Thursday, January 21, 2016

Café No Sé at the South Congress Hotel

Café No Sé, described as Californian-inspired American food, is the more casual eatery at the new South Congress Hotel. Open breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it occupies the northeast corner space at South Congress and Milton Streets, pretty much in the exact spot where Hey Cupcake helped launch the food trailer revolution along SoCo.  Our first challenge though, was figuring out how to get inside! We initially went through the main entrance to the hotel, only to discover the bar and lounge area, but no restaurant entrance from inside. So note to selves: enter the cafe from the street side.

Cafe No Se -- exterior
We had a 6:45 pm reservation on a Thursday night, which ended up being unnecessary, but it never hurts to plan ahead! I was actually surprised the restaurant was almost entirely empty at that time, but it gradually filled as our time there went on. I'd call the decor a modern farmhouse vibe, with sleek moving cabinet doors above the bar station, benches, tile work, and a big communal table. I would imagine in the daytime, the sunlight would make the interior shots quite pretty. Not sure how I feel about the glaring pink neon. Or how this scripted logo relates to the modern block logo with off-set font (at the top of this blog post) that's on their website and social media. Two identities?
Cafe No Se -- interior
Cafe No Se -- interior
I started with a white sangria with sage, which I enjoyed, but in retrospect, might be better in warmer months. My friends both ordered cocktails with different whiskys, and unfortunately the waiter had to come back and tell them that each of spirits they ordered was out of stock, so they had to regroup. Fortunately, they had enough other bourbons + whiskeys in stock, and my friends were happy with their final cocktails.
Cafe No Se -- white sangria with sage
We started with the butternut squash soup, that was smooth and tasty, but the star of this show was the flat bread cracker with chicken liver mousse, carrots, beets, and I think the white dots were goat cheese. Artfully presented, and delicious! I was only sad I had to split the cracker with my friends.
Cafe No Se -- butternut squash soup with chicken liver mousse flat bread
We also shared the quinoa fritters with a cashew butter. These were crisp on the outer parts, but a bit mushy on the inside... yeah, I know, this IS quinoa. But the cashew butter sauce was luscious! I would love a big bowl of the sauce.
Cafe No Se -- quinoa fritters with cashew butter
For mains, one friend ordered the romanesco cauliflower + broccoli, which we all agreed wasn't terribly impressive, but the sprouted lentils with golden raisins and a touch of chile with it was quite lovely.
Cafe No Se -- Romesco cauliflower
Another friend got the burger and fries; the burger seemed a bit salty. Oh, and we had gotten a side order of the fries with the "malt" as listed on the menu; some of the menu descriptions are a bit on the vague side.  Really all it was was fries with Kewpie mayo on top. No malty taste, but the fries themselves were good.
Cafe No Se -- burger and fries
I ordered the lamb ribs from the appetizer menu for my main; they came with a white barbecue sauce, green apples, and peanuts. It was fantastic. I love pork ribs and I love lamb, but I am not sure if I've ever had lamb ribs. The sauce and apples really complimented the light gaminess of the meat. If you're a lamb fan, don't miss out!
Cafe No Se -- lamb ribs with granny smith apple
We decided to split dessert, and it's a good thing we did. This is the Rockman's Basque cake, and the picture doesn't do the size justice. The three of us could barely finish it, and really we each just wanted to lick the plate! It's a buttery cake with speculoos (gingerbready cookie butter) cream, charred dates on the inside, a touch of citrus on top, and sour cream ice cream. Did I mention it was downright heavenly? I can only image what the breakfast pastries are like! Café No Sé could definitely be a stop just for coffee/cocktail and dessert.
Cafe No Se -- Rockman's Basque cake with speculoos cream
And so now, I really would like to go back for another meal, especially if a croissant is involved! After dinner, we discovered there IS a  door exiting the restaurant into the hotel, but there's no door handle or marker from the hotel side. Maybe they leave the door open in the morning for guests to stumble in for breakfast? But leaving the restaurant this way, puts you in the lobby bar area that was quite hopping. Now the architecture and design of the hotel itself is what I would call a 1970s classy throwback. Except that I rather disliked the yellow smiley faces above the bar; to me it just cheapens the look.

Loved the floor to ceiling built-in bookcases/wall dividers in the lobby with their array of succulents; those alone are worth seeing! While admiring those, one friend struck up a conversation with the gentlemen at the front desk; one things led to another, and they offered to let us go look at a couple of rooms. We were shown one of the "standard" rooms on the third floor which was quite lovely, and then the Monroe Suite, which is over 700 square feet, including a big patio overlooking the pool and South Congress itself.
South Congress Hotel -- the Monroe suite
Though.... I am not sure about that ceiling over the bed, but I didn't notice it until I reviewed the photos.  It had comfortable seating area and spacious bathroom, complete with comfortable robes; and there's another half bath by the entrance. I loved the details of the rooms, like leather door pulls on the bathroom's sliding doors, the collection of mini bar items, and the woodwork touches throughout the room.
South Congress Hotel -- the Monroe suite
They did tell us at the desk that the Monroe goes for about $700/night; deals can be found on sites like Expedia and Kayak if you go looking for them. Room rates start at around $250/night for the basic rooms. The hotel's American bar + grill, Central Standard, opened the week before Christmas. Celebrated chef Paul Qui is opening a 12-seat omakase restaurant, Otoko, any day now and there's a rumor it's already booked solid for months. A casual juice bar, Manana, will also be forthcoming. Also keep an eye on Café No Sé's bakeshop page for upcoming specials, like Valentine's macaroons in five flavors.

No shortage of hidden treasures within the South Congress Hotel. And if you're dining at one of the restaurants, they do validate valet parking for three hours. Just part of the changing face of Austin, but at least good food is involved. And while I don't quite get the "Californian-inspired food" tag, at least these are decent Californian influences to be had, not just increased traffic and real estate prices.