Where to eat in May: Rabbits, chicken al carbon, Congress cocktail food andcrispy oysters at Cipollina
A sizzling summer is just around the corner. This month, find refreshment in some of these top picks that are sure to wet your whistle, please your palate and tempt every one of your tastebuds.
New & Noteworthy
When 400 Rabbits opened in late March, it was the remedy to a perfect domestic night out. By that I mean a one-stop-shop for a drink, dinner and a movie that takes the stress out of hopping around from place to place. And it’s all delivered in a cool, gimmick-free environment.
Sure, it’s tacked on to the side of a movie theater, but when it comes to a movie experience, the Alamo Drafthouse team has been breaking that tired old stereotype with each year — and each new location — it adds to its existence. The fact that this concept comes in partnership with celebrated Austin mixologist Bill Norris is a plus.
Primarily a cocktail bar boasting both a classic selection of standards and a tequila- and mezcal-driven list of Norris concoctions, you can also select from a small signature menu of appetizers or from the main Alamo Drafthouse food menu.
Arrive here an hour before your film and your server will be sure to take note of your movie time and get you on to your theater soon enough to get a good seat, which allows you to relax. (An added bonus when it’s a rare night out without the kids.) Though primarily a cocktail bar boasting both a classic selection of cocktail standards and a tequila- and mezcal-driven list of Norris concoctions, you can also select from a small signature menu of appetizers or even from the main Alamo Drafthouse food menu.
For a light starter, the Tres Sabores satisfies the chip and dip lover in all of us with a refried white bean-garlic dip, roasted tomato salsa and a creamy avocado-tomatillo salsa. For something a lot more substantial, the Alambres is kabob-style plate of poblano and bacon-wrapped steak with the avocado-tomatillo salsa for dipping.
As for cocktails, I’m typically a loyal devotee of whisky-based drinks. (I’ve never met a Sazerac I didn’t like.) But I like Norris’ playful approach to tequila, mezcal and an abundance of different flavors in the 400 Rabbits cocktail menu. I love the La Playa Sunset made with silver tequila, coconut water, falernum, lime and a little bitters as an afternoon refresher, and the Pasado de Moda with silver tequila, hone, and orange peel is nice evening sipper with smoky characters from mezcal and mole bitters.
Sure, this location is pretty far south, which makes it a trek for a lot of you who live north of the river. But if you do happen to be on the south side of town, swing on down to the land of Circle C because 400 Rabbits satisfies a lot of movie-going desires. Now you can actually meet a friend for a film and have an avenue to catch up for a bit instead of having to annoy fellow movie goers by whispering in the theater.
And, it alleviates the problem for those of us out there who keep hoping for good things from the Alamo menu. Cuz let’s face it, the only really safe thing to eat in the dark when you’re watching a movie is finger food like popcorn, a carefully managed slice of “The Godfather” pizza or perhaps a basket of fried chicken tenders with fries. Who really eats salad in the dark?
An oldie, but a goodie
Now that the Shoreline Grill and Jeffrey’s have closed their doors, and marked a passing of an era for old school Austin restaurants, owners Ron and Peggy Weiss can put all of their focus into their quaint, neighborhood bistro, Cipollina. This longtime Clarksville haunt has been a regular lunch spot for diners meeting-in-the-middle for downtown vs. non-downtown dining. And it's quiet, cozy atmosphere is perfect for a low-key romantic evening or night out with a couple of friends. (The restaurant’s decision to be 100 percent full service for both dinner and lunch in 2010 has upped the experience as well.)
In the midst of so many new restaurants to try in the forever evolving Austin dining scene, I’m likely to keep this familiar little neighborhood spot on my short list for rotation.
Starters vary from cheese plates to mussels in white wine sauce with capers and anchovy. Pizzas are always a safe bet, with the classic margherita delivering on everything from fresh, ripe slices of tomato and bright sprinkles of fresh basil, and the oyster mushroom pizza offering more earthy flavors of mushroom, roasted shallot, fontina and aged balsamic vinegar.
And, in honor of big brother Jeffrey’s closing for revamp, Cipollina chef Daniel Hunt has added the famed Jeffrey’s crispy oysters on yucca chips to the small plates menu, just in case anyone was having withdrawals.
While many restaurants try to bang people over the head with frills and trendy flash-in-the-pan dishes, Cipollina delivers, classic, consistent food with restraint and simplicity — without compromising flavor or quality. In the midst of so many new restaurants to try in the forever evolving Austin dining scene, I’m likely to keep this familiar little neighborhood spot on my short list for rotation.
