"French," as in French food, is a complex term to define these days. Paris would be, one might assume, full of "French" restaurants just as a matter of fact of being located in France, that lovely and charming but complex Hexagone of gastronomic glory. But when some of Paris's best restaurants these days are run by Americans (i.e., much beloved Verjus, as reported in Saveur and here), deciding what counts as "French"--especially in terms of dining in Austin, Texas--is tricky. In the end it just requires getting ok with very subjective parameters, and so it is for this Guide. All my baggage (the French major thing, the living/going to school-in-France thing, the 17 trips to France for food and other business reasons) informs what I considered "French enough" for this Guide. Do I love Lenoir with all my heart? Absolutely. Does Lenoir remind me of Paris dining (i.e., Verjus) with its dynamic culinary duo owners and emphasis on community and exquisite nicely portioned food and service? Absolutely. But if I include it here, it's a slippery slope and possibly quite divisive and controversial for what else gets included -- like whom to invite to a wedding once you've invited so and so. I may well have missed some very arguably "French" treasures. Feel free to debate any difference of opinion or offer a discerning critique. That is, after all, very French.
Justine's Brasserie First there was Chez Nous (see entry below after this one), a much-loved Austin icon for truly "French" French food. Then Justine's came along in 2009 and really kicked up the French vibe in Austin. Though off the beaten track for some out on East Fifth towards the airport, Justine's has a passionate following for this little white house, surrounded by ample courtyard/patio seating.
(credit for picture here, but the cute picture of just the house does not reflect the current all tricked-out outdoor area)
When I want a Paris fix, I head here and settle in to wait, at the bar, and sip as slowly as I can some of the cocktails, such as my favorite version of a French 75 or the Enfant Terrible. Nice and tart, not sweet. Then I order up either superlative escargots (buttery and hot and garlicky with good bread to soak up every last drop of the hot butter that has fresh garlic infusing it), or a hearty assiette de fromages. All this gets enjoyed, no, relished, while the jazz or Motown albums are playing on the turntable back behind the bar amidst the record library. If you find it too loud inside, which it can be, opt for outside seating in a still charming setting, near the black and white canopy and the Pétanque court.
Inside or out, you get the same great food, such as really tasty soupe à l'oignon gratinée, more escargots, a great steak tartare, coquilles St. Jacques basquaises. Or there is also, in addition to the usual yummy French fare, the daily "market" menu, which kicks up the gastronomy level here with such items as cassoulet, done right: "flageolet beans, duck confit, sausage, bacon, bread crumbs" ($22) and with starters such as "dandelion greens, fried egg vinaigrette, crispty potatoes, country ham" ($12). Crème caramel here is standard-setting and impossible to stop eating once you've started. Justine's is one of the very few (good) real restaurants in town for late-night eating, as well as star-sightings. Justine's has seen its fair share of them: David Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Kat Von D, to name a few.
Before Justine's, way before Justine's, there was Chez Nous, which opened its doors in 1982--when a gallon of gas was just $1.30 and the Dow Jones high for the year was 1,070. Nestled on quiet Neches Street downtown, just off the hustle and bustle of a crazy part of Sixth Street, Chez Nous early on won over our hearts and stomachs. It remains a mainstay and has a firm place in the heart of Austin's Francophile foodie population, despite the kitschy wall decor of painted scenes of Paris Metro stations. The menu remains classically French and consistently excellent. A house paté is offered daily, and a recent sampling of the duck liver one delivered big on flavor. It gets scooped up on what for me is more like New Orleans-style French bread (from Phoenicia). Favorite classics here are the Salade Lyonnaise (with lardons, $8.50, and, really, cannot see having it any other way), the egg poached just right and ready to be broken into at the right moment to run over and slightly warm the greens.
The salade de crudités (photo at left; with the addition of chickpeas in addition to the traditional beets and celery root) may be better than mine, hard to admit, but the Trout Meunière I could never even deign to try to re-create. It exemplifies tasty goodness in a clean, classic execution ($14.50). But if that sounds too high-end for a weekday lunch, the usual French fare for lunch is here too: the croque monsieur, the croque madame, and a sandwich du jour even--in addition to spinach crepes, chicken crepes, and a steak frites, of course ($19.50).
