Parind Vora lost his Restaurant Jezebel to a fire in the summer of 2010. But the fine dining resturant rose from its Congress Avenue ashes, re-imagined and relocated to West Sixth Street on Halloween last year. And Vora had a trick or a treat in store for Austin diners, depending on your view of things.
His intimate Restaurant Jezebel would have only eight tables. There’d be no menu. And men would be required to wear jackets. That rule, which some believed imposed pretension on Austin’s storied laid-back vibe, set the internet ablaze for a few days. It turned out to be a tempest in a teapot.
The nights I visited, all the men had complied with the dress code. Even this generally casual writer didn’t mind the nod to sophistication, though my collar began to feel a little tight around the four-hour mark of one visit. Kinda like sitting in church. But that sense of discomfort might have come from the airless space, where European club music circa 2002 hums at a volume that can challenge polite table conversation.
Jezebel hides behind closed doors in the back of the expansive dining room of Bar Mirabeau, Vora’s casual concept in the bottom of the Cirrus Logic building on West Sixth Street. Artist Tom Darrah’s paintings of voluptuous women suspend in front of black walls, and the chocolate satin chairs look like handsome furniture versions of Eliza Page earrings with complementary chandeliers draped from the ceiling like necklaces. Beyond these few touches, and expensive china and elegant flatware, the dark and impersonal space feels like a hurried design from a Restaurant Wars episode of "Top Chef."
A dress code is not the only unique thing about this Austin restaurant. Jezebel doesn’t offer menus. Instead, you answer questions from your server about culinary likes and dislikes and any allergies. The staff will ask about your feelings on raw foods, preferred spice levels and game. They take those notes to Vora, who then prepares a personalized meal based on your answers.
This conversation-based anti-menu is unlike anything most diners in Austin are likely to have encountered. The highly regarded Saison in San Francisco recently announced they’re starting a similar offering in their "salon," but you’ll find the concept in very few restaurants across the country.
You can choose from a four-course ($85) or seven-course ($125) dinner, both of which include dessert as one of the courses. There are no wines by the glass, with few bottles for less than $100, and the wine list is not organized by varietal or region, making for a tough read. Wine pairings start at $45 for the former and $75 for the latter, though I was disabused of that $45 idea rather quickly during my four-course dinner.
My guest and I ordered the four-course dinner with pairing. When a glass of white wine arrived, we told our waiter (who also seemed to be serving as wine steward and manager) that we preferred red. He informed us that the first-tier of pairings would consist almost entirely of white wine, and maybe one light-bodied red. If we wanted something bolder (and, likely, better), we’d need to move to the second-tier of wines.
The cost of those second-tier pairings: $85 for the four-course meal (up from their baseline $45) and $125 for the seven-course meal (up from a baseline of $75). By comparison, Wink offers a seven-course pairing for $42 and Congress offers one for $60. You presumably can order a cocktail from a table-side cart, but the night I asked for a drink, no cart materialized.
The proteins rotate on a regular basis at Jezebel, but if you go on back-to-back nights, as I did recently, repeat performers are likely. One night, a tender medium-rare roasted quail that slipped from the bone came with rounded flavors of carrot puree and the tart acidic piercing of cherry reduction and passion fruit vinaigrette. The following night the bird arrived atop a blood-red puree of beets, their earthiness almost ruined by an overly sweet vanilla bean and maple gastrique.
The quail from my seven-course dinner was paired with a 2010 Ilaria Malbec from Dr. Reid Vineyards, the raspberry flavors folding into the beets, while the four-course quail came with a Chateau Musar Rouge 2004 ($140 a bottle) that made the cherry flavors of the dish even more pronounced. The Musar Rouge also made an appearance during the first course the previous night. In fact, three of the four wines we had during the four-course repeated themselves during the seven-course. I found the repetition perplexing and disappointing, considering Jezebel’s wine list, which is regionally diverse (Washington, Portugal, Virginia, Lebanon, Italy) and contains classic bottles, newer vintages and some cult favorites. Despite the best efforts of our wine steward, I found it odd that one of the most expensive and refined restaurants in the city doesn’t have a certified sommelier on staff.
