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Bullfight draws on Spanish influence for its colorful dance

If you think Austin has changed in just the past decade, imagine what the late Gene Johnson would think if he could see it. Most nights you can now find a fleet of luxury cars valet-parked on the piece of land where Johnson repaired cars in the middle of the last century.

That was when Airport Boulevard was a gravel road, not a booming restaurant destination. The home to those glimmering German sports cars today is Bullfight, the modernist, Spanish-themed restaurant from Johnson’s grandson, chef Shawn Cirkiel.

Opened in September, it’s the fourth restaurant from the Austin-raised chef who serves as one of the biggest touchstones for Austin Dining 2.0. If you play a game of Six Degrees of Shawn Cirkiel, you can create a spider web-like network that ensnares almost every chef of consequence in this town. If a chef hasn’t worked under, over or alongside Cirkiel, one of his current or previous co-workers has.

Cirkiel’s demi empire includes Parkside, Backspace and Olive & June. He served as the opening executive chef for Chavez at the revamped Radisson Hotel & Suites in 2014, but that ill-advised marriage never felt like a seamless extension of the Cirkiel brand and ended after about a year.

Bullfight draws on Cirkiel’s long-standing interest in Spanish cuisine, which dates back to his first job after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. While his frequent visits to Spain inform the cuisine, the restaurant helmed by executive chef Ryan Shields (a former sous chef at Olive & June) is not beholden to strict traditions. The result is Spanish food with a New American accent.

A marinated beet salad ($10) couldn’t be considered a staple of Spanish tapas, but here Shields adds sherry vinaigrette, goat milk cheese, almonds and paprika oil for a complex and invigorating Spanish update on the ubiquitous dish. You’d probably expect a gazpacho to be served cold, but on a chilly November night, the comforting soup arrived warm, popped with the crunch of walnuts and tangy burst of pickled grapes ($7). Those dishes appeared on the “vegetables and beans” section that also included the overdone mush of braised parsnips punched with bits of blood orange ($8).

The parsnips were a casualty of timing, which has proven to be an equation Bullfight hasn’t solved. One night, the simply designed but striking restaurant, colored in the sunshine and sea of a Mediterranean afternoon and lined in white brick, overflowed with well-dressed 20- and 30-somethings, the boisterous bonhomie extending from bar to patio. That led to almost 45 minutes left wrestling with a bullish Torero cocktail of rye, apple liqueur and vino rojo ($10) and a light-bodied Palacio de Canedo Mencía from the all-Spanish wine list while we waited on our food.

Once dishes like tender shrimp with garlic and the sunburn sting of paprika ($15), juicy duck meatballs drowned by sweet citrus ($11), and plump scallops dusted with hazelnuts ($16) started arriving, the procession didn’t slow until the bill arrived. The problem: the check beat the final dish to the table. We had already paid the bill by the time our crispy-skinned and flaky hake and its Fresno-pepper-spiced bed of lentils ($24) made it to us.

We weren’t alone in our bewilderment. Eavesdropping — made easy by the one-foot proximity of the next table — revealed that our neighbors had also missed out on a dish. We both departed with to-go containers.

I had just started appreciating the light sweetness and bitter linger of an Acha Blanco vermouth ($10) at another dinner when patatas bravas ($7) drizzled in a mild tomato sauce and rich aioli showed up. The quick materialization confused us until we realized the potato spears, lukewarm on the outside and hot inside, had possibly been waiting in the kitchen prior to our order. Likely next to a fluffy and well-executed Spanish tortilla ($5) that had similar temperature problems.

Those plates are two of about a half-dozen that Bullfight identifies as “classics.” The standards include the Valencian staple paella ($30). The Bullfight rendition includes a brawny chorizo, which nosed its salty punch into the flavor profiles of the supple clams and shrimp. The paella was creamier than I expected, with trace amounts of crispy and chewy socarrat (rice pieces clinging to the bottom of the pan), leaving me to wonder if the rice had been stirred too much during cooking.

Bullfight’s refusal to adhere to tradition resulted in some of the restaurant’s best dishes, like a Mediterranean-hopping miniature lamb burger spiced and cooled with harissa yogurt ($7), and canoe-shaped toasts topped with lump crab and piquillo peppers zipped with lemon aioli ($12) and a sumptuous and soothing spread of shallot butter and urchin roe ($9).

For the robust and energized happy hour and bar crowd, Bullfight offers a handful of snacks like bacon-wrapped dates and fried squid, as well as a selection of Spanish cheeses and cured meats that complement the intriguing selection of about a dozen sherries.

Most people instantly identify Spanish cuisine with the beautiful and prized jamón Ibérico. Twenty dollars gets you a nice portion of the nutty cured meat, which should come in thin but lush, almost candied, slices. The precision was lost at Bullfight, the precious meat cut into thick, mangled slices. It was the culinary equivalent of giving Penelope Cruz a bowl haircut with a dull butter knife.

Cirkiel’s restaurant group pulled former Congress pastry chef Erica Waksmunski from her comfort food trailer, Red Star Southern, earlier this year to serve as executive pastry chef for all four restaurants. As with Olive & June and Parkside, the dessert offerings are limited at Bullfight. But Waksmunski’s play on a Spanish candy bar, topped with decadent chocolate ganache and served with salted caramel ice cream, and the crystalline fragments of honeycomb atop a crema Catalana, make the case that the truncated menu deserves expansion.

Unlike Cirkiel’s other restaurants, which avoid being pinned to an epoch of dining in Austin, Bullfight, with its mod design, young crowds and focus on small plates, feels more trendy. But Cirkiel’s resistance to paint inside the established lines of Spanish cuisine gives the restaurant room to experiment and stay fluid in finding its groove.

I imagine Gene Johnson, whom Cirkiel has said used to stay out all night dancing, would approve, even if parts of the restaurant need a tune up.

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