The dinner menu loses the sandwiches and crepes and adds heartier French classics, at a higher price point--worth every penny for a big night out for guaranteed good food. The dinner menu includes such main dishes as lamb chops crusted in herbes de provence and grilled ($33.50), an Entrecôte Béarnaise ($32.50) and a pepper-crusted prime beef tenderloin finished off with a brandy, stock and cream sauce ($37.50). All main courses are served with a side of vegetables (caramelized grilled carrots last time I was there) and highly decadent cream puff-like balls of potatoes, which are their pommes dauphines. A bargain: the "Menu du Jour" option at dinner. For $28.50 you get a three-course meal, with three choices in each category. Parking can be a challenge, but public parking garages ease tremendously what used to be a mild impediment to getting here more often.
In what is becoming a well-developed, and charming foodie and retail area in East Austin, Blue Dahlia bistro sits on East 11th, close to the 11th Street/Rosewood intersection. Though the beautifully composed tartines (open-faced sandwiches with various toppings and sliced into wide slivers) are served on a thicker-sliced soft, but still delicious wheat bread, and not the Poilâne bread used for Paris "tartines," I love Blue Dahila Bistro for, well, anytime. It is especially nice on a long weekend to soak up the feel of the place here: at the outdoor patio seating to be out and about feeling urban, or inside where there are nicely hewn wood tables, including an inviting community table right up front in the sunny front window, near overflowing shelves of breads and a giant basket of baguettes on the counter. A back courtyard is available too for dining, under an ample pergola with leafy vines climbing up into it--and ceiling fans.
Blue Dahlia offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it really gets its French groove on at night, when it turns to such “Plats du Soir” (after 17h) as duck cassoulet; mushroom crêpes (with a yummy bleu cheese parmesan cream sauce); bouillabaisse with mussels, cod and shrimp ($15.95); and my two favorite classics of all the French classics: coq au vin (this one done with vin blanc and adding some prosciutto for good measure) and a boeuf bourgignon. Though perhaps not so great a beverage for dinner (wine and beer available), but yes for breakfast or any cold afternoon: steamed milk with a side of Ghiradelli chocolate. The bistro has gluten-free options available (both the original and Westlake locations), as well as local and organic produce, etc. as much as possible. Check the calendar for happy hours, wine tastings, and music, at both the original East Austin and Westlake locations. (East Austin location reviewed here.)
Artisan Bistro A loyal following makes this their go-to destination out in Lakeway off Ranch Road 620. With Austin getting smaller by the day it seems as it gets bigger, Lakeway is just not as far away as it seemingly used to be. Do not be put off by the terra cotta stucco exterior of the small retail center where the bistro is located. Get over it and just walk in. (Well, they do really prefer that you make a reservation: they run a lean, highly knowledgeable staff so they will adjust to make sure the loyal client base gets attentive service.)
On entering you will see charming bistro tables, a black and white tile floor, and an open kitchen with shelves piled up high with brightly colored crockery, red, blue, the brown for the soupe à l’oignon gratinée, where you can watch Chef Cesidio d’Andrea do his thing.
If you head for the long comptoir, or counter, as I do, you will get to enjoy your nice glass of wine while you order and watch Chef do his thing in the kitchen, by himself, with an efficiency and energy that makes one feel guilty for sitting there having a nice white Bordeaux.
But you may be distracted before you get seated by the area to your right as you enter the bistro. Here there are tables overflowing with pastries, breads, as well as gift items that would make perfect hostess gifts for a dinner party, such as a lovely bag of fleur de sel de gris, or basil infused olive oil.
Among the pains au chocolat, the croissants, the tarts, the macarons, there are also these little treasures you just do not see much at all around Austin. A bell-shaped pastry that is the specialty of Bordeaux: cannelles. But the real star in my book for the pastries here is a nod to French heritage and Chef's American surroundings: a breakfast bread/pastry that he calls French Toast. It is crispy sugar on the outside, moist and custardy on the inside, reminding of the moist inside of a crispy-on-the-outside French Toast.
Artisan Bistro is open for both lunch and dinner (closed on Mondays (very French)), to star the French classics but with variations on the theme: a boeuf bourgignon, a Cassoulet Toulaisain, a Confit de Canard, and, for starters, some Duck Foie Gras “au torchon” roasted peaches ($14). Of course escargots are an option as well: by the half or full dozen ($9, $13). For the lighter side, there is my favorite salad I order all the time in France (culinary rut): a hot goat cheese (chèvre chaud) salad, but this one adds sundried tomatoes and bacon. (A not too widely known fact: Chef leads gastronomic tours. A chateau in Normandy was mentioned upon inquiry into the details.)
