Textile Closing

Scott Tycer opened his first restaurant Aries in Houston in November 2000 with much acclaim including “Best New American Chefs 2003” by Food and Wine Magazine.  His latest restaurant Textile was a brave experiment but the decline in the economy combined with the size and location of the restaurant proved insurmountable as Textile closed it doors on June 26, 2010.  I was proud to be part of the last Chef’s Table to document the event.

Textile was in a former textile mill in a neighborhood full of older houses and the occasional industrial warehouse in north Houston well off the beaten path.  With a maximum of 11 tables and 30 guests, reservations were all but impossible to get when the restaurant first opened in 2008.  I met Lindsey, one of the chefs at Textile, through the Le Cordon Bleu alumni association.  She invited me to visit the restaurant if I was ever in Houston.  A few weeks later when the opportunity for a road trip came, I called and made arrangements to dine on a Saturday evening.    She mentioned she might invite a friend of hers if he was available.  I was a little surprised but pleasantly so when we actually became a table of six including Lindsey’s husband.  There is nothing like good food and wine to inspire new friendships.  

We were warned the air conditioning was on the fritz and the chefs table in the kitchen might be a little warm.  Several of the guests were also chefs and all agreed that the kitchen was the best spot to be.  The wine began to flow as the table became acquainted.  Lindsey worked diligently to entertain us as well as serve a full dining room.

The amuse bouche was a tasty little shot of crawfish chowder.  The smooth puree was ripe with cajun spice and reminded me of an etouffee sauce.

The salad course brought an heirloom tomato with a whisper thin slice of crisped

baguette and fried basil.  Dressed with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar, the plate was light, clean, and refreshing.

Next came another soup of corn puree and onion stock with a mini grilled cheese and tomato sponge.  The soup sung summer praise to fresh sweet corn.  The mini grilled cheese served as a delicious crouton but I was intrigued with the tomato sponge.  The round bread was used as a sponge to soak up a fresh tomato sauce.  No, it did not taste like soggy bread, more like a savory version of a cake soaked in syrup to moisten.

When I called to confirm reservations with Lindsey the week before, she had excitedly told me about the pasta dish she was working on.  Spinach pasta with a sweetbread filling turned into tortellini, topped with dehydrated carrots, and served with a spoon of the onion broth.  When she brought her proud new creation to the table with tears in her eyes she gave us the sad news of Textiles closing.  Restaurants, it seems are almost as perishable as fresh produce.  It is so sad to see the dedicated staff proudly working their last service here.  Some will move to Gravitas, Textiles sister restaurant and eventually on to Tycer’s new gastropub which is in the works.  I even heard a rumor that some may be coming to Austin to work at the Austonian with David Bull.  The sweetbread tortellini were just as delicious as they sound, the rich filling wrapped in a feather light pasta.  They tasted even richer as we realized that we were the last that would have them in that space.

Next course brought seared ahi with 3 kinds of caviar and a salad with haricot vert and ribbons of fruit.  The ribbons were a cross between a gelee and a fruit leather, not too sweet and an interesting addition to the side.  The ahi was perfectly seared and the fish eggs brought a pop of flavor as well as a beautiful garnish.

One more savory course of pork served with an apple puree and onion straws.  The pork was moist and flavorful but quite honestly the details as well as the photography are getting a little fuzzy as the free flowing wine began to catch up to me.  I wish I had the fortitude to soldier on with the staff to a final night out but the wine along with the finale of 4 dessert bites put the velvet hammer on me that sent me to bed soon after.

