A year ago, I stood with Sandra Bullock in the dusty shell of a building she owns on West Sixth Street that was being turned into a coffee shop, florist and sandwich deli called Walton's Fancy and Staple.
It was a bright February day, and we had walked to Walton's from Bess, Bullock's bistro just across the street, to talk about how Austin was her real and actual home, and weren't those two restored buildings and her handful of other properties proof enough of that? That same morning, I'd heard a TV report that she'd signed on to do a movie called 'The Blind Side,' about how a rich family adopts a poor kid from the streets who becomes a pro football player.
A year later, that dusty shell is a fully functioning flower-shop cafe that smells like a barista's wedding, and Sandra Bullock has an Academy Award nomination for 'The Blind Side.'
Like her character with the molasses-in-July accent, Bullock has a missionary's penchant for bending raw material to her will. We won't know until March 7 whether she's an official Best Actress, but we can check her restaurants to see how her investments are performing.
Walton's Fancy and Staple
In my prison movie with the Morgan Freeman voice-over, the Walton's Monte Cristo would be the death-row sandwich. 'When my day comes,' he'd say in an avuncular baritone, 'tell them to pile ham and turkey and Swiss four fingers high on sweet challah bread, dip it in batter and fry it crispy on the edges, with powdered sugar and strawberry-onion jam, heavy on the onion.'
No other sandwich would get the big endorsement deal, but Walton's has developed into a solid lunch destination since it opened in May. The space is a bright and airy parlor of exposed bricks and wooden beams with little tables sharing a fragrant urban junglescape with flower and plant arrangements and Bullock-branded Bessence candles. A side room still bears the painted remains of a wall-sized ad for gum.
The sandwich board carries deli standards, including tender hot pastrami ($6.85) with grain mustard and tiny pickles on crisp rye bread baked in-house, the same bread that comes with a patty melt of pedigreed Niman Ranch beef grilled with onions and Emmentaler cheese. That sandwich was sweet, savory and crisp, but not a great value at $9 with no sides. A 'spicy' chicken sandwich ($7.25) bore the taste and lines of the grill, but somewhere among the smashed avocado and sun-dried tomato, the spice lost its nerve.
Rye (again) surrounded an Italian cold-cut sandwich ($8.50) of sopressata , pepperoni, pastrami and mozzarella. The taste of rye knocked things out of balance for me, especially because I'm used to more pepper, more oil and more spice, not to mention a hoagie roll, on an Italian sandwich. You can choose other breads - country white, baguette, sourdough, even hoagie, among others. In fact, you can buy a stellar little loaf of brown, crusty pretzel bread by itself for $2.25. In short, Walton's can bake.
The bakery side of Walton's turned out the best version of a strawberry Pop-Tart I've ever eaten, a little 75-cent rolled pastry called a rugeleh . From the same case came a dense salted-oat cookie ($2.25) that was crisp outside, soft inside, plus a tart blackberry pie in miniature for $4.50. I wasn't as enchanted by a stiff red velvet cupcake for $2, and a tower of chocolate mousse ($6.50) reminded me of eating Nutella out of a jar: a good taste, but a sticky texture more like icing. But those were minor setbacks amid a fantasy array of first-class fudge, macaroons, croissants and sweet-potato whoopie pies, the master plan for which was devised by Bullock's sister, the 'Master Baker' memoirist Gesine Bullock-Prado.
From the deli case, a quartet of four salads ($8) included a nice fruit mix, a tuna salad with big dill flavors, a bland egg salad that earned extra points for being sliced rather than whipped and a blend of ripe papaya chunks and mealy chicken. A salad of greens, pecans, goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette called 'The Local' was a solid deal paired for $7.75 with half a turkey sandwich on croissant with bacon, cheese and caramelized apple and onion.
The coffee at Walton's is modeled on the creamy, atomically bitter Italian style. On opening day, with a hired-gun coffee whiz at the machine, a latte ($3.30) was crowned by a foamy, striated palm leaf. Nine months later, the presentation had lost its flair, but the coffee itself was transformational, even the plain old drip coffee to go.
Walton's Fancy and Staple
609 W. Sixth St. 542-3380, www.waltonsfancyandstaple.com.
Rating: 6.8 out of 10
Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Soup and salads $2.50-$3.75. Sandwiches $5.25-$9. Pastries and desserts range from 75 cents for rugeleh and $2 for cupcakes to $2.25 for big cookies and $6.50 for a dense tower of chocolate mousse.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: None. But there's a full menu of coffee and espresso drinks, plus juices, Maine Root sodas, Dublin Dr Pepper, Mexican Coke and Sweet Leaf Tea.
Wheelchair access: Call ahead. The entrance is on the sidewalk, but the main door is heavy and sticks.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value
Bess Bistro on Pecan
In his galloping history of New York City restaurants called `Appetite City,' the former New York Times food critic William Grimes describes the chop houses, oyster saloons and lobster palaces that fed New Yorkers everything from lamb chops to turtle soup to roses with cheese and mayonnaise.
