“This doesn’t look like Austin.”
“This doesn’t feel like Austin.”
Or, worse: “This looks like Dallas.”
You’ll hear some variation of that lament as you traverse parts of recently sprouted or newly polished Austin.
It’s too sparkling. It’s too slick. It’s too … new.
We like things a little more lived-in around here. Places with character. It doesn’t have to be old, but it helps if it can pass for having been around since before the 21st century. Sometimes just a reincarnation of an old spirit in a new body will do.
At least, that’s how a certain strain of Austinites feel. Many recent transplants, younger consumers and trend-chasers are drawn to the glossy, antiseptic familiarity of mixed-use developments found in every major city in America today. Servicing such disparate masters can be a real challenge.
Welcome to the world of being a restaurant operator today in Austin. The problem is highlighted by the wealth of first-generation restaurant spaces in town. How can you make a new space feel like it has earned history? And how can someone who’s been around awhile avoid the label of newcomer?
The sleek, industrial Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, named after its location in the former Seaholm Power Plant’s ninth boiler room, sits at the crux of Austin’s old-new conundrum. One of Austin’s newest restaurants (it opened this summer), it is located in one of the older buildings in Austin to house a restaurant. The restaurant is centered on the warming cuisine fueled by live-fire cooking, though the space looks like it just got removed from its plastic wrapping. And the team behind it isn’t new, but their context has changed.
The Seaholm Power Plant was built in the middle of the last century, and it is now the shiny mixed-use centerpiece of a courtyard surrounded by towering condominiums that look plucked from a glossy pamphlet promoting the Modern American City. While its neighbors Trader Joe’s, Athenahealth and Under Armour may still be unpacking their bags from their recent arrival to town, the folks behind the multi-tiered Boiler Nine complex, which includes both rooftop and subterranean bars, have been here for years. La Corsha Hospitality Group partners Jeff Trigger and David Bull helmed the Driskill and its award-winning grill during that hotel’s renaissance, which started in the late 1990s, and then delivered Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen to downtown.
Second Bar + Kitchen’s gourmet hamburgers, pizzas and dishes that hybridized New American and Asian flavors may not seem groundbreaking now, but when it opened in 2010, that restaurant definitely shifted what we could expect from casual, modern American cuisine in Austin. It may have just been elevated bar food, but it was refined and well-executed. And it was complemented by great craft cocktails.
Boiler Nine has assumed the mantle as downtown’s leader in New American cuisine, and it stretches the possibilities with bolder offerings and a more distinctive point of view. Executive chef Jason Stude, a four-year veteran of Second and a 20-year Austin resident, directs the kitchen that relies on the brawn of a live fire to create hearty dishes in a space that serves up some cognitive dissonance. While it is cool to see the old Seaholm repurposed to meet the needs of our evolving city, the cold aesthetic of the still-futuristic, Fritz Lang-inspired architecture and the Tetris-like blockiness of Boiler Nine Bar + Grill seem better suited for a restaurant focused on more thematically appropriate cuisine. Maybe molecular gastronomy?
Live-fire cooking is a current trend I happily welcome, especially when it means a tomahawk pork chop striped with ebony char, the pork’s medium-rare finish glowing from the thin-cut strips ($34). A spiced and tangy mound of beans fortified the dish further, though it also felt like a sneaky way to conceal that the tomahawk’s heft relied on a massive handle.
Portion size generally isn’t a problem at Boiler Nine, which serves both lunch and dinner. I thought I may have been accidentally overserved on a generous plate of six kabocha squash ravioli ($21) perfect for the season. The grana padano-dusted pouches with their firm, pinched edges burst with savory squash laced with the sweetness of honeycrisp apple and the crunch of hazelnuts.
Scallops can throw the value equation out of whack at some restaurants, but three giant auburn-seared scallops sitting in a puckering apple cider reduction ($29) felt like a bargain. A jumble of smoky lentils draped with bitter greens made for a robust and balanced dish.
The best comfort dishes remind us not just of experiences we’ve had but those we imagine to have had. The oak-roasted chicken at Boiler Nine ($25) swayed me between the memory of heating up a TV dinner at the age of 12 on one of the first nights my parents let me stay home alone and the gauzy recollection of a 1970s transatlantic flight when you first discovered that airplanes serve actual dinners. I say all that about this crispy-skinned, perfectly seasoned bird, its textural bed of polenta and rich maitake jus with the utmost respect. It represented the comfort of home, joy of freedom and excitement of luxury in a context that felt familiar. How can you ever take the kid back to baked chicken and mashed potatoes once he’s experienced something like this?