Plinio Sandalio is the creative genius behind the desserts at Textile.  Because pastry is my background, I was excited to get a taste of his work.  Perhaps because it was closing night, the desserts were more mainstream than the corndog dessert with mustard ice cream I had heard about but perhaps if he comes to Austin with David Bull to the Austonian as rumored, we will get to try his more playful side.  First bite was a donut hole with a spoon of fresh berry jam, next a crisped square of pound cake with a refreshingly tart grapefruit campari granita, then a smoked chocolate brownie with spicy peanuts and decadent bacon ice cream, finally a truffle and in house made marshmallow.  A fabulous end to a one of  kind meal.  

parkside with Shawn Cirkiel

Shawn Cirkiel has been a star of the Austin restaurant scene since 2002 when he took over the wildly popular Jean Luc’s Bistro and made it his own.  His commitment then as well as now to local ingredients and creative presentation have garnered him legions of fans as well as critical acclaim including two trips to cook at the James Beard house.

Shawn’s latest restaurant, parkside, is a casual gastro pub intended to showcase his take on the New American Cuisine on 6th street in the heart of downtown Austin.  A recent trip for a celebratory dinner in honor of my friend Michelle was a delicious reminder of why parkside was named by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the “Hot 10 New American Taverns.”

First course was a sumptuous bite from the raw bar.  Instead of flowery descriptions, parkside lists this appetizer as:

madai, cherry gelee, toasted pistachio, fried basil

Madai, by the way, is a Japanese fish similar to snapper.  The slight sweetness from the gelee brought out a brightness in the firm white fish.  Notes of green from the basil and crunch of the pistachios rounded out the delightful first bite.

Next came a dozen oysters of three different varieties.  I should mention now that Wednesdays are my favorite night at parkside because the oysters and champagne are half price.  The raw bar offers a selection of at least half a dozen different oysters.  My favorite this trip were the Blue Points, very buttery and briny.

The gnocchi were light, little melt in your mouth pillows of a dumpling with an earthy mushroom medley and sauce.

Chef Cirkiel taught a class last fall at Central Market that included his recipe for a savory sweet potato soup topped with, wait for it——-  BACON MARSHMALLOWS!  The marshmallows were toasted brown on top so they melted into the soup and gave a little textural crunch.  It was probably one of my favorite bites of the year.  But new seasons bring new soups and Chef did not disappoint.  

Velvety corn chowder with bacon and chive fritters tasted like summer in a bowl.  The corn soup was pureed smooth and topped with lightly fried bacon fritters and a dash of chive oil for color.

Sides for the meal were 2 huge platters of fried okra and brussel sprouts.  The okra were lightly breaded and fried to a delicate balance of past golden brown but not overcooked to achieve a crispy perfection without even a hint of okra slime.  The brussel sprouts were heavily studded with chunky bits of bacon that gave a smoky flavor to the bright green sprouts.

Entree was the pan seared halibut pictured at the top of the post.  This lovely chunk of fish was perfectly cooked and fell into beautiful flakes with the touch of a fork.  Honestly, I was falling rapidly into a food coma but being a pastry chef, I had to forge ahead!

We had a nice goat cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries.  There was a plain tuille cookie on the plate that seemed like an afterthought but the standout was the basil ice cream.  It was the palest of green with a slightly herbal flavor.  My favorite was the warm chocolate brownie with toffee ice cream and pecan tuille.  Sweet, crunch, soft, cold, warm, chocolate all in one bite.  A perfect end to an orgy of food.  Thank you, Chef!

Galaxy Cupcakes

TLC is airing a new 6 part series narrated by John Goodman called “Best Food Ever.”  Central Texas is represented in each episode!  Tonight is Bodacious Bakeries including Georgetown’s Galaxy Cupcakes, featured for their “moist cocktail cupcakes.”

As a pastry chef, I am VERY picky about baked goods.  The recent soar in cupcake popularity has led to a surge in beautiful but tasteless cupcakes.  I am happy to say this is not the case with Galaxy.  I tried all four of the chocolate cupcakes available the day I was in Georgetown and found them all moist and made from scratch.  The chocolate and mocha were good but the outstanding ones were the mint and ruby port which both also had a delicious, chocolaty ganache in addition to the buttercream frosting.  What can I say, I am an icing girl!

