Agustín Brasserie - from le menu to its sleek yet spare black-and-white decor - aims for a classic French bistro experience.
The food, for the most part, was spot-on with French onion soup ($9) so perfect and authentic that I was immediately transported back in time to a little Paris cafe that served up a steaming bowl of oniony, cheesy comfort on a drizzly evening.
The Steak Frites ($23), served au poivre with a light peppercorn crust, may well have been the silkiest, butteriest steak ever prepared. The 10-ounce, thick, New York strip was perfectly grilled and topped with a pan sauce that did what a good sauce should - accent rather than steal the main course's thunder. A mountain of thin-cut, skin-on fries was at once crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, and even after it had gone stone-cold was hard to stop chain-eating.
Yes, the food, for the most part, was good. Very good. Too bad the service didn't match. The restaurant was at its Frenchiest when it came to the inattentive wait staff.
Different visits, different servers and yet the same treatment: They all seemed perfectly affable to start, then they just disappeared as if the expanse of space between our table and the kitchen were the Bermuda Triangle.
We languished between courses - water glasses drained, coffee cups empty, dishes waiting to be cleared - to the point that we started developing a complex: Are we boring? Is there food stuck in our teeth?
One visit, as soon as we were seated, the waiter asked if we'd be done by 8:30 because there was a reservation for our specific table. Wow. We weren't feeling the love - until food was placed in front of us.
The Seared Skuna Bay Salmon ($22) was thick with crisped skin on the bottom. A mellow beurre blanc added a bit of creaminess to the flaky fish, which came with a smattering of tender brussels sprouts and smooth, rich mashed potatoes.
The crab cakes ($12) were a pretty big misstep, aside from their ill-timed arrival after the entrees, they were so perfectly flat and round that they looked mass-produced. Tasted it, too. Rather than sweet, fat bites of lump crab, its taste was indiscernible, and we were greeted with the burnt taste of breading. They'd clearly spent too much time in the pan.
Dessert, though, offered another highlight - the apple tarte tatin ($8). Meltingly soft apples bathed in a gentle caramel sauce sat atop a just-right crust that crackled with each plunge of the fork. It probably equaled two days' worth of calories, but came off light as a feather.
Agustín serves Sunday brunch all day, with offerings ranging from typical breakfast-y items like omelets, to heartier lunch-type fare, including pasta and risotto.
The duck hash ($10) was light on the bird, probably a good thing since it's such a rich meat. Diced potatoes, onion, carrot and celery and crackly-edged sunny-side-up eggs mingled on the plate with the crisped duck. Buttered, sourdough toast rounded out the plate.
The French toast ($7) was reminiscent of that lovely tarte tatin, with the same sweet, soft apples in a thin, caramel sauce kissed with cinnamon. Though it could have used more fruit, the toast was still delish and would have been even better with a more interesting bread than thick-cut white.
The risotto ($12) was creamy but still had a toothsome bite, like properly cooked Arborio rice should. Earthy with mushrooms and a hint of truffle, tender spears of asparagus on top added a nice accent.
A novelty in the desert is Agustín's daily selection of oysters ($3 each). They come in a deep, ice-filled bowl topped with mini Tabasco, lemon and silver ramekins of vinegary mignonette and thick, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauces for dipping the briny shellfish. They were a light, refreshing bite of the sea.
Agustín itself is a fresh addition to the downtown area and offers a good excuse to poke around Mercado San Agustín, a public market that has some retail, a commercial kitchen and an outpost of La Estrella Bakery.
Agustín's interior - large, globe lights suspended from the white beadboard ceiling and black banquettes that blend in with the black walls - is urban and retro. You half expect to find Megan Draper standing in the corner crooning "Zou Bisou Bisou." As nice as the inside is, the outside patio that opens onto the grassy courtyard is equally inviting. And come spring, the restaurant will open its rooftop patio with limited service.
• Where: in Mercado San Agustín, 100 S. Avenida del Convento; 398-5382; agustinbrasserie.com
• Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday;9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
• Noise level: Fine, but the lighting is so low you'll find yourself pulling a candle over to read the menu.
• Alcohol: A variety of international beer and wines that include Champagne and rosé.
• Family call: It gives off a date-night/special-event vibe, but there is a kids menu and we spotted a few children at brunch.
• Vegetarian options: Yes.
• Gluten free: Ask - dishes that can be adjusted are noted on the menu.
• Price range: $11-$25 for dinner entrees.