Guide to Austin Restaurant Week Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Houston for their Restaurant Week.  Not being from Houston, I was only familiar with a few of the restaurants there and I had a hard time choosing just based on menus.  For those of you unfamiliar to the Austin Restaurant scene, here are my impressions of some of the restaurants participating.  Since I only publish reviews of restaurants I have been to several times, I will leave out restaurants I am unfamiliar with.

1886 Cafe & Bakery The casual bistro at the Driskill Hotel.  Both the lunch and dinner offerings are $25.  I would rather dine at the main restaurant at the Driskill if I had to choose but the menu choices do sound delicious.

Aquarelle A beautiful and romantic French restaurant.  This is the place to whip out the ring when the champagne is poured.  I am still chasing the dragon of the perfect scallop that I had here, which is offered on the Restaurant Week menu.

Austin Land and Cattle Company Forget Ruth’s Chris, this is the best steak in Austin.  And my favorite cut, the fatty ribeye, is on the menu.

Chez Zee American Bistro A popular place most famous for their desserts and creme brulee french toast.  While the food is good, I am saving my restaurant week picks for something a little fancier.

Ciola’s Italian American Delicious Italian food.  I would go more often but they are all the way out in Lakeway.  Maybe I will venture out for their popular “Big Night Out” Feast, a tribute to the movie of the same name, coming October 21.

Cipollina West Austin Bistro This is the sister restaurant to the very popular and very expensive Jeffrey’s.  After a recent glowing review of the new chef, I will have to revisit soon.  At $25 for the dinner menu and $35 with wine pairings, I may have to add this to my list this week.

Driskill Grill Classic Austin and one of the best in town.  The Driskill’s reputation has slipped a bit since the David Bull/ Josh Watkins era but still a solid offering.  The leather clad room will take you back to a time when cattle barons brokered deals with Texas politicians, a cigar in one hand and a whiskey in the other.

Eddie V’s Edgewater Grille Arboretum With a beautiful view of the hills, this is the Eddie V’s I frequent most.  Their happy hour is a great value and the food is wonderful.  In addition to the seafood they specialize in, they also have a reputation for cooking a mean steak which is also on the restaurant week menu for $40.

Eddie V’s Edgewater Grille Downtown The downtown location in the heart of Austin.  Solid with a slightly different menu offering for restaurant week, also includes the steak option for $40.

Estancia Churrascaria A locally owned Brazillian steakhouse similar to Fogo de Chao.  If you are unfamiliar, there is a huge lavish salad bar to start and waiters in gauchos parading cuts of meats on swords for all you can eat steak.  I am addicted to the Pao de Quiejo or cheese bread.

Fabi & Rosi I actually have not been to this one yet but I will be finally trying this one next week.  Austin is surrounded by small communities with strong German ties but sadly lacking in any German restaurants.  This one is run by a German chef and his Austin native wife.  At $25 for the dinner menu, this is a value as well.

Fleming’s Domain A new location for the popular chain.  They actually have a $35 prix fixe menu that changes seasonally, so kind of a waste during the limited time of restaurant week.

Fogo de Chao Same description as Estancia, lavish salad bar and meat on swords but this is the fancy chain version located right next to the convention center downtown.

Frank Fancy hot dogs.  This really does not do justice to Frank’s, so I will reprint the description of my favorite, the Jackelope- Antelope and Rabbit sausage,  huckleberry compote, sriracha aioli, smoked cheddar.  They are also one of the few places in town to serve poutine which is the heart attack on a plate popularized in Canada of fries and cheese curds covered in gravy.  Call my cardiologists now.  And it is $25 per couple for the special menu.

Garrido’s Restaurant The former executive chef from Jeffrey’s does authentic Mexican in delicious new ways.  A tostada with pork and watermelon was one of my favorite bites last year.

Green Pastures The beautiful grounds are a favorite among Austin brides and the Sunday brunch with the boozy southern milk punch is classic Austin.  The menu for restaurant week includes steak and lobster and is among the best values for sure.

III Forks The Austin location of this chain is helmed by Jaime Gutierrez who elevates it above the typical chain food.  Too bad his delicious duck is not on the menu this week.