Most of the time I find the mint flavor overpowering but in this case a delicate hint of mint went well with the dark chocolate ganache enrobing the top of the cupcake.  My favorite was the pretty in pink ruby port made from the port produced at the Georgetown winery.  Again, subtle in flavor, the port adds a warmth and depth to the icing instead of boozy and cloying as I feared.

The ladies at the bakery were a delight and very helpful as well.  I will be making a return trip soon!

The Carillion

Wow.  I am struggling to learn the art of making people salivate with words and the only one I can find to describe my dinner last night at The Carillion for Austin Restaurant Week is, “Wow.”

Josh Watkins is a kitchen dynamo that I have been following since he was the chef de cuisine at the Driskill under David Bull and later executive chef.  I have had the good fortune to work both front of the house and back of the house with Chef Watkins on a couple of occasions and I find his fire and creativity inspiring.

I was on day 3 of my Austin Restaurant Week adventure which I kicked off with the raucous Bad to the Bone Smackdown at Stubbs.  The events are not affiliated but their timing coincided to hurtle me into a foodie fest that feels like the upcoming SXSW must feel to the hordes of music fans about to descend on Austin.

The menu at The Carillion for Restaurant Week at $35 looked like a great bargain but turns out it is pretty close in price to the regular menu with a 3 course tasting for $38 and a 6 course tasting for $60. They also offer wine pairings for $12 and $22 respectively, which the friendly and accommodating staff even adjusted to our tastes.  I was excited to further discover that Tuesday was also the kickoff of their new happy hour menu as well.  Besides the lack of parking in the area that make the expensive parking garage a necessity, my innate love of both gourmet delights and bargain prices had me all tingly with anticipa————tion.

We started off with the pork belly with Diablo glaze, Asian pear salad, and fried mint as well as the lobster risotto with cremini mushrooms, sorrel, and lemon oil.  The pork belly was crispy on the outside and meltingly fatty tender inside, with the perfect matchsticks of Asian pear giving a fresh crunch of sweetness.  The lobster was poached just past raw to a sweet and tender perfection and nestled in a creamy risotto.

The coffee rubbed dry aged New York strip with roasted parsnips, candied garlic, and mesquite syrup was an interesting blend of sweet and savory.  My dining companion was fascinated by the candied garlic which was a pungent raw garlic spice blend captured in an amber sheet of caramel used to garnish the medium rare steak.  The braised beef short ribs were served atop a pool of celery root puree with fat asparagus tips and a black pepper gastrique.  Every component was designed to highlight and enhance the dish as a whole.  This attention to detail is what propels this meal to an occasion.

For dessert we chose the goat cheese cheesecake with huckleberry compote and salted caramel and the guanaja chocolate terrine with crystalized cilantro, burnt orange reduction and corriander cream.  The cheesecake was light and creamy with a buttery, crunchy graham cracker crust.  The slightly sweet huckleberries with the salted caramel made for a flavor symphony.  The chocolate terrine is deceptively small but delightfully rich slice of truffle heaven, paired with an almost honey like orange reduction and topped with a tiny dollop of corriander spiked cream, I found myself slippng into a sleepy chocolate coma.

Our server was enthusiastic and charming.  When she was unsure of a wine pairing we were not happy with, the manager was quick to step in with a wonderful substitute that speaks both to the customer service of the restaurant as well as the exceptional wine list.  I see many visits to The Carillion in my future. I hope to see you there.

Restaurant Review Standards

ist2_5674143-thumbs-up-and-downI read a great article today about the history of restaurant reviews and how they have evolved from a journalistic strive for accuracy and integrity to the freestyle world of blogs and yelpers available today.  Since starting this blog a couple of months ago, I have published a few restaurant reviews and believe it might be helpful to my readers to state my approach to restaurant reviews as well as my perspective and standards.

