beef ($15) is served rare with shaved bottarga, Castelvetrano olive, and a rich aïoli, among other aphrodisiac pleasures. There's even a raclette fondue ($21), in which you can alluringly dip with a smoked potato.
The entrées evoke the steakhouse without any of the cheap tricks. Oak-roasted chicken ($25) with a grilled corn panzanella floats merrily in jus, hearkening to pollo al carbon with lime and a cilantro salad. The bass ($27) gets its Mediterranean flair from lemon, parsley, a dab of labneh, and minted chickpea panisse. The Akaushi sirloin ($28) has all the heartiness of a traditional dinner, but the carrots are moussed, the sautéed mushrooms are oyster, and the reduction is agrodolce. Your dad won't be offended, especially if you top the meal off with a berry cobbler ($8), more of a crumble really, that is one sparkler short of being an Independence Day parade. That wine director Paula Rester was able to come up with a wine list bold enough to stand up to all that is a near miracle.
At least in theory, Deck Nine serves the type of food you might find at a high school football concession stand if everyone enrolled spent the summer reading Lucky Peach. That feel is reinforced by the corrugated metal central service core, the neat schoolyard succession of picnic-style tables, and the staff – any of which might have just gotten off the bus from Dillon, Texas, with stars in their eyes – but none of that is as noticeable as the view. Whether facing a canopy of trees (only sporadically interrupted by freight trains) or a Metropolis-style cityscape, it's breathtaking enough to make the menu and service somewhat beside the point.
And that's a good thing, because the upstairs observatory is the least successfully executed of Boiler Nine's three concepts. Nothing fell squarely in the failure column, but there were several misfires that I suspect have more to do with execution than conception. That started with the cocktail menu, cleverly labeled as "booze your own adventure." Save for a shareable flask and a beer-based frozen drink, all of the drinks can be ordered with a choice of spirit. Ideally, that would encourage nuanced comparisons of how the ringmaster interacts with the acrobats, but nuance should not be confused with imperceptibility. We tried the side-by-side with one each of a bourbon and tequila and mezcal Sun King ($8), advertised vaguely as a concoction of pineapple, chartreuse, hot peppers, and citrus. Although there was some fuzzy observation of "more depth" in the bourbon version, the two were kissing cousins, aggressively dominated by pineapple. Chartreuse? Schmartreuse. It had none of the boozy balance that defined beverage director Jason Stevens' cocktails for Second Bar and Bar Congress.
The flat-top double double ($13 with an avocado adder) disappointed too, especially since Stude knows very well what a burger should taste like (Second's Congress burger wears its many championship belts proudly). The patties were sadly overworked, the pickled jalapeños were scant, and the American cheese seemed to have disappeared in a puff. The dips were not at their best either. There was not enough sharpness in the pimento cheese ($12), and the chipotle peppers mixed with the barbecue-like "Deck" sauce were overwhelming (and for God's sake – enough with the rehabilitation of saltines). Though I don't doubt that smoked fat was used in the bean dip ($7), it still had the texture and taste of canned. Order the barbecue tempeh sandwich ($10) instead. The square of Flying Tempeh Brothers' tempeh is flavored with a beet barbecue sauce and topped with a crinkle of a sprightly cabbage and kale slaw and a creamy celery seed dressing, and it is one of those rare vegan mains that remembers that plant-based cooking can be just as electrifying as that using animal fat. The steak fries ($8) are transcendent too, nailing the crispy exterior and delicate interior.
The tempeh sandwich and fries (tossed in Grana Padano and rosemary) are served on the lunch menu at Boiler Nine, so until the service and execution are tightened, there's no real reason to party upstairs. But, hey, it's a lovely place to wait for a table.
Stevens' drinks are back to form when you take the elevator down. They should be. Although there is a small snack menu, cocktails are the point of the Boiler Room. Named after Seventies songs, the drinks replace Stevens' Prohibition-inspired barcraft at Bar Congress for the swing of the "Me" Decade. The Harry Nilsson-approved Coconut is a piña colada ($11) with a deeper coconut flavor and a mix of rums for balance. Beast of Burden ($11) knocks you out with both bourbon and overproof rye, and some sweet vermouth – just for kicks. Refreshingly, vodka is taken seriously with the Jolene ($9) – a referential sipper with sweet tea bitters and pickled peach. Each brings Stevens' trademark booziness back to the fore. There will be stumbling, whether from the alcohol or the barely lit room.
The snack menu is rightfully devoted to strong flavors, with several dishes repeated from the Boiler Nine menu. The muhammarra, shaved beef, and raclette I mentioned above – but they are joined by the main dining room's sausage plate ($23) and the addictively odd beer bread ($6). The flavor profile is hard to place (and well, the Beast of Burden kicked in quickly), but Lone Star apparently is responsible for the sweetness (coincidentally the same beer my grandmother used in her bread), pickled mustard seed and caramelized onions are rolled inside, and the smear of jam is made with an IPA. Surely few would be able to determine that by palate alone, but it makes for both lively cocktail hour debate and repeat orders.
There are a smattering of dishes that are only offered subterraneanly, like sardines served in a can with aïoli and a nicely dressed herb salad, a shrimp cocktail served with blistered shishitos (not fashionable but still good) in a salsa verde that veered toward gazpacho. For the piss-elegant, there's smoked salmon roe and tobiko ($11) on potato chips, the sting of which is too much. Chickpea panisses ($7) are served alone downstairs too, in trademark Jenga stacks, and are only slightly less well-executed than the steak fries. Those highlights made the churritos even more disappointing. On a brunch visit to Boiler Nine, the bites were featherweight and addictive. At Boiler Room, they were doughy and undercooked.
And that is the main lesson for the whole operation. The various stumbles were no doubt the result of a service staff and a kitchen stretched thin. Some tightening up is surely to come as they further find their groove. But Austin is stretched thin too. La Corsha is as responsible as anyone for ushering the new food order into town, for setting the local expectations of what a restaurant should do. Now is not the time to cede territory.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.