Imperia Fancy Asian food.  This is a tough one.  I went here when they first opened and was impressed.  Especially the lobster mashed potatoes.  Not very Asian, I know but delicious none the less.  They have lost the mashed potatoes as well as a revolving staff of chefs here.  I hope they find their groove again soon.  If you do go, sticky banana cake for dessert.  Trust me.

Jasper’s Restaurant A link in Kent Rathburn’s chain.  This is the first restaurant I went to during the first restaurant week and I have been back several times since.  Go early and grab a couple of cocktails in the bar at continuous happy hour prices before dinner.

Jeffrey’s George Bush loved this place so much they opened one in the Watergate hotel during his presidency.  But I try not to hold that against them.  Deegan McClung has tried to breathe new life into this stalwart of Austin dining, sometimes with great success, sometimes not.  The Chocolate Intemperance alone is worth the trip, though.

Judges’ Hill Restaurant The beautiful old home has been converted into a boutique hotel full of southern charm.  This is another place I have not been to in a while that has changed chefs a couple of times since.  They are offering both a $25 and $35 menu for the week that sound interesting.

Uchiko Menu for Austin Restaurant Week

As the red hot Texas summer finally  begins to show mercy, it is that time of year again, Austin Restaurant Week, when many of Austin’s finest do a prix fixe menu ($10 – $15 for lunch and $25 – $35 for dinner) with a portion going to the Sustainable Food Center.  This is your chance to try places you have never been and places you have wished you could all in the name of charity.  This year the “week” runs Sunday through Wednesday for two weeks in a row September 19-22 and 26-29.  My birthday happens to fall towards the end on the 28th, so I immediately put in for reservations at the hottest new restaurant in Austin Uchiko, the beautiful little sister to Tyson Cole’s Uchi, where I had my best and most expensive meal ever. Uchi has limited seating and is perpetually full, so it has never participated in restaurant week.  The much bigger Uchiko has room for the hordes that are sure to descend.  Here is the menu for restaurant week.

Uchiko

He’s Back! David Bull Returns to the Austin Dining Scene

One of my biggest culinary crushes is David Bull.  James Beard Best Chef Southwest nominee, Food and Wine Best New Chef, Iron Chef competitor, and a genuinely nice guy, former Driskill executive chef David Bull will be returning to Austin in Fall 2010 with a trio of restaurants at the Austonian on 2nd and Congress.  Congress will be the name of the formal dining room, 2nd will be a more casual bistro, and Bar Congress will round things out with the cocktail crowd. 

Chef Bull recently conducted a vegetarian cooking class at Central Market.  Do not worry, he has not gone vegetarian on us.  Just showing off his creativity in a healthy way. 

Black garlic is a hot ticket item right now.  It becomes black through a fermentation process and the flavor mellows and becomes sweet.  You can find it at gourmet and Asian markets.

Black Garlic Miso Dressing 

  • 1/2 cup black garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup yellow miso paste
  • 2 teaspoons green onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ginger
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup water

Place all ingredients into a high speed blender and puree until smooth.  Store covered in refrigerator until ready for use. 

First course was a lovely little bite of avocado mousse with sunflower sprouts, jicama, jalapeno, and grapefruit.
Second was white gazpacho with red grapes, soy milk, and toasted almonds. White gazpacho is the lesser known cousin to the red version both of which are served cold and an excellent summer soup. Those are red grapes in the soup but chef Bull serves them peeled. Glad I was not working the kitchen during this class!

 

The next dish brought a surprising combination in tomato and watermelon tartatare. Before you scrunch up your nose, imagine how similar the texture is between the two. The sweetness of a garden fresh heirloom tomato is enhanced by the juicy watermelon. Speaking of gazpachos, the two would make a wonderful red version as well.

 

A bumper crop of Texas peaches this year inspired this watercress salad with Texas peaches on buttered brioche.
Daikon "noodles" with green beans and coriander were good but the dressing, Black Garlic Miso, was a flavor bomb of deliciousness.
Gnocchi with oven roasted tomatoes and black olive oil brought a delicious conclusion to the all veggie feast.
 

