Southern charm sometimes strained at Fixe

12:00 a.m. Thursday, April 9, 2015 Austin360 Eats

The owners of Fixe named their restaurant in part as a nod to the satisfaction received from eating comfort food. Diners around the country, and here in Austin, inarguably crave the familiar and reworked tastes of the South. And the supply has finally caught up (and maybe surpassed) the long-standing latent demand, as new spins on old classics arrive seemingly each month.

With dishes of the American South come the expected aesthetic trappings, and this downtown restaurant that opened on Christmas Eve gamely plays the part. Despite its high-dollar downtown address, ornate gold logo and location at the bottom of the sleek IBC Bank building, Fixe might have you believe it’s just another down-home establishment. Its tag: “Austin’s Southern House.”

The anteroom of the modern building presents like a faux front porch, replete with rocking chair, and the dimly lit and expansive space fronted by a massive bar is dotted with quaint touches like old dishes and distressed fixtures intended to give the sense of history and character. But the large restaurant teems with a rambunctious energy usually found at downtown hot spots, the rusticity rattled by a see-and-be-seen vibe. The result is an odd hybrid that feels part themed steakhouse and part tourist exhibit honoring the American South, rather than an organic representation of the region.

The attempt to transport guests from the restaurant’s energized clublike reality to the pastoral ideal receives the biggest boost from a centerpiece seating area designed to feel like a patio, though the wood and wire reminded me of a chicken coop. And the chickens aren’t napping. Fixe is one of the loudest restaurants in Austin. I enjoy a lively restaurant, and a boisterous crowd often means a happy crowd. But on one visit we had to repeatedly lean in to the server to hear explanations, while tuning out spilled conversation from neighboring tables.

The design feels recently unwrapped from its plastic, but the entire staff at Fixe, overseen by general manager and Eddie V’s veteran Keith House, delivers hospitality with warmth and attentiveness. And the cuisine from executive chef and fellow Eddie V’s alumnus James Robert and his crew, while sometimes confusing and overwrought, makes sincere strides to deliver on the flavors we equate with Southern dining.

The humble biscuit has reached exalted status with diners across the country, becoming a requisite menu item at any restaurant that mutters the word “South.” Fixe makes a solid, if not spectacular version ($6), one night golden and crunchy on the outside with interiors of wispy steam-softened clouds, but on another night that crunch turned firm and the inside gummy. I didn’t need the red currant jam or the spicy primal funk of ’nduja and longed for the salty sweetness of honey butter.

Potato salad and deviled eggs complete any Southern Sunday meal. I enjoyed Fixe’s light twist on the former, tiny potatoes tossed with smoked trout and crème fraiche served on brioche chips and topped with the acidic tingle of shaved lemon ($6). But the deviled eggs ($6) tasted too much of my grandmother’s go-to condiment, Durkee sandwich spread, though she never would have had the ingenuity to ornament the concoction with jewels of smoked trout roe and grated tasso ham.

I like that Fixe brings the unexpected. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the tinkering needs tweaking. A dish of grains (from the menu’s “chilled” section) was a fantastic combination of earth and sea, with mushrooms and smoked uni splashing their exotic blend against the pebbled texture of puffed and cooked grains ($8).

A dish of beets strayed beyond the line of intriguing into overwhelming. Pickled and cooked beets and crunchy discs of pickled sunchoke (a nice take on the popular ingredient) sat in a messy bowl of chive oil, buratta cheese, mushrooms and very pungent fermented ranch dressing ($8). The ambitious dish blended sweet, sour, cream, earth, brightness and varied texture, but a slight edit would have improved the appeal without diminishing the complexity.

The kitchen celebrates grits with a trio of the Southern staple. The carnivore (a deal at $13) worked best, with slightly charred and boneless local quail the centerpiece of a dish spotted with pickled pears and pecan granola, and laced with a smoky barbecue consommé. The pescavore version ($15) blended salt, sea and the warmth of brown butter, with shrimp and bottarga in a creamy pile of grits. The shrimp in the grits had a suppleness not found in the tough dish of pickled shrimp ($14) delivered in an otherwise enlivening concoction of carrot, fennel and radish splashed with lime juice and brightened with fresh herbs.

Louisiana native Robert nods to his roots with a tame boudin ($12); excellent puffed fried oysters on a plate of beef tartare and Southern blini ($17); and a flaky and steaming pot pie stuffed with lobster and expressive crawfish ($22). The best seafood I had at Fixe was what we might call a surf-and-swine: meaty grouper ($22), given a sweet richness with a slight bite from blue crab, parsnip velouté, pickled garlic and a melted layer of translucent lardo.

Despite his creative culinary flare, Robert does not shy from playing covers of the biggest Southern hits. The fried chicken might well be Fixe’s “Free Bird,” the juicy, buttermilk-bathed chicken smoked and double fried then drizzled with a spicy honey that’s as gratuitous yet welcome as an extended guitar solo ($18). The kitchen improvises with brisket, circulating veal to a relaxed tenderness that holds together under a charred and caramelized finish. That sweetness is complemented by a decadent mound of confit butternut squash and cubes of torched espelette marshmallows dusted with foie gras shavings ($24). Pair that dish with the bar’s barrel-aged Manhattan ($12) that gets its own sweetness from a speared hunk of candied bacon.

The inventiveness extends into dessert with less compelling results, such as a Meyer lemon cake that dissolved like astronaut ice cream ($7) and a red bean beignet and toasted rice ice cream dish that straddled Thailand and New Orleans ($7) without ever finding its home.

Fixe’s interpretations of Southern food both charm and confound. At times the imagination lacks precision, and the restaurant’s attempted authenticity feels more like a commodity. One being sold on a trading floor flooded by the din of raised voices.