HOW PAINFUL MUST IT BE for a restaurant’s owners to admit that the place is kaput? That a once celebrated destination has come to the end of the road and needs to be—gasp—put down? But after cozy Austin restaurant Zoot departed the neighborhood where it had been for eighteen years and moved to the suburban canyons of Bee Cave, it never really found a niche. So, few people were surprised when chef-owners Stewart Scruggs and Mark Paul (who also own Wink) made the call in May: Zoot, old chum, it’s time to pull the plug. In its place, the two have now opened BC Tavern, a radical new direction for professionals who have been laser-focused on fine dining. But any doubts they might have had were immediately dispelled: in one month business doubled. Of course, part of the surge is due to special introductory prices (now over, alas) and the strategic addition of a cocktail menu in the small, inviting bar. But more importantly the proprietors—aided and abetted by chefs de cuisine Matt Taylor and Chris LeBlanc—have toned down both the restaurant’s white-tablecloth atmosphere and its menu. In other words, send in the burgers, fried chicken, pork belly, and baby back ribs!
And if the crispy pork belly sandwich (pictured) is any indication, they have found their inner bubba. At first I was dubious, but once I bit into the braised, then seared slices of shamelessly fatty meat, tucked into a tall bun and accented with sweet house-made pickles and chowchow, I was sooo glad I had tried it. Ditto for the tender yet firm baby back ribs; served with a terrific barbecue-style sauce (apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, and jalapeño being key ingredients), they proved that pig is an animal the kitchen knows what to do with.
So is cow, judging by the fat burgers and the well-priced and beautifully prepared grilled ribeye with new potatoes (both better than the hanger steak with tarragon-swamped béarnaise). Fowl is also treated with utmost respect, as evidenced by Sunday’s all-day chicken dinner, featuring meltingly tender buttermilk-battered chicken, crisp-cooked green beans, and decent biscuits (and soupy slaw that needs a makeover).
But if crowd-pleasers like these are what Scruggs and Paul hope will save the day, that doesn’t mean they’re tossing out certain classics that defined Zoot. Duck leg confit makes an appearance as a succulent quarter bird sided with colorful root vegetables in a buttery emulsion atop a bed of mashed potatoes. (On the menu, it’s called Duck-n-Dumplins, although the dense little quenelles in the bowl aren’t like any dumplings I’ve ever had.)
Three months into the transition, the Tavern is honing a formula that balances homey and haute. And though nobody asked me, I can’t resist mentioning the dish I think hits the nail on the head: Paul’s famous lemon tart. On the one hand, the filling is identical to that refined English teatime treat,