Paris by way of Downtown Austin
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
Full disclosure: I’m writing this review from Paris. And as I spend my summer vacation eating my way through this gastronomic temple, I realize how lucky I am to have a place in Austin like Le Politique. This chic new downtown restaurant is a deliciously accurate reflection of today’s Paris: a delightful marriage of brasserie classics updated with modern flavors.
Le Politique looks straight off the streets of Paris — the real Paris — where local Parisians work and eat. Banish the fantasy fabricated by Hollywood or imitated by La Madeleine chains and forget French dining’s outdated reputation for heavy cream sauces, sappy Edith Piaf tunes, and dismissive waiters. Le Politique’s ambiance and food are fresh and stylish, and, like so many new Paris haunts, it’s located in a downtown skyscraper, on the street level of the gleaming new Northshore high-rise.
Combining the best design elements of old Paris and new, Austin-based Clayton & Little created a sleek, spacious dining room, marble raw bar, polished wood cocktail lounge, and sidewalk dining replete with French bistro seating. The cheerful palette of blues and pinks in the bar and on the patio contrasts the cool neutrals in the dining room, accented by art deco lighting, vintage mirrors, and polished brass and marble. A wall of windows frames the bustling sidewalk scene, allowing for the favorite Parisian pastime of people-watching.
The cuisine at Le Politique takes traditional brasserie fare and brings it up to date with today’s culinary sensibilities. Chef Derek Salkin’s menu was inspired by famed French cookbook author Julia Child, who once said, “The kind of food I fell in love with was not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat.” And at Le Politique, there are lots of very good things to eat.
Like any true Parisian, start with a glass of chilled Champagne and something from the raw bar, like simple oysters or the impressive Grand Plateau seafood tower. Next, dive into the charcuterie platter, which showcases a rotating selection of homemade pâtés, rillettes, sausages, pickles, and mustards. If you’re lucky, there’ll be pâté en croûte, a time-consuming treat rarely found in American restaurants. Cleanse your palate with the Salade Verte, a lovely, light toss of tender lettuce, slivered cucumber and fennel, and fresh herbs.
For the main attraction, there are bistro classics like steak frites, trout almondine, and steamed mussels. At dinner, there’s also poulet rôti, half a succulent, well-crisped chicken, and boudin blanc, a truffled white sausage nestled atop a fluffy pillow of pommes purée. I order it every time I go.
The French take their bread very seriously and so does Le Politique. Each meal starts with a complimentary pain d’epi, a lovely baguette shaped like a stalk of wheat, accompanied by a crock of creamy butter. When you’re ready for dessert, go old school with a cheese plate or check out chef Melissa Carroll’s incredible pastry skills with light madeleine cookies or the indulgent Paris-Brest. On one special night, baked Alaska was the dessert du jour.
Of course, the wine list is mostly French, and general manager Chris Dufau is adept at suggesting pairings. The bar crafts lovely cocktails and also features some interesting boutique French beers. Open early in the morning, the adjoining coffee shop and patisserie bakes a croissant that rivals almost anything I’ve had this week in Paris — which, unfortunately, I’ll be leaving soon. But when I get home to Austin and need an authentic French fix, I know right where to go, tout de suite!