Jezebel's creator keeps hope alive with Simplicity and Braise
For followers of a downtown spot taken by fire, solace from a wine bar and a low-key bistro
This review was supposed to be about Restaurant Jezebel.
The little place downtown with all the giant paintings of naked ladies played host to a bellwether restaurant night for me. My brother was in town on business, and we sat by the windows and ate osso bucco and lobster bisque and brie-stuffed chicken and snails in sweet balsamic and drank two bottles of good wine. He said it reminded him of one of those grand old places in New Orleans, cut down to personal size.
But on July 26, fire destroyed the dining room, and Jezebel won't be coming back to Congress Avenue. Chef and owner Parind Vora says he'll have to move, that it would cost too much and take too long to reopen downtown. After standing with him among the charred ruins of his wine cabinets and dinner tables, I believe it. I'm not supposed to meet the people whose work I review, but the fire damage was something I had to see for myself. That's how I met Vora face-to-face, at the worst possible time, after so many phone conversations about grease traps and cooking in Spain and $500 bottles of wine.
But this review isn't about Restaurant Jezebel. It's about Vora's side projects, an inexpensive wine-and-tapas bar called Simplicity and a midpriced bistro called Braise, both of which opened this year. He put together the menus and staffs for both places but never intended to cook at either one every night like he did at Jezebel. Still, it's easy to play spot-the-influences.
Both places have concrete floors and dark-earth color schemes (like Jezebel). Both places are decorated with canvases by a single artist (like Jezebel). At both places, vegetarians will have something to eat besides salad (again, like Jezebel). Simplicity and Braise are cousin and son to the mother restaurant.
The cousin, Simplicity, builds a tapas menu around a wine list of about 80 value-conscious bottles, with 30 by the glass for no more than $8. The plates and utensils are disposable, from a local company called ToGoCo, and the wine glasses are sturdy glass tumblers.
What started as a flat $4.95 per-plate system - a screaming bargain for shrimp and grits or a fruit-and-cheese plate with chevre, manchego and bleu - has evolved into a three-tier system of plates for $4.95, $5.95 and $6.95. At the lower level, two simple skewers of spicy roasted sweet potatoes went well with a chilled Sicilian white, which also held up to hearts of palm wrapped in bacon like a barber's pole.
At the middle level, my favorite riesling from Idaho (yeah, I said it; it's gone now) was ideal for spicy Buffalo-style sauteed calamari, and sesame oil turned a watermelon salad with goat cheese into an aromatic sensation. The upper price level now includes the shrimp and grits and an exotic 'beggar's purse' of braised lamb and garlic in a pastry shell and a more grounded dish of chicken meatballs in sweet red-pepper coulis.
Simplicity lives up (and down) to its name. The white letters of the sign are set off against artificial turf. Signs on the window announce both free Wi-Fi and free sarcasm. Inside, there are deep sofas and high tables. Black-and-white posterized canvases of Green Day and Kings of Leon hang within smirking distance of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. The exhibits rotate according to the tastes of general manager Claire Hees, herself an accomplished painter.
Outside, there's no getting around the fact that you're sitting in a parking lot on Burnet Road. But the planter boxes around it are filled with green peppers and herbs, and a noseful of fresh mint and basil fixes just about anything. Maybe not cold pork satay skewers or a dried-out frittata-style tortilla Española. But the gaffes seemed like a small price for the exploratory possibilities and the occasional glimmers of Jezebel here.
A few miles to the east and a few steps up the culinary ziggurat lies Braise, in a section of East Sixth Street stamped from a quasi-contemporary gentrification mold that wouldn't be out of place in a Santa Fe suburb.
Inside, Braise reminded one of my guests of a little restaurant he knows in Belgium, about a dozen tables draped in white cloth, the walls covered with quirky paintings. Think 'Yellow Submarine' meets 'Moulin Rouge.' Braise is like Jezebel Jr., its menu a mélange of bistro classics (roasted chicken with white wine reduction and mashed potatoes so rich they tasted truffled) and defiantly out-of-category surprises (hot, rustic jerked pork with black beans sweetened by pineapple).
