In more than two years as this paper's restaurant critic, I've chased my own definition of five stars: "An extraordinary restaurant experience from start to finish." When I found it at Congress, I had doubts. Not about Congress, but my own metrics.
Has it been in business long enough? Congress opened barely in time to celebrate New Year's Eve, but it's hardly this team's first party. Chef David Bull was a star when he left the Driskill Grill in 2007 for the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas, but he's rejoined now by a cadre of Driskill expats that includes Rebecca Meeker as chef de cuisine, manager Scott Walker, a handful of servers and line cooks and Jeff Trigger, who heads the La Corsha group behind Congress, Bar Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen. Bull calls it a restaurant family reunion.
Given Congress' narrow pricing options — $65 for three courses or $95 to $125 for seven courses — am I equating cost with quality? There's some correlation, but dollar signs aren't the only measure of real value.
Is Congress really one star above Uchi, Uchiko and the Carillon, the only places I've rated four stars? Right now, yes. And here's why.
The prix fixe experience calls for a surrender of control, like when fate puts you at dinner with your girlfriend's ex, and he orders for the whole table without looking at the menu, and everything is great. No threat, tough guy. It just confirms what great taste she has, right?
Surrender doesn't mean being part of a science fair project at Congress. Bull renders balanced flavors from familiar foods, cooked and composed with elegant precision: American caviar with a smooth, sweet mousse of carrot and orange zest. Beef short rib ravioli, deeply savory, with burrata cheese that skirts the line between liquid and solid but defies that ambiguous state with full cream flavor bouncing off deep brown bordelaise sauce. Meat cut from the marbled rib-eye cap, rolled into a tight cylinder, finished with an espresso rub and smoked caramel sauce more savory than sweet, alongside buttery potato puree as smooth as a baby's blanket.
Smart, simple flavors rolled through gnocchi with a light sear that gave them full figured density but left the smooth potato flavor intact. Plated with shredded oxtail that had a pleasant rustic twang without aggressive gaminess, the dish was a small expression of meat and potatoes, finished with a delicately cooked quail egg. Veal sweetbreads were constituted into a rectangular slice, seared crisp on the outside, velvety inside with goat cheese for creamy accord. Micro-thin slices of green tomato brought a slightly acidic, grassy counterpoint.
The lamb chops were cooked a shade past medium-rare, with a salted crust and a tactful display that avoided being fussy. It was plated with strips of roasted salsify, a rustic root vegetable that gave a simple foundation for flavors from candied oranges and a cardamom-infused yogurt that referenced the Mediterranean. We gnawed the bones to a smooth museum ivory.
A disc of cool foie gras with toasted brioche and Minus 8 vinegar as direct as fortified wine raised the stakes. The heat of my breath was enough to release flavors more subtle than the iron hand of seared foie. Iron hand, meet velvet glove. It's a $24 upcharge on either menu.
Subtlety reigned over velvety hamachi (a kind of Japanese snapper), without the heavy-handed citrus that so often defines raw-fish preparations. Razor-thin red chiles and hearts of palm added zest and texture, topped with a neat shoelace bow of sesame soba noodles. Escolar took the form of three precise cylinders formed by browned chicken skin, a surf dish with turf flavor assists from chicken jus and bacon, although on a menu where pork is notably recessive, I wouldn't have missed the bacon.
Only one dish got lost in its collection of elements, a yellowtail with a trio of similar textures from peas, pistachios and bread crumbs, cradled by foam I couldn't make out. It was hardly a failure, just not as precise as the rest.
Pastry chef Plinio Sandalio has created dessert menus for both restaurants, and a trio of his creations is a $22 option at Congress. We sampled grapefruit sorbet with Campari pop rocks, more for snap-crackle-pop than flavor, which I didn't pick up among the astringent and sweet grapefruit in its icy and au naturel forms. A thick coin of dense, dark chocolate brought a liquid white chocolate center, finished with a dot of raspberry, toasted hazelnuts and a shard of something like chocolate-hazelnut stage glass called gianduja. A favorite was fried sweet potato beignets sprinkled with chicory, served with pecan brittle and salted butter ice cream, plus a suggestion of coffee, in case you weren't picking up on the Cafe du Monde vibe.
A wine odyssey through a three-course dinner tells the story of the Congress experience.
I told sommelier June Rodil we had $50 to spend on wine, and we'd rather not ask one bottle to do the heavy lifting across three courses. There are bottles at that price point in most of the categories, and I would have been happy with a Baudry Chinon Les Granges cabernet franc ($44) or a Bodegas LAN Reserva Spanish red ($42).
But before we could ask, Rodil offered to compose a tasting — small pours matched to each dish. First, she brought Divine Droplets sake from Japan to complement hamachi sashimi with avocado and grapefruit. Then French rosé (Chateau de Trinquevedel 2008) for a tailored square of beef tartare braced with horseradish, a few microns of shaved black truffle and fried oysters.
She brought 2007 MacPhail pinot noir from California with lobster bisque, which started as a fat circle of tomato jam with chopped lobster, over which the waitress poured a hot, creamy soup base for us to incorporate with a lobster-ricotta cheese fritter. It was by turns sweet, salty and rich, and the MacPhail kept pace with earthy aromatics and a long, deep finish.
