Mulberry: The wine bar that roared
With Zack Northcutt in the kitchen, by-the-glass with some muscle to back it up
Maybe it's not my place to suggest where Mulberry chef Zack Northcutt fits in, because the man could probably cook any menu put in front of him.
In a phone interview, he expressed nothing but total resonance with the Mulberry mission as a cosmopolitan wine bar with a menu that knows how to behave in polite company. But somewhere in there is a culinary brawler who wouldn't mind landing a few roundhouse punches now and then.
This is the same bald buccaneer who dragoons fellow chefs into a monthly bacchanalia called Meaty Monday Madness, who has a ‘Praise the Lard' swine tattoo, who plates a barrel-chested trio of pork belly steaks ($14) seared to maximum gain, then puts them on top of cucumbers and cold lentils just to see if you're paying attention.
We'll likely be paying attention when Northcutt opens a new spot with Mulberry partner Michael Polombo on West Sixth Street called Haddington's, a concept Northcutt describes as a ‘rustic American tavern with British influences.' When Northcutt starts cooking at Haddington's, he plans to promote sous chef Jacob Weaver to take over at Mulberry.
But let's slow down. Right now the Haddington's site is just a fenced-off slab. ‘Realistically, if we have a New Year's party there, I'll be pleasantly surprised,' Northcutt said.
Polombo is also a partner with another Mulberry co-owner, Lawrence Bondulich, in two New York restaurants: Bin 71 and Barcibo Enoteca. The two are similar to Mulberry in menu, Web presence and appearance, especially Bin 71, which by all accounts has the same biscuit-box footprint as Mulberry. Bin 71 could have been airlifted from its perch on Columbus Avenue and scooted into position at the base of the 360 Condominiums in 2008 to create Mulberry, with slight modifications by Austin restaurant designer Michael Hsu.
All the blond wood and spartan white walls make the place look unfinished, like sitting in the work-in-progress wine cellar of a wealthy friend. The kitchen looks about as big as a puppet theater, and a thick square column at stage-left behind the bar creates what concert promoters would call ‘obstructed view' tickets. The hard-cornered barstools are uniquely uncomfortable, and seats along a marble ledge against the front wall feel like places you'd be sent for being naughty.
My best times there have been sitting along the rail on the small patio outside, drinking Argentinian torrontes and nursing small plates like crostini with cured coppa and tangy Gorgonzola drizzled with honey ($8) and watching people file past with their dogs. Or working through a cold Bitburger beer and a burger layered with Gruyère cheese, crispy pancetta and a yolky fried egg on fat, crusty bread ($14).
I learned a critic's lesson when Northcutt made a deep, sardonic e-mail bow of apology for that same burger after I tossed it off in another review as ‘underseasoned.' The lesson? You can do better by a chef's work than leaning on that lazy adjective. In my defense, I also called it a ‘thinking man's bacon cheeseburger,' which it still is, though fully seasoned this time with salt, pepper and sarcasm, possibly.
The menu doesn't explain much, so be sure to ask. You'll find out that the FoieBerry burger ($8) is a slider-sized blend of beef and foie gras with a reduction of berries and Sauternes for four big bites of deep, tannic savory and sour-edged sweet. You'll find out that Devils on Horseback ($8) are four toothpicks' worth of muscular candied bacon packing Mission figs stuffed with Gorgonzola, refined enough for your business dinner but secretly barbaric enough for you. (I'll suggest a glass of Mano a Mano Manon Spanish tempranillo for the FoieBerry and sparkling Gruet rosé from New Mexico for the Devils.)
A dish of black cod ($21) needs little explanation. Fish seared to a firm, scalloped flake with a velvet center beneath an understated beurre blanc sauce, plated with stalks of asparagus and crisp potatoes. For some it will recall Northcutt's time at Will Packwood and Sam Dickey's sincere but short-lived study in fish technique called 7 on South Congress Avenue.
But where the squab came from I have no idea. This must be what eating that little endangered ortolon bird is like. It's almost as petite, just four delicate pieces of seared meat and bone on blue cheese polenta with roasted shallots and root vegetables for $28. The flavor and texture? Tender and a little smoky-sweet with an edge of the unfamiliar, counterbalanced with the ear-ringing whang of blue cheese. It's an emblematic dish for Mulberry, precocious and expensive like you'd expect from an urbanoid wine bar, swaggering with the how-you-like-me-now ethos you'd expect from Northcutt.
It's like the old joke: Where does Zack Northcutt fit in? Wherever he wants to.
360 Nueces St. 320-0297, www.mulberry austin.com .
Rating:7.5 out of 10
Hours: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. daily. Brunch 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The bar is open until 1 a.m. daily, until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Prices: Snacks and starters $3 (toasted almonds) to $8 (Devils on Horseback, crostini with coppa and Gorgonzola). Oysters $3 each, minimum of six. Cheeses and cured meats $6-$21. Sandwiches and salads $6-$12. Main courses $11-$28. Desserts $8-$9.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Beer, wine and sake. Mulberry is above all a wine bar, and there are more than 175 bottles to prove it: 95-plus reds, almost 60 whites, nine sparklers and a handful of rosés and dessert wines, ranging from $24 to $245. About 25 by the glass, $6-$17. Four beers on draft: Firemans #4, Bitburger, Chimay White, Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA and Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse.
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