- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Aquarelle hid in plain sight just off West Sixth Street for more than a decade. Amid the strip stuffed with burgers, pizzas and sandwiches, the French culinary artistry practiced at Aquarelle felt like an indulgent and rewarding retreat.
Chef Teresa Wilson co-founded the charming dollhouse restaurant in 2000, after 17 years at Italian restaurant Basil’s, and she brought the French restaurant to a place of prominence in Austin’s dining scene. She and her partners sold the restaurant in 2012, and Wilson took a respite from the industry.
She returned to the scene in January with a new approach. Sala & Betty departs from the high French technique and flavor profiles of Aquarelle for a homespun play on comfort. Wilson’s concept for the restaurant was to deliver well-rounded, responsibly sourced meals for busy families (and the rest of us) without skimping on flavor.
The two namesake sandwiches at the airy and homey restaurant both include crunchy auburn french fries wedged between tawny and crusty bolillo rolls. Tender roasted chicken spilled from the Sala ($8.50), the sandwich awoken from its smoky nap with refreshing cilantro-mint yogurt.
Stuffed with juicy pork, the fat running crisp at its edges, the Betty ($8.50) is no dainty wallflower, doubling down on richness with smoked tomato aioli and green chili queso. The Mr. T. (named after Wilson’s husband, Terry) also packs fries into its layers of chewy smoked sirloin on a bolillo roll slathered with avocado aioli and blue cheese dressing ($10).
On multiple visits, the regular hamburger ($10.50) and the tonier “gourmet burger” with tomato jam and Dijonaise ($12.50) were ordered medium but suffered from too much time on the grill, all shades of pink vanquished by the heat.
The roster of sandwiches (which can alternatively be ordered in a kale wrap or cauliflower tortilla at an additional charge) also includes a shrimp po-boy and vegetarian options, and accounts for about half the lunch menu. The other half is dedicated to a few salads, soups and chalkboard specials, as well as several Texas-raised meats (those found in the Sala, Betty and Mr. T.) served by the pound ($17-$19) and some side dishes ($4 for small and $8 for large).
One lunch special named “veggie delight” burst with the sweetness of persimmons and caramelized Brussels sprouts atop a tangle of rice noodles. The $7 dish spoke to Sala & Betty’s commitment to seasonal and regional sourcing and appealing prices, but the noodles sank in an overwhelming bath of coconut cream sauce.
Lunch is a counter-service affair at the restaurant defined by subway tile, caged light fixtures, stained cements floors and wood fixtures inside and a large covered patio colored with Carolina blue furniture outside. The evenings take on a slightly more formal air, with table service and an expanded menu.
The meats by the pound also hold a major place on the dinner menu and serve as the backbone of the to-go menu offered at Sala & Betty’s drive-thru operation. The drive-thru functions throughout the day and night (breakfast service came to a halt a few months ago), which may be a questionable decision.
At a recent mid-week dinner, the kitchen felt the strain of servicing a restaurant buzzing with customers inside, outside and in the drive-thru lane. Since the restaurant advertises itself as family-friendly, invites diners’ families into its home, and promises “TLC” served “PDQ,” I took seven family members with me to dinner. Another group of the same size arriving minutes before us apparently had the same idea, and the sudden wave of guests crashed internal operations, with 45 minutes passing between ordering and the arrival of entrees. I’m not an expert on children, but in my experience they get restless after sitting too long without food. So do many adults.
A delayed gnocchi appetizer ($7) helped momentarily satiate our antsy crew, its perfumed, come-hither thyme-brown butter sauce punctuated with the vegetal brace of Swiss chard, the crunch of celery and a puckering apple cider gastrique.
A family-style deal of 1 pound of meat and two sides is intended to serve four people. The smoked beef sirloin (sourced from Strube Ranch in North Texas) shined with its deep crimson center, but the dry meat was ornery and under-seasoned. The accompanying avocado aioli added some life, but a little of that stuff goes a long way. Tender cubes of tomato-stewed potato lost their bright acidic punch under a lacquer of melted cheese, but garlic green beans popped with flavor and texture.
The family-style concept of roasted and smoked meats served by the pound with homemade sides reminded me of prepared meals from the cases at Central Market or Whole Foods, which makes sense given that Sala & Betty executive chef and fellow Aquarelle veteran Charles Mahle has worked at both high-end grocers.
Service at the restaurant — named for two sisters and staffed with Wilson’s daughter and brother — brimmed with a familial warmth even when the kitchen lagged. The two star dishes — a buttermilk biscuit stacked with fried chicken, fried egg, and bacon beneath a blanket of melted cheddar and gravy ($12) and a clever but tiny meatless mushroom “meatloaf” ($10) topped with roasted tomatoes and fried shallots – epitomized the restaurant’s aims to comfort. The bread pudding tapped similar nostalgia centers, the fluffy and moist bread sweetened with persimmons and persimmon crème Anglaise ($5). The dessert spoke to Wilson’s culinary past while pointing a way forward for a restaurant still struggling to find its way.