Austin’s Bess Bistro
On rare occasions, this life of ours is graced with the presence of something near to perfection. We've all had those moments where everything comes together, and the universe sings in perfect harmony. The last time I can recall such a moment, I was in Paris. Until last night, that is, when we were invited to have dinner at Bess Bistro, and a culinary feast ensued. Everything we had—the appetizers and soup, the entrees, and the dessert—were out of this world. This was a wonderful dining experience, and I thank Bess for having us.
Bess opened a few years ago right in the heart of West Sixth Street, in the old Stratford apartment building. For those of you who don't know, Sandra Bullock is one of the principle owners of this fine establishment. The interior is warm and inviting, and the staff is friendly. Our server, Jonathan, was one of the best servers I have had at any restaurant in Austin. He was pleasant and attentive without being overbearing, and exceptionally knowledgeable when it came to the entire menu. Bess would be a wonderful place for a special occasion with that special someone. Unfortunately, I was stuck with my dumb brother.
Matt and I each started with a bowl of soup. He ordered the soup du jour, a Fresno chicken chowder that was otherworldly. It was rich and creamy with just enough spice to liven it up a little. The potatoes in the dish were cooked perfectly, with just a little resistance left when you took a bite, a rarity as many places overcook their potatoes. I ordered the gumbo, which had tasso ham and andouille sausage in it. It was a very nice gumbo, one of the better ones I've had in a restaurant in Austin. We were also given fantastic corn bread and whole grain rolls to go with our dishes. Along with my soup, I had a snifter of Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy, which was a nice reminder of the eight days I spent in Bayeux last spring.
As an appetizer, we shared one of my favorite French dishes: escargot. I love this dish, though all too often chefs overcook the snails and they become chewy and difficult to eat. This was most certainly not an issue at Bess. The snails were sautéed to tender perfection in a fantastic white wine garlic butter sauce. The dish reminded me of steamed mussels, but a little earthier from the snails. The ciabatta bread served with it was the perfect accomplice to this dish. The bread had enough body to not get overly soggy from the broth the snails were in but enough pockets and nooks to soak it in and become truly heavenly. These are, without doubt, the best snails I have ever eaten.
Next came the entrees, both of which were very good. I ordered steak frites, which was a hanger steak, cooked to order and topped with a sauce au poivre (pepper sauce for the non-French speakers), and a side of Parmesan pommes frites. I also had them add a little foie gras to my plate, a personal favorite. Everything on the dish was fantastic; the steak was perfectly cooked, the sauce au poivre was exceedingly good, and the fries were cooked well. I had a very similar dish to this in a little bistro by the Louvre last spring, and the one at Bess rivaled it in quality and flavor. Honestly, I think the only thing missing from it was the fact that I was in Austin, not on the banks of the Seine. Matt ordered the pappardelle a la piquante, a dish of pappardelle pasta with mussels, shrimp, and crawfish in a really good creole Parmesan sauce. The dish was nice; it tasted like the sea and had just enough spice to let your palate know it was there. All in all, the entrée course was a complete success.
Jonathan practically demanded that we save room for dessert, and we figured: who were we to argue with an expert? Matt ordered the pistachio lime tart, a pastry filled with a goat cheese cream and limes with pistachio ice cream and a strawberry beet white chocolate ganache. This was fantastically well balanced—not too sweet, not too sour, it hit the tongue just right and was perfectly refreshing.
Being the lover of beignets I am, ordered the ‘Bess' Beignets.’ It is four perfectly fluffy beignets, based on the Cafe du Monde recipe, served with a toffee sauce and a vanilla crème anglaise. Cooked perfectly and with just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar, they were 100% spot on. The toffee was absolute heaven, as was the anglaise. As a compliment to my dessert, and appropriate finish to a French meal, I had a double espresso. Normally I wouldn't bother talking about a local restaurant's coffee, because it usually isn't much to write about. This espresso, however, was probably the best I have had since I came back from Paris. It was perfectly pulled and the flavor of the coffee was just strong enough without being aggressively bitter. This was truly the perfect end to my meal and it really tied up the nostalgic, wistful feelings I was having contemplating the meals I ate while in France.
I keep mentioning that trip, but I promise I'm not bragging (much), as Bess honestly drew all those good memories back for me. This was a fantastic meal at a wonderful establishment and I wholeheartedly recommend that if you live in Austin or have plans for a visit, you should allow the staff at Bess to generously host you as they did us.