Peas and toast at Central Standard Kitchen.
Headed to Austin anytime soon? Here’s how to spend one of your evenings: Book a table at Central Standard Kitchen & Bar, preferably with two or three companions, and start the night with a Central Swizzle (Flor de Caña, Velvet Falernum, mint, and lemon). Admire the banquettes and the chairs and the light fixtures, discuss the presidential race, and relax. Look out the large windows and watch the passersby.
This restaurant, located in the South Congress Hotel, is built for that type of evening.
Drinks good? You’re ready for food, so this is the plan: concentrate on the Starters & Salads portion of the menu, and follow us. Order some potato bread — two loaves should suffice. It comes to the table warm and moist on a wooden board, butter and crème fraîche and smoked sea salt and lemon zest and chives. You’ll want the shaved ham as well, American speck, served with a wonderfully sweet and sour peach marmalade that’s spread on toast. Arugula and grated Parmgiano-Reggiano complete this course.
A bottle of wine has reached the table; we decided on an Alsatian Riesling, a Trimbach, but you choose what you will: the list is large enough for most. Some of us were drinking Champagne. We then welcomed the oyster soup, a hearty and graceful bowl of shelled oysters, sherry, and cream, plus uni butter toast and Aleppo pepper. Spoon some over the potato bread in a bowl and enjoy. Add salt, as I did, if need be. Another course featuring toast came next, and don’t overlook this one. Fresh peas, caramelized onions, ricotta, young greens/sprouts over the top. Cut this in half — we ordered three for the table – take a bite, and then a sip of the Riesling. Smile.
We proceed. To the Wagyu steak tartare. There’s a vision of meat that seems to have gone through a grinder, however, which, when I first saw it, troubled me. Don’t do your tartare in a grinder or processor. Cut it by hand, gently, keep it cool. Please wear gloves. The taste, though, more than compensated for this.
The shallots were crisped just to the point of being overdone, a nice point. I cut into the yolk that rested atop the meat and assembled a spoonful of everything — capers and mustard joined in — and spread it on the (yes) toast. Very good tartare; not in the top 10 of my life, but a respectable rendition.
We ordered a salad, grilled purple kale with peaches, toasted hazelnuts, ricotta salata, and shaved fennel. The grilled green was the standout here, the char playing off the slightly bitter kale in a captivating manner. Fried smelts served as our final savory dish. Cornmeal batter, delicate flesh, some Calabrian chile for heat, and some fried okra. Take one of the fish and gently separate a filet from the spine, make sure there is some chile on the flesh, and taste warmth and brininess and crunch.
Dessert was a haze … I ordered a peach tart; the puff pastry was not exemplary, but the brown butter ice cream was. There were also sorbet and a chocolate pudding cake. All fine, all pleasant, all far short of regrettable.
Central Standard Kitchen & Bar has been criticized by some for being too precious, for service that is a bit too full of itself. I noticed that only when the hostess made four of our party wait in the entryway until the final two of us arrived, though the dining room was not yet crowded and our table was available. She seemed unaware, though we stood not five feet from her, that our presence was blocking passage from the front door to the bar area. We attempted to stay out of the way, but it was impossible. Minor point, easy to rectify. Go here and eat well.