Hopfields Hopfields is styled as a gastropub, and may be more well known for its fine craft beers than its wine selection, but it’s very French. Francophiles rejoice at seeing items not seen since the last trip to France, sandwiches such as the Jambon Beurre ($8), the Merguez Frites ($9), entrées (as in main course) such as a tarte du jour ($8; leek and manchego cheese being a favorite), moules frites ($16) and what is truly the superstar of this lean but high-quality menu: a steak frites ($18).
This is a superlative steak frites. The cooks refuse to cook the steak anywhere above medium (or it used to be this way pretty much…Paris superstar artisanal butcher Hugo Desnoyer would so approve). The quality and cooking of this meat are superb. The steak arrives with a tart dijon mustard artfully swirled around the plate and a round of compound butter sliding off into meat juices and all of it blending into the fries sitting there alongside to sop it all up. Dig in. If the salade verte (with the charming departure from French tradition of adding of a wedge of camembert), leads to your thinking you are back in Paris at a café in the Marais, you are not off base here: the house dijon vinaigrette is the recipe of owner Bay’s Parisian mother in law (Bay’s wife, co-owner Lindsay, is one-fourth French). Along with the expertly selected craft beers and wine choices, you can also enjoy looking through the short but varied list of cocktails—such libations as the 75 Years in Provence or a Port of Havana run $8; some others, such as the Au Fait (Madeira, honey syrup, grapefruit, bitters) run $9.
To accommodate the growing number of Hopfields groupies, the back patio seating area is larger--and full food service out there. In addition to the pub format in the original space, they’ve expanded out into the back portion of the building to add a “traditional” dining room, comprised of charming small nooks that house a few tables where you can have traditional table service (on the pub side you just place your order at the bar). A calm yet simply-staged glamorous, way-in-the-back place is there for bringing your cocktails, beer flight, or bottle of wine back to chill in a quieter seating area. I’m partial to the original pub side of the house. Sit at the community table and make some new friends, or just enjoy sneaking some of those frites doused in butter and steak juice off the plates of your old (as in longtime) friends while you polish off the Cotes du Rhone.
Péché Péché is already well known for serving up Prohibition-era cocktails down on 4th Street, in Austin’s warehouse district, in an upscale ambiance that evokes the lore of absinthe. Péché just feels luscious and decadent as one slips into one of those banquettes and sips on an absinthe cocktail amidst the exposed brick, wood-beamed ceilings, and chandeliers.
But it is also well worth a visit for the good, French-esque food to go along with those cocktails. Owner Rob Pate tells me he has indulged his talented cooking team with an additional two burners to work the food magic back there: from four burners to six. Yes, all this food on just that small amount of real estate (very French).
Péché in my book has the best frites in Austin. They are served up with chipotle and salsa verde. The "Bar Menu" is seriously mouth-watering (they change it up every four months or so), and the more French of those items they are serving up now include a Roasted Marrow and French Fries with Truffled Egg ($20), add escargots for $7; or a hearty Pot au Feu, done here with brisket, ideal for those occasional chilly evenings in Austin. In addition to the extensive bar menu there is a daily menu that is tweeted daily. Examples of recent offerings: crispy duck breast with red wine braised cabbage ($28); boullabaisse ($32); and charcuterie and cheese boards that could easily make a meal. Péché has some great happy hour deals, lasting all day Sundays and Mondays (after the late afternoon opening), and is definitely a food destination in addition to a preferred destination for beautifully crafted Old World cocktails.
épicerie This new addition to the Rosedale neighborhood on Hancock Drive, near Fonda San Miguel, comprises a charming blue bungalow, with fig ivy-covered courtyard walls, and bright orange lettering reflecting the venue's name that immediately connotes France. An épicerie is a little grocery store, not to be confused with a larger, more commercial "supermarché" or "magasin alimentaire" such as a FranPrix and its ilk. Non, une épicerie oozes charm--such as the Epicérie Générale across the street from my last studio rental in Paris, on the rue de Verneuil.