Three of the main standards of traditional restaurant reviews are anonymity including paying for meals, repeat visits covering the full spectrum of the menu, and giving a new restaurant a couple of months after opening to work on kinks in the system before reviewing.  With the explosion of food blogs as well as websites like Yelp and Chowhounds, reviews are just as likely now to be posted on the web by smart phones before the check has come.  This  blog is my opinion, like any review, traditional or otherwise.  My purpose in reviewing restaurants here is to share my views in a manner that is as fair and unbiased as possible while still taking advantage of the wonderful world of technology available to us now.

My story as a foodie began with a mother, Vera, that worked full time as a teacher of both preschool kids and piano as well as the pianist for our church.  Her mother was an excellent cook but my mom had a pretty full schedule with work and three children including my oldest brother Charles who has special needs.  Our family meals consisted of lots of Hamburger Helper and casseroles involving Campbells soup.  I admit to occasional indulgences of pork chops baked on a bed of rice and mushroom soup which I affectionately refer to as Redneck Risotto when I am craving the comfort food of my childhood.  But I also remember thinking one of the steps to making toast was scraping off the black bits with the back of a spoon.

My grandmother, Thelma but known to her grandkids as MeeMaw, in contrast was a much more passionate cook.  I remember fondly waking up to the smell of bacon and coffee when we visited.  There was usually bacon AND sausage for breakfast as well as homemade biscuits, eggs, toast, cereal-  hot and cold, milk, juice, and gravy to pour over it all.  OK, maybe not the cereal but definitely over the biscuits.  I consider my mastery of the art of gravy taught to me by my grandmother as one of my first culinary stepping stones.

My passion is pastry.  Christmas in Graham, TX at Meemaw’s house was a grand affair with all the usual turkey and cornbread stuffing.  But what I loved most was the wide assortment of pies, cakes, cookies, and candies that she had spent days lovingly creating for her family.  I refined my love of desserts in the mid 1990’s with my bff Ethan and his Tuesday night dinner parties, as described in my “About” post.  The short version is that I spent almost two years providing the dessert course to my friend’s hedonistic shindigs serving anywhere from 4 to 40.  I am proud to say that I never repeated a dessert.  The challenge to my creativity along with the gratification of hearing my friends make erotic noises while eating my Almond Truffle Squares and Toffee Banana Spring Rolls with Mango Chutney inspired me to attend the Le Cordon Bleu school here in Austin, which I graduated from summa cum laude in 2006.

I worked as pastry chef at several local restaurants but my most diverse and exciting experience has been as a volunteer at the Central Market Cooking School.  I promise to do a full post on this subject but suffice it to say it has allowed me to work with such culinary luminaries as Martin Yan, Damian Mandola, Nick Malgieri, and David Lebovitz as well as develop new skills under the guidance of the STELLAR staff of the school.  I have also met and worked with a number of local chefs.  This leads me to my first controversy with traditional reviews.

I cannot promise nor do I seek complete anonymity.  My relationship with chefs as well as others involved in the Austin food scene reinforce my experience and understanding of the pulse of the constantly evolving world of the foodies.  But I also do not want to be some media whore that reviews for comps or criticizes without a fair and balanced review.

Like most people, I eat my share of fast food and consider a fine meal at an upscale restaurant to be a treat.  I look for other opinions about an expensive restaurant before I make an investment of my time and limited restaurant budget, so the purpose of my reviews is to share my experience with other foodies who, like myself, love nothing better than discovering a new favorite chef.  But I also love small mom and pop places, Austin’s wide variety of ethnic restaurants, as well as the bursting trailer food scene.  I prefer locally owned restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients but I also will let you know about great specials at some chains.

There is no food budget to allow a full tasting of a menu shared with several other diners all paid for by an expense account.  I pay for my own meals and try to do so as economically as possible.  Happy hours, dinners with fellow foodies, and volunteering at festivals such as La Dolce Vita and the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival are a huge part of my experience with many local restaurants.