I say Jezebel Jr. because Braise doesn't layer its flavors with the same abandon as the mothership. Vora told me when Braise opened that he didn't intend for it to be Jezebel. Indulge me for a minute. An 'osso bucco' dish at Jezebel brought together beef cheeks and seared scallops, a dressed frisée salad, cumin-scented cauliflower and a sail of toasted Parmesan for $37. At Braise, the dish loses the scallops and garnish, adds mashed potatoes and drops the price by half. It also loses the complexity, but don't judge Braise chef Chris Kirby - whose credentials include Marcel's in Washington, D.C. - too harshly. It's hard to be Vic Damone when Sinatra is your opening act.
But Damone still landed a song on the 'Mad Man' soundtrack, and Kirby scored with an appetizer of sliced pork belly ($10.95) on collard greens, a dish both crispy and tender, salty and sweet, with a little sour edge from the greens and a Dijon sauce. A free glass of cold white wine made it even better. Braise is pouring free red or white wine (or Lone Star beer) with each course. Or you can bring your own bottle for a $10 corkage fee, for which the waiter decanted our bottle of red and brought an ice bucket and stand for our white.
The complimentary wine wasn't easy to come by on one visit as the service staff of two - including familiar Jezebel waiter and now Braise general manager Gary Hubbard III - wheeled among eight tables even as another party walked in. That meant empty plates stayed on the table too long and dessert was a long time coming, but the rush never interfered when we needed to ask questions about the food.
After one visit, I hadn't made up my mind about the menu. The osso bucco seemed a little high ($17.95) for the small portion, a chocolate-coffee mousse was harshly salted and the sprouts in a dish of caramelized Brussels sprouts with portobello mushrooms over Gorgonzola grits ($13.95) seemed barely cooked, let alone caramelized.
On a second visit, I took advantage of a half-plate option and ordered three main courses. When the half-dishes of jerked pork ($10.95), roasted chicken ($9.95) and blackened amberjack ($11.95, usually made with sea bass) came, I worried that we'd be charged for full plates, because the portions seemed about the same as our first, full-sized visit. And the fish was mind-altering, with a blackened spicy sear, flake-perfect inside, plated with a smoked tomato-and-corn butter sauce over creamy grits.
The chef came out to visit before dessert, and it turned out to be Parind Vora himself, filling in for Kirby after a bike accident. That likely explained the outstanding fish and the portion sizes, which Vora said he and Kirby have adjusted. (For the record, Vora said he didn't know I was there until after he made our food.) A chocolate-chip bread pudding came later, perfectly toasted outside and butter-soft inside, but by then the critic's mask was off.
So Braise for me is not a fully known quantity. I'm still getting to know Kirby's cooking. But the menu is solid, and there are far worse things than being compared to Jezebel, and few better things than trying to live up to it.
Simplicity Wine & Eats
4801 Burnet Road. 419-0200,
Rating: 8.1 out of 10
Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. 3 to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Three-tier pricing for tapas: $4.95 (bruschetta, garbanzo spread, sweet potato skewers), $5.95 (pork satays, calamari, French toast bread pudding), $6.95 (shrimp and grits, braised lamb in pastry). On Fridays, paella is $14.95 or two orders and a pitcher of sangria for $36.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Wine and beer. The value-oriented wine list carries about 40 reds ($14-$38) and 37 whites ($16-$35) plus a few sparkling wines and roses. Most bottles are in the $20s. Excellent wines for the money include Gruet Blanc de Noir sparkling for $25, Alamos malbec for $24 and Banfi Principessa gavi for $26. A separate list offers 10 or so wines in the $40-$75 range. About 30 by the glass ($5-$8). House wine is $7 for a two-glass carafe. Four beers on draft.
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
2121 E. Sixth St. 478-8700,
Hours: 6 to 10:30 pm. Mondays-Thursdays. 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Starting Oct. 29, Braise will serve lunch on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $7.95-$13.95. Main courses $8.95-$12.95 (half-plates), $13.95-$17.95 (full plates). Desserts $4.95-$7.95.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Complimentary wine or beer with food. BYOB for a corkage fee of $10 per bottle.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Jezebel Night: On Oct. 19, Braise (2121 E. Sixth St.) will host a Jezebel Night, with chef-owner Parind Vora cooking a five-course dinner for $99. Diners can bring their own wine without a corkage fee. Seatings start at 6 p.m. Reservations at 478-8700.
What the ratings mean: