Austin has a ton of dessert options, from trailers to fine dining to bakeries you are sure to find something to satisfy that sweet tooth.
Two of the best restaurants in town are Uchi and her sister restaurant Uchiko. You may have heard of them, Tyson Cole won a James Beard Award last year for best chef Southwest and if there is any justice in the world, Paul Qui will be crowned Top Chef tomorrow night. As ethereal as their food is, I always save room for dessert. Sometimes two.
Director of Culinary Operations at Uchi and designer of desserts Philip Speer was just nominated for a James Beard Award for the third time. His plates are as beautiful as they are tasty. Speer uses familiar flavors and combines them with bold techniques to make a sophisticated presentation. One of his biggest sellers is the peanut butter semifreddo which came to him one day when he was making a sack lunch for his daughter.
My next post talks about the Social Hour they offer at both restaurants. If you go, make sure to try the desserts as well.
The Carillon is the restaurant located at the AT&T Executive Center on the University of Texas Campus. This is one of the best restaurants in town that nobody seems to know about. It is probably due to the fact that it is located in a hotel/conference center run by UT and is only open to staff for breakfast and lunch but it opens for fine dining to the public in the evening and it is outstanding. I have been a huge fan of the executive chef, Josh Watkins, since his days at the Driskill. As much as I love Watkins’ food, his dessert program did not do justice to his high caliber food. That problem was recently resolved with the addition on Plinio Sandalio to the team.
Sandalio originally comes from Bolivia but spent most of his life growing up in Houston. He is known for his daring desserts that combine savory elements like foie gras or offer surprising twists like flavored pop rocks. I always look forward to his inventive design.
Huge tip- the restaurant validates for its parking garage. It is one of the few places downtown you do not have to worry about parking.
Additional fine dining desserts:
Tons of pastry cases around town including many Mexican bakeries that you should try but that is subject to a whole separate post. Here are a few of my favorite European style bakeries:
Do not forget the trailers! Far more delicious desserts than I can count but here are a few of my favorites:
Trying to list all of the happy hours in Austin would be like trying to list all of the drummers in town. While fun and entertaining, they change constantly and you can’t throw a rock downtown without hitting one. So before you go, call or double check the website to confirm hours and specials. (Also, please do not throw rocks at drummers.) A pretty good resource I use is Austin on the Rocks. I believe they are doing a makeover on the site so hopefully it will be more updated soon but it allows you to sort by area of town and what kind of place you are looking for.
Of course there are hundreds of places that offer drink specials. My focus is more on the places that offer good food as well, not just the nacho car at Chuy’s (which is also delicious, just looking for something a little more substantial.)
First up is my newest discovery, Abel’s on the Lake. Next to the ever popular but overcrowded Hula Hut, Abel’s has a gorgeous deck overlooking Tom Miller Dam and yet it is only a 10 minute drive from downtown Austin. Happy hour is 4-6 Monday through Friday and offers half price appetizers, .50 Gulf oysters, and $3.50 Real Ale beers and Deep Eddy drinks. Much of what they offer is just pretty good bar food but the mussels here are the real stand out. Steamed in a butter white wine broth with shallots, capers, and sprigs of thyme I could drink shots of the broth alone but I recommend dipping the grilled bread in it and topping it with those delicious oysters.
Not too far down the road the atmosphere and the food get more upscale at Fabi and Rosi. Happy hour here goes from 5-6:30 Monday through Friday. $5 starters and $2 off beer and wine featuring wagyu tartare, chicken liver pate, a delicious cheese plate, as well as some damn fine mussels of their own and even classic escargot. Thursdays also include half price bubbly both by the glass and by the bottle. Fair warning, happy hour here easily melts into dinner with such delicious offerings as the classic schnitzel and spatzel made with Richardson’s farm pork or the wagyu steak and frites which is a steal at $19.
Vivo has two locations in Austin, one on the east side off Manor Road and one northwest on Lakecreek Parkway. I am more partial to the north location since one of my favorite chefs, Paul Petersen started working there. The menu at Vivo is classic San Antonio TexMex with brisket enchiladas that are out of this world but if you go to the north location especially Friday through Sunday, ask if chef Paul has any specials. His upscale take on TexMex is going to be subject to a full post very soon but take my word for it, what he does with pork belly, scallops, or whatever has taken his fancy that day is a flavor roller coaster worth the ride.
Happy hour at Vivo runs 5-close on Monday and Tuesdays and 5-7 Wednesday through Friday. You get half priced appetizers that go beyond just the yellow queso (still delicious, even from the nacho car) like shrimp nachos and comal seared queso fresco. Drink specials are $5 house margaritas, $2 Tecate and Lone Star, $3 wells, and $3 house wines. Added draw on any night are the free chips and salsa that I believe are sprinkled with crack because they are so addictive.
Wink is one of those places in Austin that has been around forever and sometimes I forget about this little gem tucked away near a dry cleaners off 11th and Lamar. Shame on me for that. Next to the formal dining area, Wink opened a wine bar years ago that boasts a very broad winelist that even offers tastings and flights. From 5-7 daily in the wine bar area you can also get half price appetizers like the brie burgers served slider style, creamy chicken liver pate, house cured salmon, and decadent mac and cheese with truffles. Note that you can substitute the brie on the sliders with foie gras. That makes me giggle. Foie for happy hour.
Another old favorite I revisited for this post was Moonshine near the convention center. Moonshine was at the forefront of the upscale comfort food movement. I am happy to report that although owner Larry Perdido is busy with his newest venture over at Hopdoddy’s, Moonshine is as delicious as ever. These gorgeous days we have been enjoying sure are nice sitting in the carriage house or on the porch of this Austin landmark while sipping on one of the patio cocktails.