Making a living working in a restaurant is an entirely different experience to dining in one.  You understand the chaos of opening weeks, integrating new staff, and compensating for the volatility of a profession that demands both creativity and viciously stringent work ethics.  I find the world behind the kitchen doors equally if not more fascinating than the dining itself.  Viewing a restaurant from only one side of the doors does a disservice to both the restaurant and the reader.  If I have the opportunity to share this insider view, I will.

If a restaurant is reviewed within the first few weeks, it is only fair to follow up after the three month mark.  If food is comped, I’ll tell you.  If I know a chef which might influence the level of service I receive, I’ll make that clear.  If I do not like a restaurant, I will return for a separate visit before I publish anything negative.  I will strive to bring you the opinion of an experienced but economically limited palate that seeks the new and exciting.  Whether you agree or disagree, I promise a stimulating culinary journey.

2 Words- Bacon. Doughnut.

GordoughsWhat is better than fried dough?  Fried dough with a maple glaze topped with bacon! 

Before the economy collapsed, I was working with a guy that was trying to start a sorbet business out of a trailer.  Back when Hey Cupcake was only in 1 Airstream and you could only get Chicken Cones during ACL.  So I really understand the logistics and complications of these little gems that have become so prolific, especially  on South Congress and Lamar.  And gourmet trailer food is just so damn Austin.

Gordough’s is located 1219 S. Lamar between Barton Springs and Oltorf next to a couple of other trailers that also look interesting but I was there for one thing only, the Flying Pig.  Gordough’s serves up huge, fresh fried yeast doughnuts with your choice of toppings for $3.25 plus $1 for meat.  The Flying Pig has a thin maple glaze and is topped with several slices of bacon.  DEE-LISH-US.  I think I’ll try the Porkey’s next time-  Canadian bacon, cream cheese, and jalapeno jelly.

Wink

winkcircleOne of my favorite restaurants in Austin is Wink.  Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs do upscale with a certain casualness that is required in Austin.  The restaurant is small and can feel a little cramped but the service is adept at making you feel comfortable. 

The menu changes daily to highlight the best available ingredients.  They feature many artisan products and local farms like Pure Luck Dairy and Boggy Creek Farm.  Portions are on the small side to encourage multiple courses.  They also have a wine bar next door which has a fantastic happy hour.

I dined at Wink recently with a couple of ladies I had met at a Gonzo dinner.  One of my dinner companions was a foie “virgin” and I told her we must go to Wink for your first time!  They serve it as an appetizer AND as a dessert.  Unfortunately on the evening we were there they had run out of the foie dessert but it is spectacular and I highly recommend it.

We started off with the foie gras appetizer portion served on cubes of brioche with a marvelously tart-sweet balsamic gastrique.  The liver was perfectly seared, giving a slight crunch to the buttery velvet texture.

Next came the scallops.  They were large U10’s with a carmelized sear that gave way to a meltingly tender interior.  I wish I had kept better notes because I remember this being served with a rather unusual mushroom that lent an interesting textural contrast. 

Since we couldn’t have the foie dessert, we went for another culinary adventurous course with the sweetbreads.  Wink is the first place I ever tried this delicacy of thymus and pancreas glands.  I am not an eater of all things disgusting nor do I enjoy the Fear Factor type shows where contestants have to eat pig testicles.  But I do love some offal when it is cooked right and Wink does it RIGHT.  A crisp exterior with a creamy interior perfectly seasoned.  Almost as good as the foie.  Almost.

Then my favorite course at Wink, dessert!  Mark Paul is a freaking dessert genius.  My all time favorite dessert anywhere is his Chocolate Soup.  A bittersweet chocolate soup is paired with quenelles of milk chocolate ginger mousse and garnished with candied bits of ginger and orange rinds.  We also had the sampler plate of some of his other greatest hits which has a simple creme brulee, a flourless cake made with El Rey chocolate, and the divine lemon curd served in a crisp meringue shell with candied lemon zest.

I floated home on a cloud of foodie contentment, occasionally giggling as I recalled such a decadent dream.  (Yes, I realize this sounds like pretentious crap but an evening at Wink allows for a little self indulgence.)

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