(originally posted May 2014)
On a recent samedi soir I stepped off a busy street and was delivered into opulent surroundings that felt as though I had been teleported to a different country. Although I had not been here before, the elegance and intimate feel of this beautiful restaurant, Congress, seemed familiar to me and induced a sense of keen anticipation, not unlike being ushered into the modern sophistication of L’Astrance or Guy Savoy in Paris.
My awareness of fine food began at the relatively young age of 16 due entirely to a French restaurant, located on the top floor of Hotel Ponchartrain in a then thriving downtown area of Detroit. As I grew older I sought out haut cuisine in most every major city in America and later in other parts of the world, including France. While I do not consider myself a foodie, per se, I do so appreciate the culinary arts. Seldom do I write about food but there’s a reason for that – for me, wine takes precedence; yet, I do consider food to be one of life’s greatest pleasures.
However, to have an encapsulating, all-in, completely inimitable dining experience requires more than just extraordinary food and wine. It is a confluence of great food, great wine, unparalleled service, and an inspiring ambience that encourages comfort and conviviality. I think that there are a lot of very good chefs in America, and a handful of great chefs, so finding very good or excellent food is not as difficult as it once was, in some respects. When I was younger I had to travel further to find it, is all, to places like New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Today it’s also easy to find excellence in Austin, though not exactly commonplace.
Service is another matter. While in my early-twenties, I’ll never forget being simply dazzled and amazed sitting in a French restaurant by myself in DC having dinner. The food was exquisite, to be sure, but what I had not discovered until this point was the magic of truly great service. And to me, magic it was. The experience of setting my fork down after a course was finished and watching the dish and silver urgently vanish continued throughout the evening. My waiter was a traditionally trained older European gentleman that was at once, gracious, worldly, patient, and mostly invisible. I never knew where he came from or how he sensed that the table required service. Whenever I looked around he was nowhere to be seen – he just knew, and it was uncanny, setting a standard of sorts in the back of my mind. From my waiter, to the traditional sommelier with a tastevin around his neck, to the water service, I was attended to like a Kennedy. The number of times I have had such service I could count on one hand and I have been to some very nice restaurants.
Beginning with the wine list that has over five hundred expertly curated wines, the tone was set for a perfect evening at Congress. Paula Rester is the Director of Wine, a rock star sommelier, whom I’ve known and tasted wine with for a number of years. Her knowledge and experience are superb but what really knocks me out about her talent is her exceptional palate. Ms. Rester knows her wines, which is deftly illustrated by perusing her wine list or, having the privilege of tasting wine with her. A wine list like that always elicits from me first, salivation, followed by a long sigh, followed by the soliloquy that there really is too little time. Needless to say the wine selection, the wines themselves, and wine service were flawless and of course, for me, all of those parts contribute to defining the difference between having a very good dinner or having a great dinner.
We started off with a glass of Clos Cibonne Tibouren 2012 rosé from Provence that was absolutely delicious, redolent of strawberries but with a bigger body than most rosé, it being richly textured and balanced. Due to the sheer diversity of the menu and hoping it would work well with that mélange, I ordered a bottle of Nicolas Rossignol Clos de Angles (Volnay) Premier Cru 2009 and this Burgundy was drinking perfectly, as Paula confirmed it would before I ordered it. Even though it was far from the most or least expensive bottle, it turned out to be the right call and paired so well with everything: Seared Hamachi, Steak Tartare, Tête de Cochon, Veal Breast Ravioli, Seared Skate, and Prime Ribeye. In between the rosé and the Burgundy, glasses of Weingut Hexamer 2011 Spätlese Riesling were brought to the table because Paula liked how it paired well with the Ora King Salmon dish. It was indeed a brilliant pairing because the two delicious but disparate elements amplified the other. That’s what excellent food and wine pairings are supposed to do but often fall short at the hands of less experienced sommeliers. All dishes were multi-dimensional, nuanced, and magnificently prepared and presented, including the dessert: Carrot Cake Pain Perdu with gingersnap, candied orange, walnut, and cream cheese ice cream. How could a meal like this not be incredible? It was.
Throughout the entire dinner, table service from Andre Hall was exemplary, reminding me of the great service I’ve relished in the past and haven’t seen enough of in the present. This combined with brief but very pleasant conversations with Ms. Rester, General Manager John Forest, and renowned Partner/Executive Chef David Bull, all made for a truly memorable evening of fine dining.
Congress cuisine is cutting-edge, yet grounded in tradition, exemplifying the best of both worlds. My palate was often surprised and viscerally entertained and by the end of dinner I was replete. I now find myself wondering why it took so long to get to Congress so don’t make my mistake; anytime you find yourself in downtown Austin, know that this is dining at its very best. With some 56 stories towering above, you will find this gastronomic pleasure palace on the ground floor of Austin’s tallest high-rise building located, not surprisingly, on Congress Avenue and, online at www.congressaustin.com.
That the Austin food and wine scene has risen dramatically over the past five years is indubitable. That it continues to rise is without a doubt, an Act of Congress.
Photo: From the table at Congress in downtown Austin