The menu changes roughly with the seasons and the latest list of appetizers are below. The calamari were crisp and perfectly cooked, no chewy rubber bands. The baked brie came served with sliced apples, grapes, and a bed of arugula that made the plate seem like a nice cross between cheese plate and fresh salad. The biggest seller on the menu are the corn dog shrimp. Just like they sound, shrimp are dipped in a corn dog batter, fried and served with a honey mustard sauce with a blueberry swirl. They are worth trying but I have had them so many times I usually go for something new.
With Tyson Cole winning the James Beard award last year for best chef Southwest, Paul Qui about to be crowned Top Chef tonight (knock on wood so I don’t jinx it), Philip Speer nominated for a James Beard award for best pastry chef for a third time, a new Uchi open in Houston and a brand new Food and Wine Fest in April led by chef Cole, Uchi on South Lamar and her sister Uchiko on North Lamar have got to be the hottest ticket in town. And yes, my friends, I am happy to report they have a “Sake Social Hour” daily from 5-6:30. Word of advice, get there as close to 5 as you can as this place fills up quickly. There is also a bit more room at the North Lamar location. The menu here changes daily with the freshest fish and produce available. Always on the menu is the classic shag roll but daily specials are varied as they are delicious. Note my previous dessert post, it would be a huge mistake to fill up on dinner and skip desserts here. Make your girlfriend get her own so you can taste more than one. Now I must share my Uchi porn with you.
Right in the heart of dirty 6th as we like to call it around here, you will find parkside. I have been here more times than I can count for happy hour as well as long multi course dinner with friends. With so many inventive seasonal offerings, I made the mistake of skipping the burger for years. Only recently did I finally give in to a craving for “just” a burger and order this hidden gem on the menu. The burgers should come with a warning. They are so juicy that you are likely to get a good dribble down the front of your shirt if you are not careful. And the fries, oh the heavenly fries. Fries are calories I usually skip even at good old Mickey D’s. Fortunately for me they come with the $5 burger plate. They are perfectly crisp on the outside, meltingly tender on the inside, and are tossed with herbs and garlic for a flavor blast. Bring friends with you, though because there is so much more here to try. $14 for a gourmet assortment of oysters, $5 for the blond pate with strawberries. Really anything you get will be good. Happy hour runs 5-7 daily with 1/2 price bar menu and 1/2 price beer and cocktails.
The last place on my list I am sorry to say will not be having a happy hour during SXSW. Trio at the Four Seasons recently got a new chef who is revamping the menu including a new happy hour that will launch post SXSW. The property and the restaurant are gorgeous and worth a visit, especially if your new record label is footing the bill. If you are not that lucky, keep an eye out and I will post the specials once I get word.
So many more great places not listed here in Austin to enjoy discounted sips and nibbles. Please list your favorites in the comments. I am always on the cruise for a new happy hour!
What makes a great dessert? Although this question can be as subjective as what your favorite band is and dependent on your mood at the time, truly great desserts need to be beautifully presented and have a fine balance of flavors and textural contrasts that excite the palate. Dessert is usually the climax to a meal and the last impression you will take away from a restaurant.
My first stop for a magical dessert has got to be either Uchi or Uchiko both led by Philip Speer. Technically, Speer is now the Culinary Director of the Uchi group and has recently named his long time assistant, Monica Glen, as the pastry chef of the soon to be opened Uchi Houston and Andrew Lewis as the pastry chef at Uchiko. Speer is still very involved in the development of the pastry menus but not as much in the day to day productions as his new job duties take him between all three restaurants with staffing, training, aligning food costs, and the million other things it takes to launch and run three high end restaurants.
Speer’s desserts are as sophisticated as they are playful, a blend of familiar tastes with innovative techniques. He seeks to balance textures in a final course that is not too sweet with definite notes of contrast like acid and salt in the clean Asian aesthetic that the rest of your meal followed.
Head chef Tyson Cole has been known to challenge Speer to come up with a dessert with components from a single color. One of my favorites is his “Yellow” dessert of polenta custard, corn sorbet, cornbread tuile, and lemon fluid gel. Your first bite transports you to a field of corn swaying in a summer breeze. It is not over the top sweet, just bright and balanced like fresh picked corn. The cold sorbet complements the soft custard and the crispy tuile, with just a hint of acid from the lemon gel.
Speer likes to take traditionally savory ingredients and transport them to the dessert world. One of my all time favorites is the roasted tomato sorbet with cherub tomato confit and chevre fondant. It sounds like a salad course but not at Uchi. Speer roasts the tomatoes to bring out their natural sweetness and turns them into a sorbet with a hint of sherry vinegar, basically candies a few luscious tomato babies for the confit, turns the goat cheese with cream and gelatin into a creamy custard, places the whole thing on a bed of pistachio crumble for crunch and contrast, then accents it with tomato salt and tomato paper.
One of the most visually stunning desserts has to be the coffee panna cotta with mango yolk. The coffee flavored panna cotta is presented on a bed of crunchy coffee soil with a white chocolate sorbet and transparently crispy mango paper. Once you pierce the panna cotta, a river of mango puree runs forth like the yolk from an egg. The earthiness of the coffee and chocolate are highlighted by the bright mango burst. Crunchy, creamy, cold, sweet, crisp all come together in a symphony on the tongue.
So head over to Uchi or Uchiko and get a taste of the best. Or for a real treat, check out the Dessert Project. Speer and his team join fellow pastry chefs Plinio Sandalio from Congress and Steven Cak from parkside in a tour de force of one sweet and one savory course each with wine pairings on November 13 at parkside. Friendly rivalry between the trio is sure to bring out the best in each and I want a table up front for this one.
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.