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South Congress Hotel: A tale of two restaurants


The South Congress Hotel has little company in Austin’s hospitality industry. There are other local and privately owned hotels in the city, but none has rolled out such an ambitious food and beverage operation.

The modernist hotel features three separate restaurants, as well as a coffee shop and juice bar, and it delivers room service. All of this for a hotel with fewer than 100 rooms. The restaurants — Café No Se, Central Standard and Otoko — prove that the South Congress Hotel is as concerned with being a part of the Austin social and culinary scene as it is a place for well-heeled vacationing guests.

Both Café No Sé and Central Standard define themselves with thoughtful and dramatic design, with the California cool of the former and the New York City pomp and glitz of the latter serving as aesthetic bookends for the hotel. (The 12-seat modern kaiseki Otoko will be reviewed at a later date.)

Hexagonal floor tiles echo sea and clouds in Café No Sé’s serene and airy dining room colored with whitewash and wicker. Blue throw pillows plucked from a living room line banquettes beneath wooden bookshelves housing coffeetable books on design, food and culture. A magazine rack even holds recent issues of Variety, nudging the L.A. vibe right up to the point of caricature.

The restaurant serves breakfast (brunch on weekends), lunch and dinner daily, and the menu from executive chef Michael Paley, a veteran of 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville and Cincinnati who also oversees Central Standard, generally complements the lighter aesthetic, though room is made for comfort notes throughout the day.

Creamy avocado toast with soft-boiled eggs, bright greens and aleppo carrots ($13) served as a cool entry point to a brunch that included some of the best ricotta pancakes in town, the lithe banana-studded rounds embraced by the slow march of viscous maple syrup ($12). The hotcakes are further testament to the brilliance of executive pastry chef Amanda Rockman, who also delivers at brunch a crusty kouign amann ($4) that defies science: how can so much butter and sugar combine for a pastry this light? Crack the caramelized shell and the bread almost dissolves like a cloud.

Rockman’s creations continued to impress throughout the day and into the evening, with dessert highlighted by a playful gingerbread ice cream bar topped with flowers of toasted meringue ($7) at lunch and her signature golden Basque cake ($12) laced with bright citrus and given sweet depth and complexity from charred dates and the rich tingle of speculoos at dinner.

Rotating daily crudo specials of velvety fish punched with citrus and chilies ($16) and a poke bowl ($14) of ruby tuna chunks jumbled with the crunch and bite of pistachios, olives, pickled jalapeño and grapefruit glowed with freshness and reflected the coastal influence at lunch. Even stouter proteins got a light touch, like chicken thighs braised in yogurt and served as a chicken salad sandwich crunchy with vibrant chayote slaw and peanuts dusted with garam masala ($13).

OK, not all the dishes are worried about restraint. You’d assume the brawnier Central Standard would have the better burger. You’d be wrong. Café No Sé’s burger ($13) is an unapologetic nostalgia tickler (and one of the top 10 in town) with its Kraft singles melting over double patties sandwiched between pillowy and absorbent sesame seed buns.

While Café No Sé evokes California, it also touches on other sunny spots. In addition to the Indian-spiced peanuts in the chicken salad sandwich, you’ll find other global influences on the Café No Sé menu, from a spread of white bean hummus flecked with Middle Eastern herbs at lunch ($13) to tangy and tender lamb ribs stacked atop cauliflower and potato chaat slicked in an exhilarating charmoula ($34). That dish and another with broad ribbons of housemade pappardelle twisted around hunks of braised rabbit showered with the salty grace of pecorino cheese and celery ($24) have bistro heart, but dinner at Café No Sé seems slightly out of place. Despite solid execution and a nice variety of flavors that play off the established theme, dinner in the window-wrapped cafe felt like we had snuck into a pop-up event at a closed restaurant built for morning and afternoon service.

Having mastered breakfast, brunch and lunch with both its point of view and aesthetic, it would make sense to have Café No Sé serve as the South Congress Hotel’s dining destination for daylight hours, while leaving its swanky big brother up the sidewalk to host dinner.

While Café No Sé has the confidence and style of your sophisticated aunt who moved to Laurel Canyon in the ’60s and later Malibu after her career as a production designer took off, Central Standard feels like your day-trading uncle who’s relocated to New York and wants you to buy into the façade of his fancy new life.

From its bold font that looks plucked from a Scorsese movie poster to its emerald tiled raw bar and gold light fixtures and panels partially shielding the open kitchen, the high-ceilinged restaurant swaggers with big-city grandeur and elegance. The north side of the restaurant and patio provide stunning views of a growing downtown skyline fit for a city, not a town.

With the exception of the Gulf provenance of the oysters, the creamy oyster soup and its touch of tangy brine intend to transport you to Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan, another brown and gold beauty laid head-to-toe with tile ($15). The accompanying uni toast doubled down on sumptuous flavors of the sea, but make sure to order a loaf of warm tanned potato bread with the gloss and hue of Italian loafers ($9). It pulled apart to reveal a flossy spiraled heart. The dish is part of a growing trend of charging for artisan bread with adorned homemade butter (here smoked sea salt), and it’s worth the added expense.

Rockman is responsible for the bread and all the baked goods at the hotel, like a pretty hibiscus-glazed and grapefruit-dotted cake doughnut at brunch ($5). It’s an artful spin on the morning favorite.

Unfortunately, most of Central Standard’s dinner menu shares little of that spirit or delicateness, and few surprises.

Lobster billed as chilled would have been better referred to as cold, the stingy meat firm and tough ($24). An overcooked New York strip ($38) buried beneath meaty oyster mushrooms and thyme lacked a seasoned sear, and though an herb confetti brought life to skewered mahi mahi ($32), the fish was harder to get through than our comically long dinner. Even classics like a wedge salad ($11) and a deconstructed Caesar ($14) that needed more anchovy didn’t get me in a New York state of mind.

I don’t know if Central Standard is trying to broadly cater to travelers or create a transportive vibe for Austinites, but the South Congress Hotel is not a businessman’s destination, and the New York style alone is unconvincing. Whatever the idea, Central Standard is asking you to believe in something of which the food can not convince you.

I would eat brunch just about anywhere to get Central Standard’s creamy bowl of chopped deviled egg salad topped with chives ($8), but the formal setting isn’t warm enough for brunch. We felt like interlopers at the hotel restaurant on a Sunday morning. If you’re going to brunch as a non-guest at a hotel, you want the meal to have a sense of occasion; instead, it just felt like a meal shoehorned into the wrong space.

The seared tuna ($22) with its mango and avocado salad looked tired and sloppy. Overly salty and tough salmon was wisely masked beneath the hollandaise of eggs Benedict ($15), and the fluff of French toast was squashed by globs of lumpy whipped ricotta and cloying fruit jam ($15). Given the quality of all the baked goods from Café No Sé, as well as a dense chocolate lava cake ($11) at Central Standard, I was surprised to find a tasty cheddar bacon fat biscuit with the structural integrity of a sand castle ($5).

Even the burger ($18), with it unctuous bone marrow onions and cheddar cheese, felt false, like its upmarket intentions alone could carry the dish. Like much of Central Standard, the burger had no definable soul.

The operators of the South Congress Hotel obviously invested equal energy in envisioning restaurants that could stand alone while complementing their beautiful hotel. Café No Sé quickly developed a voice and point of view that helped it add to the culinary conversation in Austin, but Central Standard still struggles to be something more than a serviceable hotel restaurant, despite its considered polish.



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