Luncheon at Fall Creek Vineyard

Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Fest is one of my favorite foodie events of the year.  I attended for the first time 7 years ago and had so much fun that I have volunteered every year since.  I always start the fest with one of the luncheons in the Hill Country at a winery.  For the last few years I have been lucky enough to attend the luncheon at Fall Creek Vineyards.

Susan and Ed Auler are luminaries of the Texas wine world.  The very first fest 25 years ago, the legend goes, was planned around Susan’s kitchen table along with a now megastar in the wine world, Karen MacNeil, author of the Wine Bible and beloved PBS host.

Here is the menu we enjoyed with pictures:

1st Course

Seared Texas Shrimp and Blue Crab with White-Truffled Gazpacho

By Chef Jon Bonnell

Peregrine Hills Chardonnay

2nd Course

Texas Coffee Rubbed Grilled Strip Steak,
Roasted Parsnips, Candied Garlic, Mesquite Syrup

By Chef Josh Watkins

Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo, “Salt Lick Vineyards”, 2008

Dessert Course

Pound Cake, Fresh Seasonal Berries and Lemon Curd

By Chef Randy Evans

Llano Estacado Moscato

The grounds at Fall Creek are gorgeous.  Especially charming during this lush spring were the bluebonnets blooming among the vines.  Only in Texas!!

Chef Jon Bonnell prepared a creamy gazpacho that perfumed the air with the scent of white truffle.  The soup was topped with blue crab and Texas Gulf shrimp and matched with a crisp Chardonnay from Perregrine Hills.

It is no secret that I am a big fan of Josh Watkins.  He shines like no other at the Carillon.  But have you ever had a steak cooked to a perfect medium rare at any kind of large event off site from the restaurant?  Josh’s solution is to cook the steaks sous vide, which basically means searing the meat off, sealing in a plastic bag, and then placing them in a large warm bath where they can be brought up to the perfect temperature.  Another advantage to sous vide is that almost the entire steak is the correct degree of doneness and not just the pink center with a ring of gray around it.  The steaks where enhanced by a lovely Tempranillo from Fall Creek but what I really wanted was the big, bold, and hard to come by Meritus that Fall Creek produces.

And I learned the secret to Josh’s candied garlic garnish!  Maybe I will share in another post.

Of course, as a pastry chef, dessert is my favorite!  I have an obsession with lemon curd which almost bloomed into a business at one point and Randy Evans did not disappoint.  The pound cake was toasted for textural crunch, placed upon a layer of lemony buttery curd, then topped with fresh Texas strawberries and lightly whipped cream.  Beautiful and tasty, it inspired me to create a blueberry version over the weekend which I will post along with recipe soon.  Chef Evan’s version was paired with a not too sweet, almost musky Llano Estacado Moscato.

What a great start to a lovely weekend!

BBQ Cookoff

Yeehaw!  I am not really a country music fan.  Like most little girls, especially in Texas, I did grow up with a fondness for horses but I was never really drawn to the rodeo.  Until I discovered free beer and barbecue at the BBQ Cook off at the Star of Texas Rodeo.  I have to say it again, FREE BEER AND BARBECUE.  I love Texas!

In addition to the livestock show, roping competitions, and carnival rides, a couple dozen teams compete in the annual barbecue cookoff.  They set up their smokers and in a few cases elaborate tents meant to draw in the public to taste their wares.  There are actual judges for different categories such as best brisket and best beans but the public gets to vote as well with their dollars into tip jars that go towards the Austin Rodeo Scholarship fund.  Many of the venues hand out beer, wine, even jello shots to raise money. 

This Saturday a final bitter winter wind blew into Austin on the first day of Spring.  The whipping wind may have discouraged some from attending but by 3:00PM most of the tents were packed with patrons enjoying the live music as well as the food and drinks.  The La Pasadita tent pictured above is always one of the favorites.  Maybe it was all the free beer but I found myself returning again and again to this tent for the tasty brisket, crispy fried catfish, and the great entertainment from LC Rocks. 

