Perhaps because the phrase “New American” is rapidly beginning to have all the cultural appeal of Google Glass, Austin restaurateurs have lately been looking towards the less-tweezered traditions of Europe for inspiration. After a furious run of Italian restaurants, chefs are now turning to other corners of the continent to help them stand out in a market that has let far too many chefs run amok with bee pollen.
So it should come as no surprise that classic French is the latest thing, first led by chef Philip Speer’s Bonhomie and now continuing with New Waterloo’s latest hot spot Le Politique. The hospitality group’s projects, including Sway; La Condesa; and South Congress Hotel’s Otoko, Central Standard, and Café No Sé, have always been a good barometer of how Austin likes to eat. And Le Politique represents a sort of reset of the Austin dining scene by returning to the basics.
The name Le Politique — “the politician” in English — is a nod to Austin being the capital, of course, but it also pays homage to Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois, the French diplomat who built Austin's French Legation and is responsible for one of the most ludicrous international incidents in Texas history.
Although the Second Street entrance can be a little difficult to find (or maybe I’m the only one who awkwardly tried to enter from the back of the dining room), a little gumshoe work (in my case, following a couple who looked like they used the phrase “je ne se quoi” in casual conversation) leads to a vibrant brasserie.
Design firm Clayton and Little nicely balances traditional elements like rattan bistro chairs and Carrara marble with a contemporary pastel palate. The pale blues of the tiled floor repeat on a tropical wallpaper behind the bar, grounded with brass and warm woods. The entry is noisy — both in the textural clash and the buzz of socialites being social — but the clamor softens as soon as you enter the main dining room.
Swathed in pink linen curtains (I’m sure the restaurant has gotten around to pressing them now) and white woodwork, the main room is as spare as the bar is bustling. There’s little in the way of decoration, save for the pressed-tin ceiling, bud vases at each of the dark tables, and perhaps the most beautiful fluorescent fixtures you will ever see. The pale palette gives the space the dreamy feel of a midcentury department store dining room — or the blushing sets of an MGM musical. Little details — bookmarks folded into the napkins, slim gold pens, and prints of hand gestures on the plates — add charm without interrupting a sense of occasion.
The food from chef Derek Salkin, whose CV includes stints at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and The French Laundry as well as three Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon Restaurant at the Mansion, toes the same line of unstuffy classicism. At the start of the meal, we especially enjoyed gougères whose pâte à choux pastry barely contained a healthy dollop of gruyère mornay and the well-dressed salade landaise topped with a rich couplet of smoked duck breast and foie gras. New Waterloo's beverage director Mandi Nelson's beverage program held up to the strong flavors, especially the La Cómplice, featuring local Treaty Oak rum, luxardo, dolin blanc, grapes, and lime.
The hors d'oeuvres and perhaps one of the selections from the raw bar would make a perfectly satisfying dinner, but soldier on you must. The entrées make great use of various sauces, but none are overwhelmingly heavy. We shared a special of sole with brown butter and capers, filleted tableside and served with a side of halved pommes, but the menu promises plenty of treats for return visits, including trout almondine, marinière-style mussels, and a roasted half chicken served with a white wine sauce and pommes aligot (your server won’t mind if you call them “cheesy mashed potatoes”).
As with any respectable French restaurant, desserts are showstoppers. Executive pastry chef Alyssa Hurlstone, whose career has placed her at the French Laundry, Chicago’s Takashi, and Jean Philippe Patisserie, already has the town buzzing with a textbook Paris-Brest served with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream. We ordered the “baba” au rhum exoticized with banana jam, lime, and passion fruit chantilly.
As with any new restaurant, there were a few small things to work out, but already the service was as assured as any restaurant in town. During dinner, I noticed that Le Politique nabbed quite a few all-stars from other Austin restaurants. The trust given from insiders may be the surest indicator of great things to come.