Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Guide to Upscale Dining in Austin, 2012 Edition

***This guide has been updated. The latest version can be found here.***

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Under the leadership of the fabulous Jodi Bart (of Tasty Touring fame), the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide has expanded significantly this year. I'm tackling three categories this time around: upscale dining (also covered by Mandy at her great blog, Bite of Austin - be sure to check out her post, as well!), Vietnamese food, and salads.

As with my upscale dining posts from the last two years, I've roughly categorized all the restaurants into areas of town, and there's a handy map to help you find something near you. Locally-owned or -operated eateries are so much a part of what makes Austin great that I've chosen to limit my post to restaurants in that category.

Restaurants marked with *** ranked in the top five in the fine dining category in a poll of members of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance.



View Upscale Dining in Austin - 2012 Edition in a larger map


DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):


Cafe Josie - Island style/tropical fare in an accessible, relaxing atmosphere.

***Congress - Executive Chef David Bull was the first to open an Austin restaurant with all-prix-fixe dining. My blow-by-blow of a meal I had at Congress can be found here. Congress is part of a trilogy of restaurants in the same location - Second is a more casual (but still upscale), order-off-the-menu affair, and Bar Congress connects the two and is a great spot for a cocktail while you're waiting for a table (or a show to start).

Driskill Grill - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel.

La Condesa - It took me a couple visits to hit my sweet spot here, but now I'm a huge fan. Flavorful, interesting Mexican fare in a gorgeous and interesting space.

Lambert's - Not your father's barbecue - in only the best way. Think pork ribs with a fennel-coriander rub, brisket with a brown sugar & coffee rub, and brussels sprouts with bacon and brown butter.

La Traviata - Their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here.

Parkside - New American fare. If you're dining with someone who wants a more casual meal, send them back to the Parkside's sister restaurant, a pizza joint adjacent to the Parkside and aptly called Backspace (while you eat at Parkside, of course).

Péché - Absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service.

Ranch 616 - Quirky...like Austin. I'm partial to the jalapeno-maize trout, but I don't really think you can go wrong here. Strong cocktails and a nice patio round out the deal.

TRIO - the Four Seasons Hotel is all about exceeding expectations, and its restaurant, TRIO, does just that.

TRACE - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, TRACE focuses on locally-sourced products and is one of my favorite brunch spots in town.

Wink - Another great spot offering New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention.



JUST EAST OF DOWNTOWN:

Braise - I'm gaga over their beef osso buco, but have enjoyed most everything I've eaten here. Full blog post here.

Buenos Aires Café - lovely spot serving up - you guessed it! - Argentinian fare. If you have room for dessert, they've upped the ante with their quatro leches cake.

East Side Cafe - A glimpse into the good old days when Austin was more funky, with a large garden on the premises that sources many of their herbs, decorative garnishes, and some of their veggies.

East Side Show Room - Good, locally-sourced eats in a sumptuously steampunky setting. My blog post about it is here.



SOUTH OF THE RIVER (CLOSE TO DOWNTOWN):

Barley Swine - Interesting, innovative fare from a chef with a nose-to-tail philosophy. Be forewarned: I once endured a three-hour wait for a table here; maximize your chances of a shorter wait by arriving with as small a group as possible, either right when they open or late in the evening (they will call you when your table is almost ready, so you can head down the street for a pre-dinner cocktail or two. Or three.)

Lenoir - Like eating at the home of owners Todd and Jessica Duplechan. The concept is simple: any three courses for $35; extra courses are $10. The food is wonderful and the service is exemplary. Don't miss it (and make a reservation - word is out).

Olivia - New American with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. The open and well-lit space, designed by Austin architect Michael Hsu, is part of its charm. Named one of 2009's Best New Restaurants in America by Bon Appetit.

Paggi House - One of the more romantic spots in Austin; New American in lovely surrounds.

South Congress Cafe - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting.

***Uchi - Sushi/Japanese fusion. On the higher end of the pricey range, in part due to their small portion sizes. But every bite will be outstanding. My favorite meal of 2011 took place here.

Vespaio - Italian. Reservations only available before 6:30 p.m. M-Th & Sunday - all other times, be prepared for a wait. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax - A bright, laid back spot with a dog-friendly patio that I always enjoy. I have trouble veering away from the shrimp remoulade salad, but whenever I have, it's always been tasty. For those of you with refined bloody Mary palates, be sure to check out their build-your-own bloody Mary bar during brunch.


NORTH OF DOWNTOWN:


Bistrot Mirabelle - This French bistro is under new ownership; I've yet to visit for a full meal, but I loved what I did try at a media tasting there.