Despite the chill in the air, the rodeo means spring festival season in Austin is upon us.  Look for me at Reggae Fest, Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Fest, and, of course, Eeyore’s Birthday Party.  And for those of you visiting for SXSW,  try and make it out of downtown and come to the rodeo next year!

Bacon Takedown

abminiOn Sunday March 14 at Emo’s Austin will get piggy with it at the Bacon Takedown.  I love all things pork but bacon holds an especially high place both in my heart and in my cholesterol level.  Bacon and cured things in general have been very popular recently, showing up in savory as well as sweet dishes.  Since I am a pastry chef, I must go with the sweet side of things and plan to enter with my Bacon Toffee.  I will post the recipe as soon as the contest is over.  Please come out and vote for me.  And try not to o.d. on the bacon.

Bad to the Bone Chef Smackdown

2010-02-27 19.15.50
From left to right, Shawn Cirkiel from Parkside, Sandy from the JB and Sandy show, and Paul Petersen, formerly of the Gage in Marathon

Bad to the Bone was exactly that!  On Saturday night at Stubbs, instead of the usually stellar rock stars on stage, chefs took over the place for the evening for an Iron Chef style competition benefiting the Sustainable Food Center.  Each of the chefs got to choose a mystery ingredient which they all had to incorporate into their dish.  The mystery ingredients were tangerine, goats milk, and achiote, a traditionally Latin spice also known as annatto that has a sweet and slightly peppery taste.

I was thrilled to be able to attend because I am fans of all three of the competitors and consider them some of the top chefs in Texas.  Each has worked in the Austin area but only Shawn Cirkiel currently has a local restaurant, parkside, in the heart of downtown on 6th.  Recently named one of the Hot ten New American taverns by Bon Appetit magazine, parkside does upscale casual in a uniquely Austin way.  Shawn brought the gold home to Austin and captured the winning votes from both the crowd and the judges with a creamy and tangy goat milk sorbet served alongside an achiote and tangerine fritter which closely resembled the famous donut holes served at the restaurant.

David Bull, former executive chef at the Driskill
David Bull, former executive chef at the Driskill

David Bull, following an announcement the day before that he plans to return to Austin in the fall with two new restaurants at the Austonian, did an achiote glazed salmon with smoked bacon grits, goat cheese crema, and tangerine spinach salad.  Salmon is tough to keep at the right temperature without drying it out like you must do for a large crowd.  I did like the flavors and remember fondly a fabulous dinner at the Driskill that will have me as one of the first in line when he fires up the grill in Austin again.

Paul Petersen, rock star
Paul Petersen, rock star

Paul Petersen had a restaurant in Buda called Little Texas Bistro that was the subject of rave reviews.  I put off driving all the way out there for dinner and missed my opportunity to say I knew Paul then.  He packed off to win even greater praise and national attention as the executive chef at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, TX.  I finally had the opportunity to sample Paul’s cooking at one of his classes at Central Market.  His rock star style of teaching and cooking was as entertaining as his food was fresh and exciting.  The class was filled with rabid fans from Little Texas and I could see why.  At the Smackdown, Paul served annatto crusted pork loin with goat’s milk corn pudding and achiote seared tangerine.  The pork loin was tender and delicious but my favorite dish of the night was the fabulously creamy corn pudding.  The savory and warm dish resembled a loose polenta which pooled on the plate beneath the juicy pork loin.  Last time I saw Paul there were rumors of a new restaurant in the Austin area but he is currently at Rick’s Chophouse in McKinney.  Please come back, Paul.  We miss you!

Taste of Austin 2010- Review

2010-01-27_20.23 TASTE OF AUSTIN GARRIDOLooks like tomatoes on top of a mini nacho but that is watermelon.  Slow cooked pork on top of goat cheese with pepitas and a spicy piquant watermelon sauce was Gariddo’s little bite at Taste of Austin last night.  It was crunchy and creamy with a touch of heat and the slightly sweet notes from the watermelon.  I was all set to name this the best bite of the night.  http://www.garridosaustin.com/menu/ 

2010-01-27_20.26 TASTE OF AUSTINAnd then I tried this.  Green chile mac from Moonshine.  Grilled chicken, corn relish, and a green chile cream.  Warm, spicy, creamy comfort in a cup with a sweet crunch of corn.  I loved them both and declare a tie.  http://www.moonshinegrill.com/menus.php

 

I had a great time at Taste of Austin last night at the Palmer Events Center last night.  Around 50 restaurants participated in this scholarship fundraiser.  It is a fun way to try both new restaurants and old favorites in one location as well as socializing with your fellow foodies. 

