Congress (Austin): Star chef David Bull’s multi-course, prix-fixe dinners are hot in this chilled-out town

Congress, a lauded fine-dining destination, shows that Austinites are interested in more than just barbecue and food truck fare.  Photo by Ryann Collier

You know you definitely have first world problems when you’re desperately struggling to finish a transcendent multi-course dinner.  And the guy at the next table is relentlessly teasing you about consuming such copious amounts of food.   And your three-inch heels prevent you from taking a critical after-dinner stroll.

But then, you are unequivocally a member of the first world if you have the good fortune to dine at Congress, chef David Bull’s acclaimed fine-dining gem.

Set in a jewel box space in a downtown Austin high-rise, Congress may share the same geographical realm as this capital city’s renowned barbecue joints, Mexican cantinas and beloved food trucks.  But Bull’s refined and meticulously executed, seasonal fare is worlds away from them all.

Chef-partner David Bull says that a prix-fixe menu concept was necessary to create Congress’ unmistakably upscale, high-end tone.  Photo by Marshall Wright

Bull — who also helms the more informal Second Bar + Kitchen next door — believes there’s a distinct place for fine dining in this notoriously relaxed town.

“We hear constantly from people that they really appreciated the chance to dine in this way,” says Bull, who opened Congress with his partners in early 2011.

Congress presents two prix-fixe dining options.  There’s Bull’s set seven-course tasting menu ($125/$180 with wine pairings).  And chef de cuisine Rebecca Meeker’s three-course version ($75) offers diners some choices within each course.  Both menus undergo daily tweaks and changes depending on ingredient availability and quality.

Bull says the restaurant’s prix-fixe menus “really set the tone and the pace of the restaurant.”

“If people are looking for one plate or to split a salad, that’s not what Congress is all about.”

Since I had traveled more than 1,000 miles to sample Bull’s storied creations, I went all out with his seven-course tour de force.

With his firmly rooted fine-dining background — Bull made his name at Austin’s Driskill Grill — the chef expertly takes diners on a journey that is exciting and fun without being outlandish or eccentric.

“I’m not trying to be too fussy or shocking,” Bull says.

Bull designs his dishes to wow without being “too fussy or shocking.”  Photo by Jay B Sauceda

“I want you to know what you’re eating.”

Bull might not be out to shock, but he is out to impress.  And what better way to impress than to open with sweet bites of lobster?  Paired with Asian and fresh sea flavors, the slow-poached lobster  agreeably shared the plate with pickled radish salad, crunchy sea beans and miso cream.

In a lighthearted homage to the classic deli sandwich, shreds of wagyu beef tongue pastrami were flavor packed, but further electrified by their accompaniments.  I had fun stacking my fork with the delicately smoked meat, pickled cabbage and crunchy fried rye bread ribbons, then dunking my little “sandwich” in piquant miso mustard.

I was a bit surprised that Bull opted to move from the heavier pastrami back to light and crisp sea scallops, but after a few cleansing sips of a 2009 Zilliken Estate Riesling, my palette was up for anything.  A study in flavor and texture, Bull served the seared scallops with a rich coconut cream and a bittersweet cocoa nib crumble.  Jicama-mint salad provided balance by bringing in crunch and cutting the overall sweetness.  The simple addition of “chocolate mint” — a spicy herb with a natural chocolate-mint flavor — brilliantly completed the package.

Celery root agnolotti with veal breast and matsutake mushrooms moved the meal back into heartier territory with its stewy savoriness.  Served with veal jus, the rustic dish was pure stick-to-your ribs comfort food and perfect fall fare.

Then things began to get sticky for me, as my cover was clearly blown.  I was graciously and unexpectedly sent a salt-and-pepper foie gras torchon in a balsamic reduction, “compliments of the chef.”  Amply portioned and irresistible, I dug into the luscious liver round, greedily spreading it on melt-away foie gras brioche and topping it off with intensely fruity compressed pears and pear marmalade.

The chef is always on the lookout for the finest seasonal ingredients available.  Photo by Jay B Sauceda

At this point, I needed that walk — and a break from my neighbor’s (albeit good-natured) ribbing.  But then an irresistible espresso-rubbed prime ribeye cap appeared accompanied by a puff of pomme purée.  A stroke of smoked caramel proved a creative and notable substitute for the ATX’s ubiquitous barbecue sauce.

A trio of sheep’s milk cheeses with a host of accoutrements  — wheatgrass, watercress and other things sheep eat, according to Bull — signaled that the end was near.   And then dessert, created by pastry chef Erica Waksmunski, arrived in the welcome form of a light and cool lime-basil sorbet and yogurt mousse.  A gourmet yogurt parfait of sorts, the dish also featured fresh mango, Asian pear and a sprinkling of granola-like dehydrated grapes.

Fini.  Or so I thought.  But once again, my waiter presented me with a complimentary dish to sample.

Frankly, my ninth — yes, ninth — course was understandably a bit of a blur.  I can tell you that it was a chocolate dessert with fig sorbet, black figs and mission figs.  And according to my notes, “It was like the best Fig Newton in the whole world.”  But no more.

Quite the first world quandary, I’d say.

200 Congress Avenue
Austin, Texas 78701

Congress on Urbanspoon

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