Yes, spoiled we are in Austin. There will never be enough days or meals to enjoy all of the tastes offered in our city – from fine restaurants, to food trucks, delis, cheese shops and wine bars (to name a few). The summer, however, affords us with a little more time to whittle down our “bucket list”.
Fine dining was in order this weekend in celebration of our 24th wedding anniversary. With the amazing experiences we have had in previous years at some of our favorite restaurants (Wink, Vino Vino and the Carillon), it always feels like a risk to try something new. At the top of our “haven’t tried yet list” was Congress, located at the corner of Congress Ave. and 2nd Street on the ground floor of the Austonian condo tower. Two enticing reasons sealed our decision to finally visit this fairly new (just under 3 years old) dining establishment – Chef David Bull, and our favorite sommelier, Paula Rester. Chef Bull needs no introduction – he is a ROCK STAR in the culinary world. We met Ms. Rester at her previous position at Vino Vino, where she delighted us at every visit with great tastes and incredible knowledge of all things “wine”.
Wait until you read about the genius cuisine and wine pairings to follow!
Both the hostess and our server greeted us with “Happy Anniversary”, and before we were even able to get a good look at the surroundings two glasses of Champagne were being poured at our table. Soon after we were presented a menu. There are two choices, a prix-fixe three-course meal, or the chef’s tasting menu (seven courses). I can not imagine attempting seven courses, although there were a couple of offerings on the list that I would have loved to try. The three-course menu presents plenty of choices, but does not include dessert (separate menu). All of the menus can be viewed online at the restaurant’s website: Congress
Once we finally made our selections, the seamless presentation of dinner began.
First, the amuse bouche. Even after having the server repeat the description twice, I cannot remember all of the details about this delightful start to our meal. I will attempt to list the ingredients here, in a similar fashion to how the menu presented the other courses we selected.
Amuse Bouche: Kaffir yogurt * horseradish crème * pickled watermelon * bergamot
Light, refreshing – a great way to prepare the palette for what was coming next.
Bread: Focaccini is what I believe they called this bread. A baby focaccia roll, warm, soft inside, slight crunch on the outside with a hint of sea salt. OMG!
First Course: Steak Tartare · Sunchoke · Parmesan · White anchovy · Grilled Kale · Caesar Dressing
Luscious, rich, beautiful salt from the anchovy, tart from the dressing, Unbelievable. Not sure I have the experience to describe this wonderful dish.
Definitely the most artistic plating of the night! The variety of heights and curves in the visual presentation of this dish reminded me of a roller coaster, but one you would see in a Dr. Suess book. Little stacks of carrots (reminded me of pickles, a little sour and crunchy), tiny orange-yellow hued tomatoes, accompanied by small dollops of two different creams, white and pale orange, that provided a another texture profile for the dish. On top, a playful ribbon of some kind of crunchy veggie – our server believed it was made from a white carrot. This dish was paired with an elegant, yet subtle French burgundy. Excellent!
Second Course: Garden Carrot Ravioli · Spinach · Gingered Carrots · lemongrass · Carrot Tops
Very good, interesting combo (sorry, no picture)
Suckling Pig · loin and Shoulder · Escarole · Ramen Noodle · Black Radish · Bacon Dashi
… and now for something completely different. A big pottery bowl arrives. Inside a pile of ramen noodles, topped with a radish salad (I spied black and watermelon radish cut in very tiny matchsticks with microgreens) and transparent slices of raw pig. Then the server took a beaker with the Bacon Dashi (a piping hot and rich bacon broth, filled with umami) and poored it over the pig, cooking it on the spot.
As the liquid mingled with the rest of the ingredients, pieces of pork emerged from the pile, along with the escarole. This rather substantial dish was paired with an Austrian gewürztraminer, light but spunky. Gewürztraminer is quickly becoming one of my favorite white varietals. Excellent!
Third Course: Surprise! The wine director, Ms. Rester, surprises us with a bonus course – her favorite offering from Chef Bull’s tasting menu:
Cheese agnolotti · Morel Mushroom · Tomato Provencal · Black Truffle · Parmesan
Has food ever made you cry before? Here I go…
(Excuse me while I gain my composure)
This is what I imagine a perfect plate of pasta in Italy would taste like. Delicate pillows of luscious cheese ravioli, accompanied by mushroom heaven, the most tantalizing tomato jam creation, and Parmesan two ways – foam and shaved.
Paired with a beautiful Italian Barbera
– Palladino ‘Bricco delle Olive’ Barbera d’alba Superiore 2007 Piedmont, Italy
Hands down the most exquisite cuisine we enjoyed all night. Simply amazing!
Fourth Course: Ora King Salmon · Grilled Okra · Fried Yucca · Corn Mole · Roasted Corn · Epazote
Goat Tenderloin · Garlic Sausage · Morel Mushroom · Spring Peas · Cumin Yogurt · Pepita
I almost turned this entrée away after the last course. My first time to eat goat, however, so the show must continue. The tenderloin was not gamey at all. It reminded me of a perfectly cooked piece of hanger steak. The sausage was good, but very garlicky and not for the faint hearted. The cumin yogurt and hint of pepita puree were nice accompaniments. This was one of those rare times when I would have liked a little more of the accompanying condiment (not sure what else to call it). I am not a fan of peas, so they were quietly left behind.
I loved the pairing of a Spanish petite syrah blend with this dish.
Fifth Course: Before dessert arrived, I ordered a cup of hot tea. The server returned with a box of large test tubes, each holding a varietal of tea leaves. From the long-winded descriptions, I could not decipher if there was anything resembling a traditional black tea (like English Breakfast). Steering clear of the Earl Grey, I ordered the Goddess of Mercy. The tea was presented appropriately, pretty silver teapot, hot water, sugar cubes and a small serving of milk.
Initially we ordered what appeared to be the chocolate dessert offering on the menu.
Chocolate Veloute · Mint Marshmallow · Cocoa Nib · Strawberry-Coconut Sorbet
We were not impressed with this dessert. The sorbet was very good, but the rest of the dish just didn’t meet the mark, in our opinions. I was not taken with the presentation or the combination of textures and flavors.
Once again, an attentive staff member noticed a “disturbance” in the force. They quickly removed the dish, and without even asking, remarked “Let me get you my favorite dessert on the menu.”
Banana Mousse · Milk Chocolate Chiffon · Compressed Banana · Peanut Butter Ice Cream
Now that was more like it. I am not a banana dessert fan, but this plate took the banana to another place. The texture of the mousse was delicate and airy. The combination of banana, peanut butter and chocolate (much more pronounced and better tasting than the chocolate in the previous offering) was a delight. The presentation left you asking “How did they do that?”
Other observations and insights regarding our evening at Congress:
The décor of the room draws your focus to the food and the patrons. Neutral colors, natural lighting, spacious surroundings and very comfortable seating provide no distractions. The employees were also dressed in neutral colors, and moved effortlessly throughout the space. They obviously had watchful eyes, because our table was continually attended to – water glasses never made it to empty and empty dishes were removed right at the moment when you realized that it was time to say “goodbye”.
So, there you go. Probably way too much information for most folks, but I want to remember every detail of this special occasion.