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Texas French Bread brings promise to the table for dinner

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Most restaurants don't get a second act.

Almost 30 years after their parents opened the original Texas French Bread near the University of Texas, Murph and Ben Willcott decided to take the Austin institution in a bold new direction.

Judy and Paul Willcott opened the original Texas French Bread near the University of Texas in 1981. In a town populated at the time with greasy burger joints, Tex-Mex and barbecue, the bakery's popular fresh breads and baked goods marked an aspirational shift in the Austin food scene.

Over the next several decades, the store expanded its menu and added eight locations around the city. But the exponential growth proved untenable. Three years ago, the Willcott brothers, who bought the business from their mother in 2007, decided to close two of the remaining three locations to focus on their flagship store on Rio Grande Street.

It was time for Texas French Bread to reinvent itself.     

With an eye on broadening the restaurant's offerings, the native Austinites hosted semi-monthly private supper club parties for several years. The popularity of those dinners, which featured local produce and proteins purchased at farmers markets, led the Willcotts' to re-examine the mission of Texas French Bread. Last spring the brothers expanded dinner service to six nights a week.

In a town often obsessed with ideas of "old" and "new" Austin, Texas French Bread represents the city's past and the possibilities of its future.

The bakery in the taupe brick building on the corner of Rio Grande and 29th streets has been in the Texas French Bread family since 1987. In the evening, the bright, airy space with orange window frames and lighted-glass cases dims. With heavy curtains drawn over the restaurant's many windows, the cozy space embraces diners. The red neon "dinner" sign above the door softly illuminates the dining room with the help of candlelight at each table, and the lampposts on the corner of the narrow streets make you feel as if you've just stepped into a bistro in a busy Paris neighborhood. The mix of Jackson Browne and John Coltrane on the stereo plays at a volume loud enough to provide ambience without overwhelming the conversations of an eclectic group of diners populated one recent weeknight with older couples, anxious college daters, local musicians and a world-class athlete.

The menu is small, generally fewer than a dozen items, and changes daily. Several dishes such as pappardelle make regular appearances, their flavors varied by accompanying vegetables or proteins. The bottom of the menu lists the farms and ranches featured on that day's menu. It's not just locavore posturing. The names change at each dinner in synch with what is being served. Last year the Growers Alliance of Central Texas placed Texas French Bread in the top three restaurants that buy directly from the farms or from the farmers at farmers markets.

Savory chicken stock provides the base for a white bean soup ($8) that looks like a Monet painting, mantis green of celery leaf blending subtly with fibrous ecru beans and a slight sheen of olive oil. Rapini piled atop crunchy bruschetta ($11) is tender and fresh, though a bit unwieldy, its bitterness softened by creamy sheep's milk ricotta.

The first iteration of pappardelle ($16) we tried was indicative of the glories and trappings of Texas French Bread's commitment to simple, clean flavors. The long ribbons of handmade pasta were cooked well, as were the chickpeas, offering just enough resistance to the tooth. And the spinach and kale in the pesto were a startling deep emerald green. But the dish severely lacked flavor. Traditional pesto contains bright basil, the crunch of pine nuts and expressive garlic. With none of those flavors or textures present, this pesto arrived like a bland one-note blanket.

Though they were fresh and beautiful to look at, kale and spinach simply do not have the pop and power of basil. I can appreciate a twist with the absence of basil, but the dish still desperately needed more of the acid from lemon that was buried at the bottom of the bowl and would have benefited from saltiness by way of shaved Parmesan. On another visit, the pappardelle redeemed itself with rich, earthy flavors of cremini and porcini mushrooms.

The seasoning problems were even more glaring in the lentils, chard and turnips that came with the hanger steak ($21). We had to cordon the wet, unseasoned vegetables to a corner of the plate to keep them from interfering with the Niman Ranch beef that was cooked to a perfect amaranth medium rare. We could taste no seasoning in the vegetables. I appreciate the desire to let fresh, local produce sing with little obstruction, but that does not mean one should be scared away from salt or pepper. The vegetables definitely needed to be drained longer, as the water threatened to make the plate inedible.

Leafy vegetables again took center stage in the creamy risotto ($15). Peppery kick from arugula punched up the slightly runny dish that featured stern palm-frond-sized chard that could have used a bit of chopping to help distribute the flavor in the dish.

All of the seasoning issues, from the pappardelle and steak-side veggies, melted into a distant memory at the first taste of the roasted poussin ($19). A buttery red wine punctuated with purposeful bits of pancetta soaked the small bird to the bone beneath a crackling russet skin. The slightly smoky chicken and tender fingerling potatoes and mushrooms were complemented perfectly by the piquant dark cherry flavors of a 2008 Paraduxx ($53) from Napa Valley we brought. (Texas French Bread is a BYOB establishment and charges a $6 corkage fee per bottle or six-pack.)

The black drum ($22) was featured on the menu on both of our dinner visits. And the reasons for its popularity are clear. The flaky fish from the Gulf of Mexico was moist on the inside and crispy on the outside, the cauliflower carried warm tastes of roasted garlic and the sweet potatoes had the perfect blend of salt and butter.

P.E.I. mussels ($13) are another example of Texas French Bread's skilled hand with seafood cooking and seasoning. Hints of coconut milk and white wine give complexity to a lightly creamy curry sauce that never threatens to weigh down the sweet, tender mussels.

Unfortunately we had to set the mussels aside halfway through the dish, as our entrees arrived too quickly. This meant alternating between appetizer and main course, trying to keep each from going cold while confusing our palates. Service that night was borderline comical. The restaurant was slammed on a Monday, but that was no excuse for the lack of attention paid our table. Barren plates and empty water glasses stood as a testament to server indifference, as our table was passed dozens of times by distracted and aloof servers.

Another night, however, we received some of the best service we've had in town. A knowledgeable and attentive server helped with entrée selections and paired a dish to go with the wine we brought. After being alerted to a clerical error with the bill, our corkage fee was removed and we were sent home with a couple of muffins.

But who needs muffins when there are homemade desserts from Texas French Bread? The decadent, moist Hyde Park fudge cake ($6), which has been a favorite at Texas French Bread since the early '80s, is rich and simple. A thin ganache covers the outside of the dense, chewy cake that comes with two small slices with strawberries and whipped cream, like a culinary Valentine's card. The cake, which is about as close to legend as any dessert in this town, is rivaled by a silky butterscotch pudding ($7) that's topped with a layer of salty caramel and served in a jar. The desserts, along with the always fresh bread, excellent sandwiches (the Italian TFB would make my top-10 list) and salads served at lunch, prove that Texas French Bread has not lost any of its original DNA. The West Campus neighborhood stalwart still knows how to do well what made them famous, but they are also proving adept at staying current in the expanding world of farm-to-table meals. Texas French Bread still has some adjustments to make to service and seasoning as it settles into its new role of full-service restaurant, but there is a strong sense that the Willcotts' vision will shepherd them through the rough spots.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

Texas French Bread