From my neck of the woods in northwest Austin, I’m about a mile west of the many upscale shops and restaurants of the original Domain development – it’s actually a short hike and a clever shortcut by foot, or more often than not, a reasonably quick car trip. So, for the last few years, many of the restaurants and bars in the area have been regular haunts, though because of their proximity to home, not many of the hotels.
By chance recently, I was very happy (and a bit embarrassed) to learn that just a bit further away at Domain Northside, celebrated Chef David Bull has been running a restaurant (and I’d been missing out on great food) for over three years.
To be precise, Chef Bull is the ‘Regional Vice President for Food & Beverage’ for La Corsha Hospitality Group, which helped opened the Archer Hotel in August of 2016. The company manages; banquet, catering, pool, and other food and beverage services for the chic hotel.
So much has been written about Chef Bull over the years, but for just the briefest of recaps: After a stellar stint at the famous Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, he became the Executive chef at the Driskill Hotel in Austin at just age twenty-five. In 2003, ‘Food and Wine’ Magazine honored Chef Bull as one of “The Best New Chefs in America.” In 2006, he appeared on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” He has twice been nominated for awards by the James Beard Foundation (2007 and 2014,) and his restaurants through the years have consistently met with equal acclaim from various regional and national magazines.
Texas Monthly’s (then Senior editor) Patricia Sharpe famously said of Chef Bull, “When Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg are your fans, you know you’ve found your flavor.”
Though late to the game, I was genuinely excited about the news as I remember Chef Bull fondly from his years at the Driskill. I have great memories of celebrations and just great dinners there with friends. I remember being sad when Austin lost him to the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas.
His arrival back in Austin came in the form of a beautiful and critically acclaimed restaurant called “Congress” at The Austonian. Opened in December of 2010, the restaurant was sleek, with wood-trimmed walls and furnishings in cool tones of cream and tan. Above the dining room was a long, mobile-like chandelier that looked like sparkling rain. The tasting menus were elegant and at a new level of refinement for Austin at the time.
Its sister restaurant, Second Bar + Kitchen, just next door was modern, but with more organic and industrial touches. Today, it still has a really good energy and is hugely popular with the ever-growing downtown crowds.
With the opening of The Archer Hotel, came the close of Congress, but (Executive) Chef Bull brought many of his long-time compatriots to expand the ‘Second Bar + Kitchen’ concept to the new hotel. Long-time staff at Second include; Chef de cuisine Mariha Hinojosa, senior sous chef Kevin Donovan, and Executive Pastry Chef Michelle Hall.
Although the daily menus at Second Bar + Kitchen are not the elaborate tasting menus of his past, the item selection, thoughtful sourcing, and fine execution definitely have the brand of Chef Bull and his team.
Covid-19 makes going out more difficult these days, but I wanted to pay a visit to the restaurant, so a couple of trusted friends and I decided on dinner.
A few things recommend the restaurant from a safety standpoint – first, it’s in a thirty-five-foot high atrium off the main lobby of the hotel. The tables (normally available for 350 guests) are allocated well apart, and every one of the staff is in masks and rubber gloves. Throughout the visit, I noticed staff wiping door handles and other surfaces periodically, and all tables were sprayed and wiped between diners.
Like its counterpart downtown, the menu is made up of several shareable small plates, farm-to-market salads, pizzas, house-made pastas, sandwiches (with a gourmet touch), and the famous Congress burger. A few items like a pan-seared salmon and a bone-in cowboy rib-eye round out the menu.
Chef Bull told me that the menu changes often as different seasonal produce becomes available. Recent standouts are stunning heirloom tomatoes from Village Farms in Marfa used in many of the salads and other dishes, and beautifully fragrant peaches from Texas Farm Patch in Pleasanton.
Chef Bull makes the final decision, but he allows his staff to create dishes and make suggestions on menu items.
While the desserts on the current menu are limited, the unmistakable touches of Executive Pastry Chef Michelle Hall are evident. (she is also responsible for the little butterscotch and marshmallow cookies used at the hotel and many of the creative sweets available at the Summer Market)
Chef Hall originally from California spent many years at a series of fine dining restaurants, from early starts at AOC (crediting philosophy and technique from Chef Susan Goin) to Michael Mina and even Spago in Hawaii. Locally, she was on board at Jeffrey’s in 2013 just after its transition. (She has been working with Chef Bull for the past eight years.)
Our small dinner party started with several of the ‘Snacks + Starters.’ Favorites like; Blistered Shishito Peppers and (perfect) Black Truffle Pomme Frites came out first, followed by genuinely outstanding Crispy Brussels Sprouts, tossed with smoked bacon, mint, feta and golden raisins. (this last dish I’ve had a few times more in the past week alone.)
The Cheese Board was a hit with various fine cheeses, fig jam, and a warm eggshell crisp baguette from Easy Tiger. The house olives with herbs and lemon zest disappeared quickly.
For our mains, we sampled the Sausage + Peppers pizza – the crust was excellent as was the house-made sausage. (spice lovers will be happy) I opted for the Pulled Pork Sandwich, which was lean, flavorful, and amazing with habanero pickled onions and just off sweet cucumber pickles.
The Smoked Turkey + Swiss, was food stylist-pretty and was by all accounts excellent.
Throughout the evening, little touches hinted at restaurants past – simple items (like the olives) were just markedly better than usual. Vegetable flavors were uniquely tasty and textures were on point. In a bar/restaurant, our waiter carefully kept the wine label towards me as he opened it… (definitely some training and care.)
Our finishing touch was a couple of dessert samplers. The butterscotch brownies were my favorite, followed by the little mocha filled pizzelle like “tacos” dipped in chocolate. One of my dinner companions even made a slightly suggestive noise at the flavor of the key-lime lollypop.
The restaurant has a strong fifty-label wine list, with many notable wines from across the world. Selections include German Rieslings, Spanish Albariño, Chardonnays from Napa and Burgundy, Australian Grenache, a fine Gevrey-Chambertin, and a pricey (though 99 point rated) Bond St Eden Napa Cab. Eighteen selections are available by the glass, and even three wines are on tap.
We enjoyed a few bottles of the Omero Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and later, a smooth Luca Mendoza Malbec. Both worked well with our diverse food selections. Well brewed Illy coffee was all that was left.
Because of that Friday encounter, I’ve managed one more dinner and two exceptional breakfasts (mushroom and asparagus quiche + Bacon!) each after a small raid on the SBK’s Summer Market.
My thanks go out to Chef Bull, Chef Hall, and General Manager, Rick Reed, for the fine hospitality and for answering so many questions.
By Richard Arebalo
OTL Features Editor