I have been debating since last night if I should also post the worst bites at the event.  There was a crunchy risotto, bland bangers and mash, and a cold, mushy stuffed mushroom from a place that was advertising their catering services.  Serving from a small booth at a tasting event is a far different animal than serving from your own kitchen so I am inclined to cut some slack to those that showed poorly but if you are there to plug your catering services, you need to figure out how to serve a hot hors douvres.  I have decided to hold my tongue for now.  A restaurant deserves a fair review over several visits, especially if you are going to publish something negative.  But please, veal osso bucco should not taste like it has barbecue sauce on it.  You know who you are.

Back to the good!  One of my favorite cookie places in town is Kevin’s Cookies.  http://www.kevinscookies.com/  Trey and his adorable wife Jen run this little operation.  They now only have a location south, so I don’t make it over there much but Trey sends out a great newsletter that makes me feel like part of the family.  Last night they had half a dozen different varieties of their delicious cookies.  Crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, and full of chips, nuts, etc.  My favorite last night was probably the white chocolate chip.  And I hate white “chocolate”.  I believe the darker the chocolate, the better.  But these gems were delicious. 

Spec’s had a booth and I <3 Spec’s!  http://www.specsonline.com/  Very knowledgeable wine staff, great prices on wine and liquor, and a decent assortment of gourmet goodies.  Some of the stores have a bigger selection than others.  I frequent the one at Arbor Walk which also has a deli case but I hadn’t gotten around to trying it yet.  I am pretty picky about my sandwiches, so when I got the sample from them, I thought, “Turkey on white, just another sandwich.”  But it was really good.  Fresh bread with very flavorful turkey.  If they do that well on a little sample for the masses, I will be trying them in store soon.

I recently had Craigo’s pizza for the first time and was impressed.  http://www.craigospizzaandpasta.com/  Last night they were serving pasta.  There was an ok lasagna that had a little too much fennel for my tastes but they also had a spinach ziti that I believe was vegetarian and it was yummy. 

One of the most exotic offerings came from Frank, the “purveyor of artisan sausage” at Fourth and Colorado.  http://www.hotdogscoldbeer.com/ That is  tony talk for $7 hot dog.  Last night they were offering the Jackelope- antelope and rabbit sausage with a huckleberry compote, siracha aioli, and applewood smoked cheese.  Good, different, innovative-  yes.  Worth $7 a hot dog?  Not so sure but I was intrigued enough to want to at least check out the happy hour sometime soon.  

There was a classmate of mine from culinary school passing out little bundt cakes from franchise outfit Nothing Bundt Cakes.  http://www.nothingbundtcakes.com/index.php For something ever so slightly different from a cupcake, these cute little cakes were moist and rich with a bit of cream cheesy icing.   

There were a few places I did not get to try because the lines were way too long.  I tasted the sushi from Piranha Killer Sushi at La Dolce Vita this year and really liked it but the line only got longer last night as the evening wore on.  What is really frustrating is when you see a full tray of food at the head of the line and people obliviously standing there and grazing like there aren’t 50 people behind them in line.  Move it, people!!!!!

Taste of Austin is usually my first big foodie event of the year.  It signals the beginning of my favorite time in Austin, spring means festival season!  Before you know it, Austin Restaurant Week http://restaurantweekaustin.com/ will be here.  Then my personal favorite, Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Fest! http://www.texaswineandfood.org/  You can buy discounted tickets for the Sunday Fair now for $25 (reg $45) through this link.  http://twff.frontgatesolutions.com/choose.php?b=1&lid=39935&eid=46543  Price good only till February 1.

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