Going with the flow: Chicon brings refined comfort to neighborhood

There are rarely second acts in the lives of American restaurants. If it doesn’t work the first time, a design change, new menu or intermission usually doesn’t fix the problem.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s thoughts on reinvention appear in two separate works — one with a pessimistic tone, the other more optimistic. Chicon owners Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart apparently take the latter point of view.

Their East Austin restaurant Gardner lasted a little over a year, closing in March. With a veggie-forward menu of artful, precise, at times dainty food inspired in part by modernist Scandinavian cuisine, the restaurant made a bold attempt to integrate fine dining into a scene increasingly inhospitable to refinement.

And it wasn’t just the menu, which vacillated from a la carte to prix fixe after difficulty finding traction with diners. The space, with its dark slate walls and dim lighting, was beautiful, if austere. All of this in a relaxed neighborhood long known for tacos and dive bars.

When Congress as well as Gardner neighbor LaV closed within days of each other around New Year’s Day, the message crystallized: Austinites had grown weary of fine dining. The Gardner partners heard the verdict. Instead of slumping their shoulders, pulling up and stakes and packing away their ambition, they closed the restaurant in early March and reimagined what it could be.

They already had a blueprint. Their popular ranch-inspired restaurant Contigo a few miles north has had success with a rustic-yet-refined aesthetic, approachable food and a laid-back vibe. With the experiment in stepping outside of their (and their customers’) comfort zone having run its course, the partners in late March transformed Gardner into Chicon, Contigo’s sister to the south.

Gone were precious, though impressive, small plates sometimes offering a bite or two of food, replaced with more easily shareable snacks and dips like creamy whipped feta brightened by mint, pickled green tomato and dill ($7); a lush smoked trout spread tangy with pickled shallots ($8); and velvety carrot hummus planted with flags of raw vegetables ($7). Those dishes, the kind that everyone at the table can take multiple swipes at without drawing the ire of tablemates, make for a more communal feel to dinners at Chicon that contrast with the restrained and polite proceedings at Gardner.

Puffed and flossy seeded Parker House rolls accompanied the carrot hummus and exhibited the skill of the pastry team, which also shined at brunch with my favorite banana bread in town ($5) — moist, light and kissed with whipped chamomile butter. The fluffy brioche of the Elvis plate ($16) at brunch was fit for a king, but the dish, with its tough, burned pork belly and dollops of peanut butter mousse and whipped coconut cream, felt gimmicky and heavy-handed in a way that’s beneath Chicon.

The restaurant doesn’t intimidate with stoicism like Gardner, but it is still refined and elegant in a masculine way. The restaurant has more flow, with the host stand and open bar now visible from the dining room, and leather-backed chairs soften the wood and iron. Colorful throw pillows, dangling bulbs and accents of Williamsburg blue on the walls give a Southwestern warmth to the space. Chicon is a pair of slightly worn jeans to Gardner’s cashmere turtleneck, but we’re talking cowboys as conceived by Ralph Lauren, not Waylon Jennings.

The Southwestern flare extends to dishes like the guajillo chili-spiked sweet, salty and smoky chorizo hash with fried egg, corn and tender fingerling potatoes at brunch ($15). Brunch here isn’t just repurposed dishes from the previous week with an egg tossed on top. It will likely be one of my new go-to spots for the Sunday meal, thanks to hot fried chicken ($16) that won’t burn your face or decimate your sinuses; a replica of the popular Contigo burger ($13), seared and shrouded in white cheddar on a pillowy challah bun; and a smoked trout taco with spicy buttermilk dressing served on camp bread, a pastry nod to Contigo and Chicon’s South Texas ranch roots.

That camp bread, toasted and bubbled like cowboy pita, also came with a tawny half chicken wrapped in crackling skin ($36) for a make-your-own-taco group experience. The chicken and a massive 36-ounce T-bone ($78) supplement a small selection of entrees highlighted by the best fish I’ve had since … well, I can’t recall. Seared to a crunchy finish, the meaty striped bass ($22) sat atop sweet and creamy corn, with tangy ribbons of zucchini and a vibrant but controlled coriander salsa verde elevating the dish.

A thoughtful server paired the fish and an appetizer of electric heirloom tomatoes and watermelon salad ($11) with a glass from an open bottle of Vermentino from Ryme Vineyards ($52 a bottle), the white wine’s peach and nectarine flavors transitioning to nut and honey with the fish.

Fermented green chili powder dusted the bass and showed that Wiseheart had not forsaken the thoughtful touches that helped elevate Gardner.

A large selection of small, shareable plates and charcuterie make up much of the menu at Chicon. Those dishes feature creative spins like grapefruit zest and yogurt that added tartness to the earth of red and yellow beets with green garlic and pecans ($10); unexpected crunchy fried potato skins in a rich and supple dish of gnocchi and braised goat dusted with Parmesan cheese ($14); and tangy carrot mustard and smoked carrots that gave complexity to a sumptuous chicken liver pâté.

The kitchen’s errors, repeated at multiple meals, all derived from the sin of over-salting — whether it be on the red wheat crackers with the smoked trout dip, the borderline inedible duck ham and kimchi ($8) or the lime salt on the compressed strawberries of an otherwise lovely coconut cake ($6) with pools of electric lime curd.

Frequenters of Gardner will remember several desserts as too clever by half, the restaurant attempting to slide savory squares into sweet round holes. While Gardner deserved commendation for pushing the boundaries with desserts that incorporated hay, pumpkin and parsnip, those imaginative creations can’t compete with the familiarity of Chicon’s pear-laced chocolate brownie and its melting cap of black pepper ice cream ($6).

When I told people earlier this year that Gardner had closed, I often heard the same response: “That’s too bad. I never got to try that place” — the respondent’s rationale, of course, not taking into account his own culpability. But Gardner, with its stark vibe and serious food, proved a tricky draw. With the hard edges smoothed and the cuisine and aesthetic softened without being dumbed down, Edgerton and Wiseheart’s Chicon shouldn’t need a second chance to make a first impression.

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