The beets and gastrique from my quail dish appeared during that same course on the sea scallops of one of my dining guests. My guest had never expressed an interest in or been quizzed about scallops, making the protein a peculiar choice. The scallops had a fierce peppery crust that overwhelmed my guest, prompting her to send them back. The firm but supple scallops returned in short order, this time almost nude and too salty.
The Q-and-A style "menu" led to as many curiosities as successes, and brings with it an inherent confusion and the possibility of both disappointment and surprise.
My friend told our server he enjoyed fish, and labeled only foie gras as something he wanted to avoid. That meant a wonderful first course of smoky and peppery sturgeon with tender parsnips and a second of firm and mild halibut enlivened with mango puree. But by the third course, when the salmon arrived, my friend was longing for something that didn’t come out of the water. Compounding the confusion was the spicy, fenugreek-enriched sauce that came with the oily salmon and seemed better suited for a dish like scallops. Seafood failed to impress another night with a lightly fried soft-shell crab with parchment-like skin and fishy-tasting mushy meat.
My dining guest one night listed foie gras as a favorite, and the kitchen rewarded him, first with a smooth and rich foie gras pâté to start his meal and later with a seared hunk of foie lacquered with a sweet Thai chili glaze and topped with chopped rose petals. He called the seared foie gras one of the best dishes he’d eaten in his life.
As at the former Jezebel, you’ll find a wide offering of game at Vora’s new spot. Crimson hunks of antelope received a kick from braised curried greens and a soothing bath of coconut milk. Lightly breaded kangaroo atop a lightly spicy harissa-spiked polenta tasted like an Australian version of chicken fried steak.
The game show didn’t score at every turn, however, as evidenced by a paprika-encrusted wildebeest pâté that delivered little flavor beyond the prominent auburn spice. That dish came with the ubiquitous design flourishes of mango and raspberry coulis, an aesthetic affectation seen on almost all of the dishes at Jezebel, and one that feels like a relic of an earlier period of fine dining.
Dessert brought a tag-team approach to the table. A savory parsnip cake served with a crisp vanilla ice cream and poached carrot bites given the illusion of licorice from fennel stretched out across the bottom of the plate. A banana parfait, bitter dark chocolate sorbet and bruleed banana replicated a more traditional end to the meal.
Following dessert a server delivered a cart of petit fours, highlighted by a butterscotch-fudge bite and a watermelon marshmallow like a Jolly Rancher pillow. The server hit a mental road block with one of the tray’s offerings, but instead of glossing over his mistake with nimbleness, he dragged out the process, making for an awkward exchange. We experienced a similar lead-footed but well-intentioned service experience earlier in the night when our server couldn’t remember how many courses we’d had and repeatedly fumbled through our pairings trying to jog his memory.
Those type of stumbles and missteps at a restaurant at the level of Restaurant Jezebel should not repeat themselves in one night. The service should appear seamless and non-intrusive. I enjoy personal exchanges and warmth from servers. But it was clear we were not to get any of that at the restaurant that uses team service to make simultaneous, white-gloved plate deliveries at the table. If there is no hope for a personal element in service, then you expect a well-oiled experience bordering on perfection.
I also don’t expect to have the most expensive meal I’ve enjoyed in Austin (almost $1,000 for three people for the seven-course meal with second-tier wine pairings), to be interrupted by a trip to feed the parking meter because of a lack of valet. (Vora says Jezebel should be offering nightly valet starting this week after dealing with city permitting.) And I don’t want to feel gently intimidated and upsold into an extremely expensive wine pairing when a bare-bones four-course meal with wine pairing, tax and tip already runs $170 a person.
It seems Vora wants Jezebel to shine as an example of the glories and gentility of fine dining, and while many of his dishes ascend to the level of excellence, the uneven service experience, gimmicky menu-less concept and stifled atmosphere of the uninviting space need softening around their edges. Those for whom money and time are no consideration may like Jezebel the way it is, but if the restaurant wants to attract those looking for a special annual "occasion meal," Jezebel needs to deliver at an exceptional level it has yet to reach.