Cultural prognosticators may not look to them as fervently as they observe hemlines, but restaurants tell us just as much about the zeitgeist as fashion houses. The self-conscious fusion of the Eighties gave way to the craft beer earnestness of the Nineties and later the focus on "woke" cuisine during most of the Obama years. Dining trends reflect how we live, documenting our aspirations and – more acutely – our anxieties. It doesn't take any particular investment in politics to know why comfort food is having a moment.
Still, chef Philip Speer's Bonhomie has arrived at such the right time that it seems almost prescient. The beatboxing "about us" website does a succinct job of describing the concept, so I'll just quote it here. Bonhomie is a "French bistro-inspired American diner. Or an American diner-inspired French bistro." Despite the fact that Americans tend to view anything French as being vaguely upscale, that good bit of copy teases at what is at the heart of Bonhomie's menu – a brisket-stuffed croissant doesn't have borders; there really isn't that big of a difference between the comfort food of Pittsburgh and Poitiers.
French food is having a moment too, but I suspect Bonhomie isn't the result of tireless market research. For one, it is a neat summation of his career, which started with haute cuisine and has more recently been on a casual trajectory. Regardless, Speer's food has always seemed to combine sense and memory. Tasting this food feels personal, as if it were giving a glimpse into the moments that defined him as a chef.
Unsurprisingly, French classics are well-represented – from steak bavette served with a sprightly ratatouille to brown butter-coated gnocchi à la Parisienne (the kind made with pâte à choux instead of potato dough). The rotisserie chicken is plump platonic ideal. Served with a hearty white bean cassoulet and root vegetables, even a half is enough for two. But if you don't like sharing, lord over a croque-monsieur. Here, the classic formula is barely tinkered with, other than its substitution of béchamel with a Mornay (the menu calls it "cheesy sauce"). If you are used to the overstuffed Dagwoods that some places pass off as decadence, you will likely find the sandwich a touch too thin, but assumably you would like to taste something else other than shaved ham. Forget your diet and order it with a gently sweet French onion soup, which looks like a mess, but will make you yearn for the return of 60° days.
From this side of the pond, you get a Reuben made with smoked salmon, Emmentaler, and a tumble of sauerkraut on rye flecked heavily with caraway. If you don't plan on any tête-à-têtes afterward, the panko-crusted tower of onion rings, dipped in malt vinegar, holds its own with the forceful flavors. And, of course, it wouldn't be a diner without a solid burger. Bonhomie's version, two patties with pickles, onion, and a drape of yellow cheese on a beautifully glazed bun, has quickly entered the Austin honor roll. But skip the fries and go with a pomme rosti.
If you follow local food at all, you've no doubt seen them referred to as giant hash browns in write-ups. That's a fair enough description, and certainly Bonhomie as a concept welcomes anything that chips away at pretense, but it doesn't really give the kitchen enough credit. Any greasy spoon can put out a passable hash brown, but it takes a bit more finesse to put out consistent versions of its Swiss forefather.
Since fat (usually butter) and grated potatoes are the only two ingredients used, the details matter. A perfect rosti requires removing as much of the potato's water as possible, and the type of potato used (waxy or floury) can determine whether or not the finished product has its signature crunch. Bonhomie's come with all sorts of toppings (we particularly enjoyed the roasted mushroom with onion and spinach and the soignée caviar with crème fraîche), but order it plain for a true test of the kitchen's mettle.
There are a handful of lighter dishes on the menu, but at Bonhomie "lighter" is a relative term. The simplest is the fennel-inflected Bonhomie salad but the calories go up from there. Speer adds a few bits of fried octopus and crostini to the classic salade Lyonnaise, giving a textural lift to the classic bitter green, soft-poached egg, and lardon foundation. Caramelized red onion and sherry vinegar give some friction to sautéed haricot vert, tossed with herbs and lemon zest. The much-maligned cantaloupe anchors the salmon cru – a desert sunset of the season's first tomatoes, blood orange supremes, and salmon roe – keeping the more assertive elements from overwhelming the dish. Resting on a few spoonfuls of ras el hanout speckled yogurt, ribbons of roasted tri-color roots balance the bitter of frisée.
As full as you might get from all that, the dessert selection is essential. Two – the chicory-cream filled mille feuille and the apple tatin – are exacting showstoppers, but it's hard to contain the joy behind a dish like the banana split profiterole with its long caramelized hazelnut comet. It's simple enough to appeal to the pickiest diners without alienating the town's many young sophisticates. I had it with the Champagne cocktail from beverage director Darrin Ylisto's tightly edited list, which was admittedly a pairing mistake. C'est la vie. It's a lively take on one of my favorite drinks, and mistakes seem like triumphs with repetition.
About the only thing I haven't warmed to is the design. Looking into the windows of chef Philip Speer's Bonhomie, it's difficult not to see Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (the restaurant in the painting is named Phillies for God's sake). The glowing lights, the cherry reds, the expanse of glass are all there – if not the sinister figure in the foreground. When the room isn't packed, it can seem a bit lonely. I've always appreciated a few scattered geegaws in a room should conversation lag.
Luckily, there will always be the food to talk about.
The concept: Classic bistro French meets American diner food from local favorite chef Philip Speer
What to eat: The pommes rosti, nests of crisped grated potatoes topped with everything from lox to foie gras gravy
What to drink: A classic New Orleans sazerac or an herbal Champagne cocktail
Best splurge: The whole rotisserie chicken, which will provide leftovers for days
Best time to go: A weekday lunch when the room volume is set to loud instead of deafening
Expect to pay: $75 for two with drinks and desserts
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