Thursday, May 27, 2010

Justine's Brasserie

Deep in far east Austin lies a new mecca, an "if you build it, they will come" establishment. On East 5th Street, even east of Springdale, lies Justine's Brasserie, a renovated cottage house on a big lot, surrounded by warehouses, that has brought causal French bistro food to the gentrifying neighborhood. I had been to Justine's once before, in early October, on a Thursday evening, following a work function. As we were driving there at 10 pm, my first thought was "where the heck are we going?", followed by "is it even going to be open?". Not only were they open, they were packed. And on this, my second time there, on a Monday night, they were filled up inside, with only a few little tables outside available. 

Four of us arrived at 7:30 pm and told the hostess we were expecting at least 3 more people. It was crowded & noisy inside, and we followed the hostess out as she began to pull some small bistro tables together. Then the waitstaff realized there were only two women occupying the large picnic-style table, and they (smartly) asked them if they would mind moving to accommodate our large party. They graciously obliged.  

We started with some wine, and ordered the escargot and charcuterie plate while we waited for the rest of our party. You can smell the escargot coming, as a waft of garlic and olive oil comes drifting towards you. I am not an expert in escargot, and therefore couldn't tell you if they were fresh or canned (they don't taste canned!), but it hardly matters when they are in such a flavorful oil (and served in a proper escargot plate too). Simply delicious!  On the house-made charcuterie plate, from the top in the ramekin, we have a very smooth goose pate, to the right, a duck country-style, and on the left, a pork (and rabbit?) pate. All were very good; I think the duck was my favorite, largely because of the texture, and you could taste various spices in each (garlic, cloves, allspice). The cornichon (gherkins) in the middle of the plate were nice, as the acidity cuts the richness of the meats. I believe the charcuterie plate changes regularly, so it might be some different meats when you go.
 A couple people got the French onion soup as a starter. We all agreed that it was good, but not as great as it could be. The beef broth in it lacked depth, and overall, the soup needed some salt. Certainly an edible bowl of soup, but not spectacular. (And there were mentions of how the Austin Chronicle {I think it was the Chronicle they referenced} said the soup was one of the standouts, so a little disappointing.) A couple people also got the Belgian endive, pear, & Roquefort salad, which I did not try, but it was said to be extremely good by both who ordered it.

For my main course, I ordered the duck confit, which came with thinly cut French fries  and an aioli sauce. It too, was delicious. It was a large duck leg, with fairly crispy skin, and very tender, moist meat (and lots of it!) underneath.  The fries & aioli were perfect. I don't really know what else to say about it, other than I pretty much licked the plate clean!
Continuing on the duck trend, one of my friends ordered the evening special, which was a seared duck breast with baby beets and apples. I had a bite of hers, and the sweetness of the apples matched wonderfully with the savory duck meat; the breast was perfectly cooked and very moist and the skin did not appear to be excessively fatty.

Our waitress was present but not obtrusive. She allowed us space as the remaining members of our party trickled in; she wasn't pushy, and she brought us the extra things we asked for, like bread, in a very timely manner. Apparently she was also attentive, because we were there to celebrate the birthday of one in our party, and when the birthday girl ordered creme brulee for dessert, it came with a candle in it. As we were asking each other "oh, who arranged that?!" our waitress quietly said "I overheard." Kudos!  And the creme brulee was lovely; good contrast of burned sugar top with velvety vanilla custard inside.
Apart from some mosquitoes and flies swarming around at sunset, and the sporadic exhaust from the oxygen tank place across the street, it was a lovely meal on a very lovely occasion. Justine's stayed filled up outside, and when I went inside to use the restroom (which you practically walk into the kitchen to find!), it was still buzzing inside. And remember, this was a Monday night! Clearly the neighborhood has embraced the idea of Justine's, as it's a gem in the middle of the East Austin warehouse district.

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