You should sit at the bar at least one time at Justine's, the French brasserie that opened in a restored 1937 house on the East Side in September.
Owner Pierre Pelegrin is likely to be there, changing out LPs during service: first T-Bone Walker, now Stevie Wonder, now the Stones. More than once, I saw Justine Gilcrease — Pelegrin's raven-haired wife, co-owner and muse — talking with regulars even as she entered the 'any day now' phase of expecting the couple's first child.
Along that stretch of dark wood in the far left corner of that dining room with a vaulted ceiling and burnt-red walls, I had a nice draft glass of French lager beer called Kronenbourg 1664, dry with a hint of malt and a soft bead ($4), and a Kir Royale cocktail with sparkling French wine and black currant liqueur ($7).
From that same bar's wine list, tailored and short like a Thom Browne suit, I've ordered a bottle of Castelmaure Corbieres Col des Vents red wine from France for $28, with fat, ripe fruit on the palate, with some spice on the finish. On one visit, a glass of the house Côtes du Rhône tasted oxidized, like the bottle had been open too long. My waitress made a smooth swap for a similar style and reported back to me that the bar agreed.
The bar is the soul of this crowded little place, still metaphorically wide-eyed at its instant success. But the beating heart of Justine's is the food, an uncomplicated primer in French bistro classics brought to life by chef Josh Lopez: onion soup, salade niçoise, steak frites, duck confit, escargot.
One night at the bar, Pelegrin himself brought out the main course: a simple grilled snapper with beurre blanc ($18). In place of the haricots verts listed as a side on the menu, I had asked to substitute ratatouille, a complex stew of eggplant, red pepper, squash and onions. As he put down the plate, Pelegrin said that's how he had envisioned the dish in the first place. The fish and vegetables were cooked to perfect firmness, but both suffered from too much salt. The salt problem went away on a subsequent visit, making this rich ratatouille one of the best sides in the city.
I rhapsodized about the steak tartare in a 'First Impressions' report in September and in the Austin360 Dining Guide. And for good reason. The raw beef is fresh, cut to a perfect size for texture and cohesion without digressing into ground beef, spiced aggressively with garlic and pepper, topped with a luscious raw quail egg and served — for contrast in heat and texture — with crisp french fries, cut thin and sprinkled with salt and herb. It's a perfect dish and a solid value at $15.
The same can be said for the charcuterie plate ($14), with creamy duck liver mousse, a rillette of shredded pork and two slices of rabbit terrine, each with a different texture, each with a good balance of salt and spice, served with olives and cornichons for tart counterpoint.
In an escargot appetizer, a half-dozen for $6.50, the snails are remarkable neither for their texture nor flavor. They have a job to do: deliver butter, garlic and parsley. They clock in, render you an aromatic social outcast, then clock out.
One night on the humble patio in front, we jockeyed dishes around a Muppet-sized four-top. Timing was important for everything to fit on the table, and our waitress choreographed a dance of appetizers, main courses, wine service and dessert. She did more than that. She let us substitute ratatouille for french fries with a duck confit main course ($15), a leg quarter with crisp skin, the meat slightly overcooked but fragrantly spiced. And she suggested ordering a side dish to round out our scallop main course. She was right.
Even with two skewers of five medium-sized scallops layered with bacon, the coquilles St. Jacques ($16) needs some backup, something in addition to its lightly dressed salad of frisée. We added a generous dish of haricots verts for $5, the long beans sautéed crisp in butter, sprinkles of cheese and cracked black pepper.
If you're accustomed to coquilles St. Jacques being baked or broiled with cream sauce in scallop shells, this isn't that dish. These are seared scallops on a stick, with bacon — bacon that steals the show with crisp, sweet explosions of pork power cured by Lopez right there at the restaurant.
To start, a tender artichoke ($6.50) carries a hint of garlic from its cooking water. It's cut neatly in half, easy to peel, easy to dip in drawn butter, easy to share. French onion soup ($6.50) bubbles with deep broth, a blanket of mild white cheese and a riot of onions.
For dessert, the crème brûlée ($5) has a top like cracked sugar-ice on a pond of pure egg-and-vanilla custard. A slice of chocolate pear tart ($5) is flat and dry with a thin layer of baked pear on top and a crust that loses its cohesion at the fork's first touch. Where it fails in texture and appearance, the tart succeeds with a dark-chocolate richness, like a truffle with crunch.
But there were service issues on the patio. The outdoor table still carried a day's worth of grit and dirt when we sat down. Then the waitress scolded me for saying, 'Yes, ma'am.'
How colossally inconsiderate of me. We laughed about it, awkwardly. But nobody was kidding, not really.
'For anybody under 30, that's really insulting,' she said. 'Really insulting'? Unless I'm calling you names we can't print in the paper, ma'am, consider keeping your twenty-something indignation to yourself.
Oddly, that service issue tells me that Justine's is, for better or for worse, growing comfortable with the ringing in the ears that comes with being the newest funky-fancy place east of the interstate. It's hitting the marks, some of them with style, some of them with salt, all of them with attitude.
4710 E. Fifth St. 385-2900, www.justines1937.com.
Rating (casual dining): 8.1 out of 10
Hours: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. (dinner until 1:30 a.m.) daily except Tuesday (closed).
Prices: Starters $6.50 (escargot, artichoke) to $14 (charcuterie, cheese plate). Soups and salads $5.50-$12. Main courses $15 (duck confit, pork chop) to $18 (snapper). Desserts $5.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Beer, wine and cocktails. The mostly French wine list includes five reds, four whites, two rosés and two champagnes, ranging from $22 to $32 a bottle (except for the $80 Veuve Clicquot champagne). Most are available by the glass ($6-$8).
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the ratings mean: The average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value