Setting the Standard
No, this isn’t technically a restaurant. It’s a small narrow corridor between two restaurants that poses to many as an upscale bar with really great cocktails — thanks very much to founding bar manager Adam Bryan and current bar manager Jason Stevens. But if you ask me, Bar Congress is the perfect middle ground for dining. It’s not quite as boisterous and loud as the lively Second Bar + Kitchen to its left, but it’s significantly scaled down from the regal, multi-course dining mecca, Congress to its right.
On the rare chance that I get an early evening out on a weeknight, you’ll find me here. If not for the ‘Congress GT’ (a personal favorite) with house made tonic, grapefruit bitters and gin, the smoky mezcal-laced ‘Oracle’ with rye, amaro, and sweet vermouth or whatever else you can coax the cocktail masters behind the bar to mix up for you, then for the food.
Note to the cocktail adventurists: If you happen to meet a bar man named Darren, ask him to make his version of a “Jacked Up Coke” — it’s just a little something he’s been working on
Like the potato gnocchi ‘tater tots’ with house made smoked ketchup or the crisp black truffle fries (sorry, ‘pomme frites’) with truffle aioli, both of which satisfy any craving you might have for traditional bar food. The hamachi sashimi with strawberry and lime yogurt is elegant and refined as is the beef tartare with fried oysters and kimchi, but I’m honestly a sucker for the bar burger.
I recently fell for the ‘black and bleu’ pizza and it's sinful array of decadent toppings including blue cheese, braised beef short rib, medjool dates and a healthy shaving or two of black truffle. (If you get this skip the cocktails and go straight for a big glass of Cannonau (Feudi Della Medusa Cannonau di Sardegna), a big red Italian wine with lots of fruit and really great balance.
(Note to the cocktail adventurists: If you happen to meet a bar man named Darren, ask him to make his version of a “Jacked Up Coke” — it’s just a little something he’s been working on, and it’s pretty tasty.)
New & Noteworthy
Though more of a drive-through than a dine in restaurant, Fresa’s makes the list not only for its grab-n-go convenience, but because it’s, well, delicious. Chargrilled chicken (half or whole) in two distinct Mexican-inspired flavors: Achiote-citrus and oregano-cracked pepper served with rice, beans, chips, salsa and corn tortillas completes a whole meal and comes wrapped up in brown butcher paper for a warm, flavorful meal that feels as though it’s been made with the loving heart of a home kitchen.
My favorite is the achiote and citrus chicken with its smoky spice, and the grilled onions and pepper served along with it make for a nice little taco. I also love the fresh guacamole and the Mexican street corn thickly coated with savory cotija cheese. You can also order tortas (sandwiches) if your appetite bends towards something more in the form of a nice little package.
While the flavor and near abundance of this take home meal almost trumps any negatives for this hip new place, there are a few little drawbacks. First of all, a whole chicken in butcher paper is messy. But if you think more along the lines of finger-licking-good rather than fork-and-knife-formal, you should be in good shape.
A warm, flavorful meal that feels as though it’s been made with the loving heart of a home kitchen.
Second, the price. For a meal like this with a couple of sides, you’re probably going to pay around $40. Not bad, but not cheap by any means. Especially when you consider that there are a couple of other chicken al carbon concepts in the city that offer the same package meal for more than half the price.
But to be fair, the idea behind Fresa’s wasn’t to copy the idea of a take-home packaged chicken meal. It was to offer an option for chicken al carbon using top quality ingredients. All-natural, locally-sourced chicken doesn’t come cheap. And neither do the whole list of above-average ingredients used to create the tasty treats you get here.
My one beef with this upscale fast-food joint where chicken reigns supreme is the sides — both included in the chicken meal and a la carte. They’re too small. Especially when you consider the aforementioned pricing. Serving a few more ounces of rice and beans doesn’t really add much to cost on the restaurant’s side. The queso in particular is a bit high. In a city that lives and breathes melted Mexican cheese, a few ounces for $5 is a little steep.
It’s the age old-economic challenge restaurants have of bringing quality and price into balance. I’d say the quality is definitely there. The prices probably tip the scale more than I would prefer.
Does it warrant the all the hype? You’ll have to decide for yourself. But I’ll definitely be back. Sure, it may be on the higher end of what I want to pay for a typical week-day take home meal, but it doesn’t hurt to treat yourself every now and then, and Fresa’s is definitely a treat.