Maybe it's the gas flames flickering in the wall sconces or the flight of stairs leading down to the dining room just below street level, but Bess Bistro on Pecan puts me in the mind of dining at the dawn of the 20th century. Inside, a pair of dining alcoves looks as if they were hewn from horse stalls, and brick pillars stand like tree trunks with upholstered bases in the dim space of the main dining room, ringed by yellowed prints of dapper men who no doubt sounded like Stewie on 'Family Guy.'
In 2006, Bess was notched into the vault space below the century-old Stratford Arms building that Sandra Bullock owns. It's a carefully tailored atmosphere, no detail too small to be meticulous, whether it be the curtains on brass rods between the booths or the grate over the eye-level sidewalk window with a 'B' in the center. (Except for the pulsing 'oonf-tse' of the beat-heavy techno music. I doubt anybody wants to hear ragtime piano, either, but the incongruity of the music with the design is striking, and louder than it needs to be.)
The menu is a self-conscious mix of high and low cuisines: a hopelessly bland open-faced croque monsieur sandwich on thick rye bread with ham, creamy bechamel and Gruyère cheese ($9.95, including fries); half of an over-roasted chicken with toasty skin, an almost tart beurre rouge sauce and a sautéed hash of fingerling potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and wild mushrooms ($16.50); a small but savory beef tenderloin on truffled mashed potatoes with asparagus and mushrooms for a bill-topping $30.
In the 'Appetite City' spirit, we opened one dinner with six Blue Point oysters on the half-shell ($14) served on ice with spicy red sauce and horseradish. Bess won't steal the oyster crown from Perla's or Parkside, but they were fine. Not so fine was a pan of mushy pumpkin risotto with mussels and shrimp ($26), a dish that also listed saffron, crab and bass, none of which I could taste or see in the speakeasy glow.
Creole Shrimp Bess ($11.25) stood as a contender for the night's best dish with a garlicky sauce that gives grilled ciabatta all the excuse it ever needed to exist. In fact, the bread at Bess is an event, seeing that it comes from the well-tuned ovens at Walton's across the street. In the bread basket: brioche, multigrain, baguette, all with butter so honey-dripped you can taste the sting. The challah bun on the Bess Burger ($9.50, including fries) is so good, so Pac-Man fat that it swallows the meat. The fries were salty and sweet (fresh and hot one visit, another time cold and stiff), addictive with a side of chipotle ketchup.
The bread showed up again in a chocolate-pecan bread pudding ($6.95) that proves the unified theory of why it's better to go ahead and dump your ice cream right on top instead of leaving it in the dish: nothing softens up pie, cake or bread pudding like sweet, melting ice cream.
Killer pastry struck again in the buttery, flaky crown on a skillet-sized chicken pot pie ($11.50), at once humble and sublime with rich herbed gravy, tender chicken and sweet peas. In that same simple vein, we were impressed by the clean crunch, firm bite and layered flavors of fried green tomatoes ($5). They certainly stood out against a backdrop of oversalted and expendable sides like mac and cheese, hard specks of cauliflower with bread crumbs and a gummy dish of spaetzle.
Service was sharp, funny and attentive on one visit, our waitress sharing our pain as a loud neighboring table talked about autopsies. But on another trip, our waiter seemed distracted and unwilling or unable to talk about the food in detail, and as dinner lingered on, we had to flag him down to clear plates, show us the dessert tray and settle up. On that dessert tray, another jewel: a small cheesecake ($6.95) with rosemary and goat cheese, almost therapeutically aromatic on a ginger-crumb crust.
When I talked with Bullock in February 2009, she was hardly the disengaged, absentee innkeeper. In fact, she had just finished tasting through and working with the latest menu at Bess. But the everyday gremlins of consistency, quality and execution are hard to satisfy, no matter who the boss may be.
500 W. Sixth St. 477-2377, www.bessbistro.com.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily with variable late-night dining hours. Brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: At lunch, sandwiches are $8.50-$9.95, soup and salads $4.95-$16 and main courses $10-$16.50. At dinner, starters are $10-$14, soup and salads $4.95-$15.95 and main courses are $9.50-$30. Brunch is $8-$14.95. Desserts average $7.
Payment: All major cards.
Alcohol: Full bar. Classic cocktails (mojitos, Sazeracs, mint juleps, margaritas, gin Rickeys) run $7-$10. More than 20 beers, with a handful on draft. The wine list carries about 35 reds ($32-$343), 17 whites ($30-$83) and 11 sparklers ($35-$170). About 25 by the glass ($7-$12).
Wheelchair access: Call ahead. The main entrance is down a flight of stairs just below street level.
What the rating means:
: Food, service, atmosphere and value suffer flaws on every level.
: Serious room for improvement, with a few bright spots.
: A good overall experience. Clear mission, solid execution.
: Excellent across the board. Perfect in some areas, with only a few small distractions.
: An extraordinary restaurant experience from start to finish.