The flame’s well-regulated ferocity isn’t reserved for a special section of entrees. It brings out the sweet vegetal pop of okra ($7), and the kitchen wisely balances the smoky veggies by first pickling the emerald spears that come with a tangy comeback sauce and crispy fried onions. Green goddess dressing packed with basil’s floral breath brightens tender fire-roasted root vegetables ($13) dotted with sunflower seeds and cut by feta’s creamy bite.
Director of beverage and bars Jason Stevens and wine director Paula Rester have found myriad ways, at times playful and unexpected, to complement the assertive flavors of the menu. Stevens’ cocktail menu at Boiler Nine includes the clever Lambic Peach Sour ($11), with the sweetness of bourbon and ginger-piqued honey combining to temper sour peach beer and lemon. Rester’s flexible and well-curated list, which features only a few bottles over $80 and a couple of wines on tap, mixes a few eccentric picks into the accessible catalogue. Beer lovers will find several drafts not often found in Austin restaurants, such as selections from Lone Pint in Magnolia and locals Strange Land Brewing.
Stevens provides a fun education in flavor layering on the open-air rooftop bar, Deck Nine Observatory Bar, where he serves a Booze Your Own Adventure menu that allows customers to match one of several spirits with a base concoction, like gin, bourbon or blanco tequila with the lively blackberry and sherry ginger beer ($8 for one or $36 for a bottle). The dark, subterranean Boiler Room hews toward the classics, along with magnums of wine for sharing, and both spaces offer menus with snackable and smaller plates.
Boiler Nine Bar + Grill’s aggressive flavors continue with tangy, fish-sauce-glazed pork ribs ($13) and andouille-studded clams in a fragrant, Chinese-inspired XO sauce ($16), but the menu finds a few places for restraint. Curling ribbons of yellowtail crudo sprinkled with sesame seeds sat in a freeze-frame tumble ($14) on a small plate at dinner, but even that touch of elegance featured the deconstructed Thanksgiving charm of charred cranberry ponzu and dollops of sweet potato puree.
Boiler Nine delivers most of its lighter menu touches for lunch, but even in daylight hours, when the sun comes streaming in from three sides of the tall, glass-walled box, heft is not hard to find. The restaurant has tapped into the thoughtful trend of how people are trying to eat today, scaling back on carbs and using healthy grains and greens to support proteins, as in a kale salad with snapper ($18), or quinoa and apple salad tossed in chickpea dressing and sweetened and punched with raisins and poblano ($11). But, true to form, even the vegetarian dishes speak with authority, like the spicy, red pepper spread muhammara ($10), flecked with candied walnuts and spotted with cooling yogurt.
The commitment to strong flavors sometimes pushes diners into a corner at Boiler Nine. If you love the powerful flavor of onions cooked in a wine reduction, then you’ll probably dig the B9 cheeseburger ($14) at lunch or brunch, even if the bun does have that day-old chew. But, if you don’t, no amount of sharp cheddar, punchy comeback sauce or homemade salt-and-vinegar chips are going be able to save you. If you’re looking for something slightly more traditional, trek up to the rooftop Observatory for a burger ($11) draped with American cheese and amped up with peppers, onions and pickled jalapenos.
The dessert menu also gets tripped up on its own creativity at times, as with a whimsical griddled banana cake ($8) served with grape ice cream that tastes like brunch in bed as made by your spirited but aimless child. But, with a decadent chocolate pudding cake ($8) that lingers between solid and liquid and comes topped with caramel sauce and an orb of butter pecan ice cream, I can forgive almost any well-intentioned mistake.
That perfect dessert, all warm blankets by the fire on a crisp fall night, matched the aim and intention of so much of the food at Boiler Nine. The dishes wrap you with cozy comfort, but the space leaves you cold and vulnerable. Yes, the counter looking into the open kitchen draws you close to the fire and provides some intimacy, but most of the restaurant — with its oddly configured loft, cold steel, hard edges and unforgiving stools that feel like dunking booth planks — feels severe, unforgiving and utilitarian. The incongruity can be distracting.
Boiler Nine knows what it wants to be, but it’s still trying to feel comfortable in its own skin.