- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Nobody in Austin knows how to conceive and package a restaurant concept like the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group.
You see it in the marble counters, seafoam stools and centerpiece aquarium at their Clark’s Oyster Bar; in the Technicolor pastels of French-colonial Vietnamese macaron and pho hot spot Elizabeth Street Cafe; and in the clubby chicness of the group’s posh Jeffrey’s, with its alluring fireplace, Baltic blue couches and martini cart.
The company, led by Larry McGuire and Thomas Moorman, has done more to define and distinguish the look of the current Austin restaurant scene than anyone not named Michael Hsu. Everything at each restaurant is considered, down to the coasters, pens and matchbooks.
Sometimes so much fawning solely over aesthetic and design sounds like one is damning the restaurants with faint praise. Sure, the exposed brick, buttoned-back leather banquettes and historic wooden floors of Lambert’s elevate Central Texas barbecue to a luxe experience, but does the food stand up to the expectation set by the visual appeal? Not always. Such is the peril of having branding and style set such a high bar.
June’s All Day on South Congress Avenue, which opened in late June, strikes the strongest balance of style and substance of any of the MMH brands, with design and menu execution combining for arguably the group’s best restaurant (though Clark’s still has an argument to make).
June’s, named after the restaurant group’s master sommelier June Rodil, took over the 100-year-old building where Wahoo’s Fish Tacos once resided as the sole interloping (if locally franchised) national restaurant brand on South Congress. If the avenue is going to be Austin’s showcase, it should be inhabited by local businesses, and native Austinite McGuire even has a personal relationship with the space, as he started his service industry career at Texas French Bread, which once occupied the historic building.
Those who visited the fish taco joint won’t recognize the space, which got an MMH overhaul. There is the black-and-white checkerboard floor with the scuff and patina of time that makes the restaurant avoid the feel of an obvious newcomer, art deco globe lighting, angular midcentury wooden shelving, a Rolex clock that sits above the entrance to a kitchen tiled head to toe in emerald and white, rattan chairs on the patio, and a cotton candy cloud cutout over the bar. The space is part 1960s Parisian bistro and part Peach Pit.
A television is nestled into the bar at the back of the restaurant, a few feet from a vintage jukebox, and the two entertainment pieces capture the spirit of June’s. One Sunday afternoon the television plays European football; on another night it’s the more bruising American version. French artist Serge Gainsbourg’s dub step-tinged “Lola Rastaquouere” hops through the space at one moment, and the hallucinogenic fuzz rock of “Mr. Soul” by Buffalo Springfield vibrates across it the next (though I sense those tunes actually came not from the jukebox but from the stereo that plays June’s finely curated soundtrack, a feature of most MMH properties).
That contrast and harmony of French and American is seen throughout the menu. There’s the bulbous chilled artichoke ($16) on the all-day menu (read: after 11 a.m.) that you dip into tangy Dijon vinaigrette. Once you have extracted the meat with your teeth, seasoned wait staff whom you may recognize as veterans of another MMH restaurant whisk it away and return the vegetable’s meaty heart topped with a generous scoop of minerally egg salad.
Roasted grouper ($34) with auburn skin sits atop tender spirals of braised leeks, and steak au poivre ($38), bathed in a creamy sauce that hits you in the nose, jiggles like moist red velvet cake under your knife. It’s a perfect rendition of the French classic.
The American side of things turns to a MMH specialty — the cheeseburger ($16). You can find great versions at several of their restaurants. They are all different but all have the same quality of excellence. Here it is in the form of trendy backyard nostalgia, with mayonnaise and ketchup cascading down the sides of pickles that top an American-cheese-caped charbroiled patty nestled inside a poppy seed bun. Kohlrabi slaw tossed in ranch gives extra crunch to the equally trendy fried chicken sandwich, with its crackling golden casing and piquant hot sauce ($14).
June’s doesn’t worry about placing every dish firmly into a French or American context. You might just as easily find the supple snapper carpaccio ($18), awash in fermented citrus, at Clark’s or Perla’s; the matzo ball caldo ($18), with its tender chicken and doughy dumplings that hold together in a broth enlivened with jalapeno but lacking depth, could have been taken from a Mexican-Jewish deli; and an unctuous Bolognese made sumptuous by bone marrow ($23) would find fans from Cincinnati to Central Italy, although I wish the meaty sauce had come with the support of broad ribbons of tagliatelle instead of the springy bird’s nest of fresh tajarin pasta.
The larger dishes, suited more for dinner than lunch, carry hefty price tags. And, with tiny bistro tables packed tightly throughout the space, I feel more comfortable sipping on a glass of dry Triennes rosé ($14) with my fried chicken at lunch than I do indulging in a bottle of 2011 Spring Mountain Vineyard cabernet sauvignon at dinner ($165, the restaurant’s most pricey bottle).
One of my favorite aspects of June’s is the breakfast component, at which fellow MMH restaurants Elizabeth Street and Josephine House also excel. Austin has several breakfast-centric places for all-day pancakes and the like, but fewer traditional restaurants give equal thought to breakfast as they do lunch and dinner.
Here that means a funky lamb merguez sausage flecked with braised greens and stuffed inside a soft pastry ($5); a cafe breakfast ($16) with sturdy triangles of ham and gruyere served alongside an over-easy egg with viscous golden yolk and a honeycombed English muffin; and a massive, crunchy croque madame ($18) topped with a fried egg and lacquered with bronzed and bubbled cheese.
The breakfast menu is served on weekdays, with the weekend brunch menu serving as a greatest hits of the morning and all-day menus. Those include one of my new favorite morning plates, an appetizing board ($14) with pastrami-smoked salmon you drape across a poppy bialy that’s glossy like a bagel and pliant like an English muffin and spread with the sea and singe of a tobiko-wasabi cream cheese, a concoction I’m definitely replicating at home. The bialy and the pastry that blankets the lamb sausage come from an all-day bakeshop menu that you can also turn to do desserts like a molten chocolate brownie smeared with gooey fluff ($4) and an apple upside-down cake ($6) that’s sweet on top and soft through the middle.
Rodil’s wine list stretches from brunch to dinner, and with more whites than reds and a nice selection of about a dozen sparkling, the list lures you to linger. Of course, lingering long with the cool kids requires certain means. June’s is advertised as an all-day restaurant, but if one were to eat three full meals there in one day, she’d likely be out more than $100. Before wine. Yes, it’s expensive, especially for a casual cafe. But curation — from specialty monogrammed plates to an obsessed-over playlist, well-executed menu with broad appeal and rare outdoor sidewalk dining — costs money. It’ll cost you more than a ticket to see a charming French film, but it saves you from splurging on a trip to Paris or the embarrassment of sneaking into a Travis Heights party you weren’t invited to.