For seared scallops with smoky pork lardons and apple-bacon marmalade, Rodil poured a French chenin blanc (Francois Pinon Vouvray 2008) whose acidity and bright tangerine fruit amplified the dish's seaside smokehouse profile.
Out came a California cabernet sauvignon (Terra Valentine Spring Mountain 2006) for a rib-eye loin with garlic puree and foie gras beurre rouge that held the big flavors in reserve just long enough to let the beef express itself. For the Romanesque decadence of braised veal cheek and manicured veal tenderloin, Rodil went with a Lebanese red (Chateau Musar Hochar 2003) with the quirky aromatics of a cedar chest sachet.
We ordered dessert, and Rodil brought a bonus wine, this time a tokaji from Hungary (Disznoko 4 Puttonyos) with an air of rose petal and orange to go with a pound cake ($10) that incorporated four big flavors. Long, thin slices of pound cake pulsed with star anise, flanked by dark drops of sesame pudding, scatterings of orange and a "toast sorbet" that tasted exactly like its name.
The kitchen also sent an after-dinner drink, of sorts: a petite bourbon milk shake at once creamy and cool and shimmering with high-proof heat, topped like a cocktail with a sweet-potato beignet on a toothpick.
It was one of the most complete dinner experiences I've ever had, ministered to by a sommelier with a sense of humor and a wicked palate.
Plates disappeared the moment they became afterthoughts and the next course settled in, all of it on china nicer than most of us have in that living room hutch we hardly ever open. Elegant and balanced flatware was changed at each course, water glasses filled with micromanagerial zeal. Little plates of yeast rolls soft as Bundt cake shuttled in, and crumbs never stayed on the starched tablecloths long enough to threaten our sleeves.
One waiter was lithe and decisive. This or that? Most definitely that, and here's why, and not just because it's my favorite. During a seven-course tasting on another night, when we asked to substitute a dish from the three-course menu, our waitress brought both dishes. Every interaction was cordial without being overly familiar, deferential without condescension, each of more than 30 dishes over three visits described in careful detail.
Yes, 30-plus dishes. Don't bother with the math, because it included little off-menu opening volleys such as parsnip custard and final flourishes such as cashew panna cotta, plus a few small courtesies, one of them a grapefruit sorbet offered as a palate cleanser between a heavy third course and a nuanced dessert.
The dining room at Congress caters more to your comfort than to a contemporary urban design esthetic. The wingback chairs and banquette seats defining the beige-and-white space are upholstered from back to bottom. A wood-framed service alcove at the front puts you in the mind of the waiting room of a high-end spa. A band of mirrors gives a broken horizon view of the space just above your head. Minimalist chandeliers hang from towering ceilings like mobiles for progressive new parents. The music mix favors anybody who appreciates equally a Led Zeppelin deep cut ("That's the Way") or a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club cover of "Dirty Old Town," and it seemed to fade in just when the food or a good wine rendered us into silence.
Expensive restaurants come with a higher risk-to-reward ratio. Unhappy with your $8 trailer lunch, your $10 burger, your $1.89 breakfast taco? You'll get over it. Blow a couple hundred on a bad experience, it leaves a mark.
Processing the value equation at Congress, I wish the three-course dinner offered a dessert option, and that the portion sizes could be adjusted to sand off the last ragged remainders of appetite. I'd rather not have cheese as one of seven courses, because I can buy cheese at the store; I can only get David Bull here. And when caviar and lobster salad raise the seven-course price from its baseline $95 to $125, I'm looking for an opt-out clause.
But those are the dying gasps of weak objections, because Congress performed gracefully at every price point. Easy for me to say when my boss is picking up the tab, right? Well, one of those visits I made on my own dime, and the hard swallow that came with the $200 bill gave way to what I felt after the expense-account dinners. Something like wonder, something measured best by the language of stars, all five of them.
200 Congress Ave. at the Austonian. 827-2760, www.congressaustin.com/congress .
Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Prices: Three-course prix fixe menu $65. Seven-course prix fixe menu $95-$125, $50 more with wine pairings. Add-ons include caviar ($36), foie gras ($24), a cheese course ($12), three-course dessert tasting ($22) and individual desserts ($10). Menus posted on the website daily at 5 p.m.
Payment: All major cards
Parking: $8 valet in front of the Congress Avenue entrance.
Alcohol: Sommelier June Rodil's wine list covers 21 pages and includes 232 reds ($40-$1,594) , 107 whites ($34-$524) , 18 champagnes ($82-$436), nine sparkling wines ($38-$98), six rosés ($44-$76), 26 dessert wines $38-$588 and 19 half-bottles (two champagnes, seven whites, 10 reds, $46-$110), with more than 30 by the glass ($9-$20), plus two sakes ($10-$18) and seven dessert wines by the glass ($8-$18). Cocktails and beer from Bar Congress (see story, page 7).
Wheelchair access: Yes.
What the star ratings for fine dining mean:
: 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.