Just when it looked like Austin might run out of hot new restaurant rows, funky old Airport Boulevard joins the fray. Still sketchy but on an upward trajectory, the part of Airport north of Forty-fifth (would that be NoFo?) got a boost a few years back from pioneers House Pizzeria and Komé Sushi Kitchen. In the past few months, Sala & Betty, Bun Belly, and a spruced-up Omelettry have come online. But by far the busiest parking lot belongs to Bullfight, where you may need to wave a red cape to get the frazzled parking valets’ attention. The restaurant’s chef-owner, Shawn Cirkiel (the creator of Parkside, Backspace, and Olive & June), must be one happy dude right about now.
As you can guess, Bullfight is Spanish. But rather than making an earnest attempt to replicate Spain’s multilayered, centuries-old cuisine, Cirkiel and his executive chef, 33-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate Ryan Shields, have aimed the restaurant at a youngish audience whose knowledge of the country comes largely from the travel and food channels (and possibly Ernest Hemingway). Says Shields, who staged at Spanish restaurants Toro and Tertulia, in New York, “Shawn and I traveled around Spain and we had wonderful, delicious experiences, but our approach at Bullfight is more to take Spanish ingredients and ideas and apply our techniques and taste to them.” The restaurant calls the approach “modernized.” Another term might be “Austinized.” It’s a realistic reflection of what works in this city at this time in this economy.
Once you get your car squared away, you have a choice of indoor or outdoor seating. The courtyard—the restaurant seats about a hundred inside and out—was the preferred place late this summer, and judging by the built-in heaters, it will be cozy on even the coldest days of a Texas winter. The interior is smart and contemporary, with a craftsman’s attention to detail, thanks to work by architect Michael Hsu. Maija Kreishman, a partner in Hsu’s firm, says, “We wanted to keep the architecture restrained, with white stucco and brick and warm mahogany, so that decorative elements like the metalwork would stand out and also cast some beautiful shadows.”
As at so many restaurants today, small plates rule; just have your server bring a few at a time until you reach a point between sated and stuffed. (Making it even easier to do this are Bullfight’s strikingly reasonable prices. Appetizers and sides are $10 and less, larger dishes mostly in the teens.) During a couple of visits, several friends and I put together a random but quite successful sequence of dishes. It was like doing a tapas crawl in Madrid without moving anything except your jaws.
Leafy green salads are less a part of the typical Spanish meal than the American, but there are a number of vegetables among the smaller dishes. One of the first we tried was chunks of ripe tomato tossed with almonds, mint, and graceful curls of aged goat’s milk cheese; a dark sherry-shallot vinaigrette pooled deliciously on the plate. After that, we figured we should take a cue from Spain’s reputation for seafood, so we ordered a platter of rolled slices of raw bass topped with piperade. True to the restaurant’s modernist philosophy, Shields had transformed the Basque country’s hallmark stew into little caps of sautéed sweet red peppers, then plated it all atop a vivid green puree of salty-sweet Castelvetrano olives.
If the fish treatment was restrained, the jamón croquettes—golden-brown morsels of fried yumminess—were over the top. Shields explained, “We grind up the leftover shavings from our serrano and ibérico hams and fold them into béchamel.” Then they form the thickened paste into cylinders, toss them in bread crumbs, and fry them. Between bites, a friend christened them “ham puppies.”
We had bad luck with the small grilled artichoke, which was sadly overdone and leathery, but were completely smitten with the roasted mushrooms. Made up of an international cast—hen of the woods, trumpet royale, oyster, beech—the garlicky mix came off meaty, like duck confit, but what made it so stunning was a trio of egg treatments: a fresh yolk for swishing around with the fungi, a luxurious hollandaise-like sauce, and salty shavings of ham-infused cured egg. No wonder the dish is already a signature.
But the thing I had been most eager to try was the paella, Spain’s national dish. Cooked to order (it takes 25 minutes), it had a lot of things going for it: The proper Calasparra rice was lightly saffroned. The clams and nice-sized shrimp were cooked just right. Green beans lent freshness, and braised rabbit and bits of firm Spanish chorizo (not that common in paella, so says a friend from Madrid) supplied some heft. As much as I enjoyed it—and even though I understand Bullfight is not on a purist kick—I was still a little disappointed that it didn’t have a more robust socarrat. Aficionados go nuts over this deeply caramelized, almost scorched bottom crust the way barbecue hounds obsess over burnt ends.
Despite the small plates, we were so full at the end of each visit that we were tempted to skip dessert. But I’m glad I didn’t miss the crema catalana from pastry chef Erica Waksmunski, who used to be at Congress. It came with an icy roasted-apricot granita and a superbly crackly layer of golden honeycomb candy that bested any brittle I’ve ever tried.
Soon after my first two visits, I stopped by again on a whim. It was late and I didn’t need a full meal, so I sat in the calm courtyard and ordered a glass of the Hidalgo Napoleon amontillado from the all-Spanish wine list and a charcuterie board that could have fed three. Perhaps it was the quiet and the solitude, but I loved this seductive combination: the nutty sherry, the sliced baguette rubbed with a ripe tomato (Spain’s famous pan con tomate), and the quartet of meats, especially the garnet-colored jamón ibérico. If I had never traveled to Spain, these things would make me want to go there at once. And more than almost anything else I had tried (and very much liked), they made me want to come back to Bullfight.