This Austin version of an épicerie is light and bright. White painted chairs, light wood tables, white subway tile behind the counters, great light fixtures; shiny chrome and lovely marble platters display piles of homemade brownies and salted chocolate chip cookies. The white painted shelves comprising the "grocery" include shelves upon shelves of wine, including a Stump Jump Sticky Chardonnay dessert wine from Australia, and numerous other food items, such as orange blossom honey and Mast Brothers chocolate. Once you’re done, for now, drooling over the food items in the “grocery,” it's time to think about food at the café part of épicerie.
Here too favorite French things are featured: there is a grilled comté (cheese) sandwich with tomato soup; an oxtail stew (with anson mills grits, japanese turnips, oven-roasted tomato; $11.99); a comforting roasted chicken (roasted chicken leg, grilled Brussels sprouts, French lentils, mustard; $12.99); tri-tip steak (with frites, grilled green onion, aiilo; $14.99). Salads include an arugula salad, rounded out with a great French bleu cheese (forme d'ambert), pears, marcona almonds, all finished off with a sherry vinaigrette ($8.99). Seating can be outside in a nice courtyard or in the sunny bright interior. Owner Sarah Macintosh has hit on on something special here with the café/grocery concept. In fact, I wish I had done thought of this.
Bakeries & Creperies & Etc.
Baguette et Chocolat Chef Tyson Cole of Uchi and Uchiko fame says this is his go-to place for anything chocolate. The line here on Saturday mornings attests to the quality that gets a superstar chef over there out on Bee Cave Road (a/k/a FM 2244). Regulars know to get there on a weekend morning earlier than later in case a favorite sells out. Enjoying a basket of buttery flaky croissants and a couple of hot chocolates in the Lavazza cups, with Chantilly whipped cream overflowing and dripping down the sides of the cup, is a good way to start a Saturday or Sunday.
Baguette et Chocolat has a considerable array of menu items--definitely something for everyone here: salads, crêpes, paninis, sandwiches (and, of course, the two croques: croque monsieur and his better half the croque madame). The crêpes range from classic flavors and combinations such as the Paysanne (Mornay sauce with chicken, mushrooms and swiss cheese), to a Texas twist: the Texane (chicken, red onions and BBQ sauce). My favorite combination: the Cabri, mixing up for its filling some prosciutto, goat cheese and tomato. The pastry case is so full of classic French pastries, if you close your eyes and squint you would think you were doing some window shopping at a Patisserie somewhere in France. No mistake that: the owner, Chi-Minh, is from Versailles, just outside of Paris, and is a graduate of l’Institut National Boulangerie Patisserie (INBP).
Housed at ground level of the Hampton Inn downtown on San Jacinto near The Four Seasons, the owners of now closed Dreyfus Antiques (I still miss that giant Eiffel Tower structure every time I drive down North Lamar), thankfully opened up Le Café Crepe a few years ago to accommodate what was apparently a pent-up need for something different downtown. The Café quickly gained a following for offering a delicious option for the downtown lunch routine. Downtown diners are lucky they can get here just about any time – crowds permitting – because they do not have to deal with parking. With downtown construction eating into already limited parking, access is a little tricky on a weekday, but always worth it once you settle in.
With charming interior décor, those cheery yellow walls and French signage, the Cafe's crêpes here are on the classic side, but with a nod to the local vibe with The Hampton (turkey pastrami, blue cheese, spinach, tomatoes, green onion, and avocado ($8.75)) and the allure of all things French (for some of us), with The Eiffel (chicken, provolone cheese, tomatoes, asparagus ($8.25)). And though the sweet crepes have classics as well, I am partial to one of the fancier ones, La Fromagère, with brie, pear, walnuts and honey ($8.10); the classics (nutella, la canella (cinnamon)) will run from a modest $5.50 to around $7.
En plus, and très français as well for spending an afternoon, there is WiFi access at the café. So while away an afternoon sitting outside, at a café table under an umbrella, and enjoy those classics with a big bowl-like cup of café au lait, or an Orangina. (Or with wine and beer options as well, and save the coffee for after.) Construction downtown as of March 1, 2013 has Le Café Crepe boxed in for a time, but it is still open and still the place for a crêpes fix in the heart of downtown.
