The western edge of downtown glistens with glass and steel. Streets appear plucked from a Disney exhibit championing the virtues of capitalism and app-driven ingenuity. They hold no menace. The scene is absolutely pleasant. And terribly generic.
So it goes with the evolving downtown of a youngish city embracing its role as one of the darlings of new urbanism. The problem is that much of our new downtown doesn’t look terribly different from the new downtowns in many cities growing from the outside in. That homogeny includes corporate restaurants and chains that can afford the high rents, shiny stuff that often lacks local character or identity.
New Waterloo, the smart Austin-based company that operates the South Congress Hotel complex, Sway, La Condesa and more, is probably one of the few local groups that could afford a large space in the hotbed of growth. But their French brasserie, Le Politique, leaves one with a taste of ambivalence that longs for satisfaction but leans toward disappointment. Instead of setting up shop and putting out its elbows to defend and define its space with a confidence, uniqueness and warmth that represents Austin, it takes the safe approach of a plug-and-play spot you might find in Dallas. Or Orange County.
The bar area captivates with globe light bulbs, royal blue rattan chairs, a marble countertop at the raw bar and checkerboard flooring. But that promise dissipates as you enter the vast dining room decorated sparsely with distressed mirrors, blush curtains and admittedly cool art deco light fixtures that unfortunately emit a glow that can make you feel like you’re dining in an old aquarium. The space, all French country white and dark brown furniture, has a restrained elegance but almost echoes with its sparseness. It’s less convivial hot spot than showroom at a Le Restoration Hardware outlet.
You might want to approach the beginning of a meal here in proper brasserie fashion. Spring for a dozen oysters at a stout $44 and pair them with one of several glasses of bubbles on the menu or the minerality of a bottle of Jean-Paul & Benoit Droin Chablis ($61), while trying to manage your discontent over the absence of a muscadet option.
Then move on to a selection of charcuterie ($18) that may include a pâté grand-mère, the velvety but firm mixture of pork and chicken liver studded with prunes and dotted with eye-popping whole grain mustard, or a pâté en croûte containing a round of pale boudin blanc. If your tastes tend to the decadent side, duck foie gras terrine circumscribed in Madeira gelee ($28) will not disappoint, and the light slabs of spiced and mildly sweet pain d’épices will not only balance the terrine but give an early appreciation of the exceptional pastry program.
The well-executed charcuterie, along with a rich and smooth boudin blanc entree ($22) perfumed with truffles and slicked with the dark fruit dessert wine flavors of a sauce Périgueux, speaks to the French background of Le Politique executive chef Derek Salkin, who has worked for Joël Robuchon and Jean Georges.
Not a fan of raw oysters or forcemeats? You’ll probably reach for safer starters that hit as often as they miss. There’s the well-developed French onion soup capped with nutty melted Comté cheese ($12) and smoky salmon rillettes topped with snow-white crème fraîche ($16) that you’ll want to spread on any baked good you can get your hands on. But there’s also a wet crab remoulade ($12) and mealy steak tartare ($15).
The mood of my dinners in the main dining room mirrored the dishes — fine, though not especially memorable. I wanted the light more honeyed and the trout almondine ($27) less dry. The service was at times as polite and smooth as the roasted chicken and whipped potatoes ($26), though other times the awkwardness of forgotten drinks and mistaken orders was as thick as the sauce soubise on an otherwise fine plate of plump gnocchi Parisienne ($18) or the sauce ravigote plopped along a side of haricot verts ($6).
If you’re not reliant on robust ambiance to complement a meal, slip in for a breezy brunch on the haphazard sidewalk patio and marvel at the beauty of a Norwegian galette ($15), a mash of smoked salmon hiding beneath a sunny egg jiggling in the aperture of a delicate ale and buckwheat crêpe enlivened by vibrant caper-dill sauce. It’s a perfectly civilized way to spend a weekend morning. But when we think of brasseries or bistros, we think of energy, bonhomie and electricity.
But how do you manufacture excitement and replicate brasserie dining culture? The bar area in the evening comes much closer than the vacuous main dining room, though if you are seated at a table along the wall, you run the risk of disappearing from the affable but overextended staffs’ radars amid the sea of people. Pull up a rattan chair and turn to the classics: a beefy and rosy steak frites ($30) served with a glass of merlot or gamay; or a glass of cabernet sauvignon from the all-French list to accompany a rich beef Bourguignon ($32) that falls apart easily, snaring lush lashes of creamy whipped potatoes.
A few more expected classics mark the plats du jour section of the menu, though we had no luck ordering the sole meunière on its assigned Friday. The daily specials menu, with its French spellings of dishes and days of the week, attempts to ascribe authenticity in a place lacking the requisite soul or history and seems too cute by half.
That preciousness extends to some of the bar’s politically themed design, with icons of crossed red and blue fingers on the saucers to represent politicians’ hollow promises and photos of President Lyndon B. Johnson adorning the walls.
While the aesthetic nods are admirable, the theme in general doesn’t hold together. I can’t imagine a lobbyist or politician walking more than a mile from the Capitol to eat a meal amid a crowd that is more GQ than Quorum Report, and Johnson would probably have some pretty salty words for anyone who tried to sell him white sturgeon caviar and potato chips for $125.
The theme falls flat, but the pastry department, led by executive pastry chef Alyssa Hurlstone, who previously worked at the French Laundry, rises to every occasion. The buttery toast points served with the beef tartare, airy gougères with a touch of cheese ($6), flaky and savory ham-and-cheese croissant ($5) and imaginative macarons, grabbed as a midday treat from the patisserie, served as a sneak peek for Le Politique’s pièce de résistance — dessert.
A glossy bombe au chocolat ($10), an orb of chocolate mousse and salted caramel sitting atop a speculoos cookie with a downy scoop of crème fraîche ice cream, explodes with bitter, sweet, salty and tart harmony; the wheel-shaped Paris-Brest ($10), pralines gripping to the supple pâte à choux pastry split by rippled twirls of hazelnut ice cream, is a perfect version of the form.
The desserts stir conversation at the table. They’re classic but unique. They excite and transport. They highlight the best of Le Politique, while simultaneously revealing what the restaurant is lacking.
110 San Antonio St. 512-580-7651, lepolitiqueaustin.com
Rating: 7 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Brunch: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Limited midday service available from 3 to 5 p.m. daily.
Prices: Fruits de mer, $12-$36. Hors d’oeuvres, $6-$28. Entrees, $18-$68. Plats du jour, $22-$55. Caviar, $50-$195.
The order: Oysters, salmon rillettes, French onion soup, beef Bourguignon.
Expect to pay: $60 (per person, does not include alcohol, tax or tip)
Notes: Valet parking ($8) is available in evenings at garage entrance on San Antonio Street. Free weekday parking, with validation, available until 3 p.m. at garage on Nueces Street.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Though mannered and at times exquisite, Le Politique lacks the vibrant charm and sense of place for which you might hope.