While the high-tone Congress resets Austin's restaurant GPS, its more casual Second Bar + Kitchen sibling is … recalculating.
It's possible to have four very different experiences at Second: peak lunch, no-fly-zone lunch, late dinner and barstool.
At peak lunch, you're sitting inside at noon, in one of the cushioned booths or along a high-backed blue banquette as the white-aproned crew swirls around you. You order pepperoni soup ($6), and it's rustic and filling, bubbling with chunks of bread and pepperoni in marinara with deep tomato flavor, finished with mozzarella that pulls like a silky loom. It comes out fast from a place of urgency, just like the Congress Burger ($12).
The burger ($12) is coarsely ground, more juicy than fatty. More fat might hold it together better, but you wouldn't trade the flavor, so good with luxuriant Gruyère cheese and a touch of sweet shallots that you don't need any of the sauces from petite side bowls. You find reasons to ask for more horseradish pickles (a reverse allergy, a scavenger hunt, or else). You realize Second isn't doing itself any favors with the side of waffle-cut potato chips (gaufrettes). On three different dishes, they're acrid and overcooked. But they look good, standing in a glass lined with old paper menus.
Maybe you have a Jester King Wytchmaker or Thirsty Planet Buckethead beer, because the small size is only three or four bucks, and it's lunch, so you don't want to get carried away.
Peak lunch is so much better than no-fly-zone lunch at 2 p.m. on the Second Street patio, swallowed by the shadow of the Austonian tower. The hostess takes a phone call, seats a party that comes in after you, then stops at a side station before giving you the nod. And then you're in the limbo between lunch and dinner services, thinking, "If you're not going to staff up for that time between 2 and 5, then close. Everybody would understand."
The long service gap after an appetizer of eye-watering Buffalo fried pickle slices ($5) gives you time to notice things, like sun streaming into the uptown urban diner decor with its dark wood floors, like the heavy flatware and sturdy, straight-sided glassware that holds water from quart-size glass milk bottles, like a saucer-style white porcelain cup filled with good, roasty coffee. Like the cloth napkins, the dish-towel kind that leaves lint on your clothes.
When the pizza shows up with short rib and custardlike burrata cheese ($14), it's as beefy on top as the crust is crackling and somehow supple underneath, with spiking flavors of caramelized onion and roasted garlic ($14). And a dish with half a rotisserie chicken ($18) on black-eyed peas and greens with its crisp skin and fall-apart meat tastes too good to be true. And like that, it's gone from the evolving menu a week later. You push your luck with the kind-but-absentee waiter and order tiny square dessert bites of semisweet blue-cheese brûlée with apple butter ($2) and chocolatey sticky toffee pudding with bacon ice cream ($8) that tastes like fat left overnight in the pan, and finally the bill shows up and you're free.
At late dinner, a few prices have gone up, and the place is structured more like fine dining. Or a hospital after you've had a baby. A parade of people stop by, and you have no idea who some of them are, because not everybody makes an introduction, and every uniform is different: the bar guy with a fedora and giant wristwatch, the wine expert in business black, a manager in a suit, runners in T-shirts, one of whom cops an attitude over a harmless joke about the food. The waitress is your duty nurse, the one you turn to for comfort and advice.
You order nighttime dishes, things like a little casserole of pulled rabbit ($10) topped with mashed potatoes and cheese like a shepherd's pie. The standup dish of dressed romaine lettuce leaves next to it seems like an affectation, the same way a Gin & Jam cocktail really is just an $8 glass of cold gin with a jelly spoon stuck in it. And the little veal meatballs ($8) are overcooked and underseasoned ($8).
Pizza to the rescue again, with that perfect crust, this time finished with pomodoro, basil and mozzarella ($12), and you wonder why they don't make a bigger commotion over how good the pizza is. Or for that matter, the ravioli, firm pockets of pasta filled to bursting with goat and ricotta cheeses, with green olives and arugula, refreshing lemon notes and Meyer lemon gremolata for texture. It's a satisfying $10 dish, compromised only by its lukewarm temperature.
At night, your thoughts also turn to pressed pork shoulder with herb salad and mascarpone polenta ($20), because it tastes like gourmet carnitas, and you wish Second sent out bread to go with something so juicy, especially when it's perched on mascarpone polenta.
During a barstool visit to Second, sitting along the cool, white extended "L" where the service-industry people sit, all you want is a sandwich, and the fried-egg-and-avocado number ($11) is comfort on toasted bread: eggs that explode with yolk on the first bite, set off with sweet onion relish and pleasantly bitter sautéed escarole and slices of avocado. Plus, a good bartender makes a good waiter.
Figure out a time and an experience where you feel most comfortable. Because Second is doing the same exact thing.
Second Bar + Kitchen
200 Congress Ave. at the Austonian. 827-2750, www.congressaustin.com/second .
Rating: 7.1 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Sundays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Prices: The menu changes daily and from lunch to dinner. These prices are a sampling. Snacks and small plates $5-$16. Soups and salads $6-$14. Sandwiches $11-$12. Large plates $12-$28. Pizzas $12-$14. Desserts $6-$8. Two-bite desserts $2-$4.
Payment: All major cards
Parking: $8 valet parking outside the Second Street entrance of the Austonian.
Alcohol: The cocktails ($8-$12) and wines ($29-$98 a bottle and $7-$14 a glass) are a mash-up of the menus from Congress and Bar Congress, with whimsically named exclusives like a Sour Knight and Oaktown Beat-Down, plus a broader choice of wines in the $30 and $40 ranges, including wine on tap ($8 a glass, $32 a liter). Eight local and national microbrews on draft ($3-$9), another dozen in bottles ($5-$28).
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.