Flip Happy Crepes (trailer)
Austin’s most relatively famous creperie, Flip Happy Crepes, is a refurbished silver trailer (some say it’s an avion; in video footage the owners call it an Airstream) is just off Barton Springs Road, behind the building at 400 Josephine Street. Here, surrounded by condos and a vibrant commercial area of new eateries, is a plot of nature with giant trees towering over bright red picnic tables and colorful café tables and chairs. Here sits Flip Happy Crepes, which received national exposure in 2007 when Bobby Flay of Food Network fame came to town with his Throwdown series to take on the crepes of owners Nessa Higgins and Andrea Day Boykin (they have been friends since kindergarten).
Weekend mornings bring out families or those taking a pause while walking the dog on the Lady Bird Lake trail to linger here for a break. Line up at the window for placing your order for sweet and savory crepes: the most popular sweet ones being cinnamon sugar (ground almonds, buttery hot and sugary with whipped cream) and the vanilla pastry cream with blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries (pictured below). If you’ve really worked up an appetite, the Peanut Butter Delight usually is ample enough for two persons, or one person who just did the 5-mile loop.
The flavors on the savory part of the menu include classic French creperie items: roasted chicken & mushroom & caramelized onion, or another one with tarragon, mushroom, goat cheese, spinach and caramelized onion and tomatoes. Other show some funky Austin flair, such as in the shredded pork with carmelized onions and white cheddar ($6.95).
Worried about the kiddos not liking a full-sized crepe at the full price? Check out the Kids Menu: a "Mini Crepe" option exists ($3.75), for cheese only or ham and cheese or chicken and cheese, and a Nutella Roll-Up for a modest $2.50.
Prepare for a bit of a wait – but enjoy the sun, the trees, and the fact that you’re in Austin. Pick up orders are available, call 512.552.9034, but time it just right. You want that buttery hot cinnamon crêpe (pictured at left) the minute it’s ready. Limited hours, so check the website frequently.
On a crowded corner on South Congress at Gibson Street, away from the heavier concentration of food trailers, is the shiny Airstream trailer for Crepes Mille. Run by two (very) young and adorably energetic women, this spot gets crowded with folks vying for room to sit at the picnic tables plus line up and place an order for one of these super funky creations. There are deliciously well done twists on the classic crepes. You will not see Oreos or Marshmallows on the menu for a typical crêpe stand in Paris, but the combinations here are right on and gorgeous upon arrival. Case in point, one of the most popular: The Parisian, including brie, milk chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream.
If the combined effect of the busy corner and the line and the tables feels too claustrophobic, just be patient because heaven awaits: grab the crepe (figure about a 5-7 minute wait most days) and take it to go. Walk down esoterically scenic South Congress, with a big smile on your whipped cream- or powdered sugared-face once you take that first bite of crepe: a hint of a crispy outside, yet tender, with butter or chocolate or whatever you selected. Lots of lovely combinations are available in addition to The Parisian, such as The Caramelized Pear and French Toast, but make up your own crepe too for $5. Pick from a line-up of fillings, such as almond butter, honey butter, or classic crepe ingredient nutella, then pick a topping from another list of toppings, such as bananas and bluebell Ice cream. Do not worry that whipped cream is not on the list of options for a topping. You will be asked when they call your name and you pick up with crepe. Enjoy mixing it up with the South Congress crowds among other nearby hotspots, Perla’s and Hopdoddy, and maybe even work up an appetite for another one. Check the web site for their current (limited) hours.
Melvin's Deli * Comfort (trailer; 53rd/Duval)
Melvin's, this cute red trailer, makes this list because of one food item. No, better to call this item an event. It is the Melvin's Croque Monsieur. It does not matter where you are in Austin between the hours of 11 and 2 on a weekday (the only hours Melvin's is open for business). You really owe it to yourself to have Melvin’s Croque Monsieur. Sure, it’s a little out of the way for some, at 53rd and Duval, but you should really have this Croque Monsieur. But have it only if you really like great (Gruyere) cheese, finely cured high-end meats and bread and béchamel sauce all mixed in together with a stout Dijon mustard. If you don’t like cheesy messes, then you can skip this. And if you're not into finely crafted and cured meats (such as the superlative ham on this food event), then you can skip this. And if you’re being really French and not too keen on eating a café classic with your hands, this may not work for you. But you’d be missing out. Other sandwiches coming out of this humble trailer are also recognized around town by foodies because of the fine meats. But the croque monsieur is the show-stealer. Eat it while it’s hot. Right there in the parking lot where the trailer is parked.
Thanks, Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide, for giving me an excuse to go eat more and park illegally all over Austin getting the pictures.