- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
My fiancee stole a cursory glance at the Bonhomie menu and then surveyed the minimalist space from our seats at the end of the open kitchen.
“What exactly is the concept again?” she asked.
I’d tossed her a few adjectives to describe the restaurant earlier in the week, but if you live with me, I probably start to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher after a while. And she certainly doesn’t read every single word I write about the constant wave of Austin restaurant openings. It’s one of the many things I love about her.
Then I said, “The chef described it as Waffle House meets French bistro.”
She looked around again and noted the booths and their splashes of red, the tall stacks of white plates near the line, the globe light fixtures hanging from the ceiling and the food-warming bulbs that extend on springy coils. She spotted the selection of pommes rosti in the middle of the menu. It all clicked.
“Of course,” she said. “That’s brilliant.”
Her eye for detail is another thing I love.
Anyone who’s been to Waffle House knows about “smothered and covered” hash browns, a crunchy mass of griddled potatoes slathered with American cheese and onions. Chef Philip Speer elevates the iconic diner dish to something tastier, lighter and crunchier through a painstaking process.
His team spends almost an hour three times each day washing the starch from two varieties of potatoes — Yukon Gold gives creaminess, and russets provide crunch and structure. Starch is later added back to the shredded potatoes that are woven into a thin bird’s nest that is frozen and then fried to order at brunch, lunch and dinner.
But the complicated steps don’t really matter to a diner. What matters is the flavor. As four-time James Beard semifinalist pastry chef Speer told the Austin American-Statesman almost a decade ago about dessert-making, “The idea is to showcase the food, not the techniques.”
You aren’t worried about the prep work of the latticed potatoes, their slight chew balancing the creaminess, when you’re digging into toppings like a decadent primal wobble of seared and scored foie gras engulfed in a pool of cognac gravy with a sidecar of a perfectly poached egg ($19).
Another heavy hitter from the pommes rosti roster is the version that carries sweet, lacquered hunks of lardon, a precariously tilted oversize beret of soft scrambled eggs and a gentle mound of housemade boursin cheese ($11). Not all of the rosti will weigh you down like a Michelin-starred truck driver — there’s my first choice, a take on lox-and-bagel with smoked salmon, dill, capers, tomatoes and creme fraiche ($16), and a dainty high-ender speckled with caviar ($24).
The rosti may be the menu centerpiece and the narrative driver, but they’re only a small part of the story and not even my favorite things on the menu — I think the potato circumference could be slightly smaller, and I felt like a miser trying to scoop every hidden bit of caviar. I’m not even sure I could name just one favorite thing on a menu that consistently impressed at both lunch and dinner with diner and bistro classics powered by technique and assertive flavors.
Like the back hallway art that features a Parisian name-checking poster on one side and a down-on-his-knees Otis Redding on the other, the great dishes at Bonhomie often pingpong from France to America. There is a sublime Lyonnaise salad ($15), dotted with hazelnuts and meaty lardon, that is highlighted by tender and crunchy octopus that I assume was cooked sous vide and finished with a rice-flour-dusted flash fry. The cheeseburger makes slight concession to France with a slick of tangy Dijonnaise spread across a light but dense milk bun that squeezed two juicy patties made from sirloin and brisket ($10.95), the glossy bun reminding again of Speer’s pastry pedigree.
Straddling the France-America continuum, like the restaurant’s name itself, was a buttery croissant filled with brisket served with an anise-packed pho broth ($7), a Texas-French dip play with a nod to the former French colony of Vietnam. The burger and French dip were so excellent they almost made the tame croque monsieur ($12), with its parsimonious shreds of ham, forgivable.
During one visit I wondered what would drive Speer and his partner, Sean McCusker, formerly a partner in the popular New Orleans cocktail bar and bistro Sylvain, to open such a concept. According to Speer, they decided to create the kind of restaurant at which they like to eat. And Speer had a sense it was one that the community surrounding the Burnet corridor would support, a hunch validated by a packed house at dinner. But the menu also feels like a great opportunity to simply show your skill. There is something leveling about bistro classics done right. It’s a high-low mix that blends time-earned talent with a baseline of humility.
The French onion soup, with its sweet caramelized onions and bubbling layer of cheese ($10), was the Platonic ideal of French onion soup. The gnocchi a la Parisienne traded in weighty potatoes for a cloudlike mixture of butter, flour and eggs, the brown butter wash more a coquettish whisper than a shout ($9).
The dinner entrees are what you’d hope to find if you stumbled into a Parisian bistro without the aid of a guidebook. Roasted fennel infused licorice tingle into a dish of tender Gulf prawns served with spring peas, and a bed of roasted root vegetables supported a tawny half-chicken wrapped in crackling auburn skin. Pair that with a glass of 2014 Tyler Winery Chardonnay ($15) from the slim but adaptable list, and I can’t imagine a complaint. And, at $20, they were two of the most expensive dishes on the dinner menu, news that will provide as much comfort as the flavor for a dining public that has grown weary of small portions and sticker shock in recent years.
If you’re sliding into a place that bills itself as Waffle House meets Parisian bistro, you probably aren’t expecting to count calories or eat light, but Bonhomie can play to that crowd as well, with an awesome side of tangy and acidic haricot verts zipped with lemon and sherry vinaigrette ($9), and the textural explosion of a salad made with slow-roasted carrots, bitter greens, cumin-forward masala-spiced yogurt and nuts ($9). Though if I never hear a server say the word “roughage” again or ask if he could make anything “more perfect,” it will be too soon.
And for those who will always recall Uchi when they think of Speer, a 10-year veteran of the Austin stalwart, the change-of-pace salmon crudo dish topped with tomato granita and brightened by basil, blood orange and salty-sweet cantaloupe ($16) is one of the best dishes you’ll eat this summer.
From the croissant to the milk bun, Speer’s pastry chops are evident throughout the menu, but you can get a real sense of his history in the desserts. Your mind could race all the way back to his time at Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery with a decadent chocolate cake with Valrhona ganache ($8) that somehow tasted like toasted cinnamon-raisin bread, and the layers of a delicate mille feuille ($8) oozing with Meyer lemon curd and touched with basil blossom might recall his stint at Jean Luc’s Bistro or his experimentation with sweet-savory-and-structure at Uchi. But it’s probably the banana split, of profiteroles and vanilla ice cream sitting atop caramelized bananas ($9), that best captures what Speer is after at Bonhomie: France and America. High and low. Familiar and fun.