***The Carillon - Located in the AT&T Conference Center & Hotel on campus, The Carillon could easily be a buffet restaurant in a large, well-funded university. And, in fact, during the day, it is. But at night, it transforms into a fine dining establishment with consistently excellent food. Don't miss dessert; pastry chef Plinio Sandalio's creations are genius.

Chez Zee - It's hard not to feel special while you're dining surrounded by twinkly white Christmas lights and whimsical art. Their smoky olive oil is like nothing I've ever tasted.

Olive & June - This brand new restaurant from established Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel looks to be another winner. A blog post about my first meal at Olive & June can be found here.

***FINO - A wonderful hidden gem that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. The menu has a Mediterranean/Spanish slant, but there is something here for everyone...everyone with taste buds, that is. Its sister restaurant a couple of miles away, Asti, serves solid Italian fare.

Fonda San Miguel - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Foreign & Domestic - Ned & Jodi Elliott bring with them some serious chef chops, including stints at Thomas Keller's Per Se. Their restaurant is playful and accessible, with a completely open (and tiny) kitchen surrounded by bar seating so you can watch the action while you swoon over your food.

Komê - One of the few sushi places in town where my non-raw-fish-eating husband gets excited about ordering sushi. Both the raw and the cooked offerings here are excellent - and surprisingly affordable (for sushi).

Musashino - As good as it gets in town for old school sushi.

Texas French Bread - This little bakery and café has been around since the early '80s, but just added dinner service within the last few years. It's one of my favorites for a casual but delicious meal. Much of the food is locally sourced, and everything I tried was beautifully prepared. BYOB.

***Uchiko - All of Austin is buzzing about Uchiko executive chef Paul Qui's big win on Bravo's Top Chef. You won't be disappointed by a meal of his edgy, out-of-the-box creations.


BIT OF A HIKE (North of 183, south of Ben White, West of 360):

Café Malta - Tucked away in a strip mall that also contains a tobacco shop and a Taco Bell, Café Malta definitely qualifies as a hidden gem. To my surprise and delight, they make most everything from scratch, from their pastas to their preserves.

The Grove - A solid offering by experienced Austin restauranteur Reed Clemons - great food and wine + a spacious patio make for a relaxed, enjoyable meal.

Hudson's on the Bend - Specializing in wild game.

Jack Allen's Kitchen - Jack Allen, the founding chef of Z'Tejas, brings a breath of fresh air to an otherwise-barren upscale restaurant landscape, the Oak Hill area. The flavors here are bright, fresh and innovative. Try the Navajo Taco or the trout salad - both are fantastic.

Mikado Ryotei - Not as good as Musashino for straight up, traditional-style sushi, but they've got some really excellent maki here if that's your sushi preference.

North by Northwest - One of the very few non-chain, upscale eateries in the area, it's consistently decent, and they brew their own beer. 'nuff said.

Did I miss something? Leave me a comment!

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

First Feast at Olive & June

I'm fresh from my first meal at the soft opening of Olive & June, and so inspired that I wanted to sit down to pen this post right away. Olive & June is the newest venture from Chef Shawn Cirkiel, already well-known as the palate and the mind behind Parkside and The Backspace. If our meal tonight is any indication, he's hit another home run with Olive & June.

The space hasn't changed much structurally from when it used to house El Arbol, but they've played with the layout a bit, and the decor is warmer and feels more open than the previous incarnation. Word to the wise, though - they did change the location of the front door (you now enter through the garden) - so if you try to enter through the previous entrance (like we did), you won't be able to get in.


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Ground floor, with a view into the kitchen.

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Second floor dining area.

For the sake of full disclosure, the food during the soft opening was complimentary, so all we paid for was our alcohol and gratuity. Our sweet server repeatedly encouraged us to order a smattering of dishes from all over the menu, and as you're about to see, we enthusiastically took her up on her kind offer. Thank goodness I had skipped lunch.

We started with several dishes from the Piccoli Piatti section of the menu, which our server described as "just a few bites to try." First to arrive was their fried ravioli stuffed with swiss chard ($5). These lovely pillows were really light and delicately fried, which somehow made the earthiness of the chard inside that much more comforting.

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Next up was their clam crudo ($5) - fresh, raw razor clams were dressed with just the right amount of meyer lemon and arugula to give them a little bite without taking away from that just-out-of-the-ocean flavor.

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Beef involtini ($4) arrived next. In my haste to try these, I neglected to ask what the fruit was in this dish; I can, however, tell you that whatever it was went perfectly with the very flavorful beef and the toasty pine nuts.

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We ventured into the antipasti section of the menu with our next dish, a wonderful serving of hearty, spicy meatballs served in a tomato sauce with a fig mostarda ($11). Our server confessed that she had overindulged in those during a "family meal" at the restaurant - one bite and we could see why.

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We thought we might use our salad course to convince ourselves we were eating light momentarily, but the warm runny egg that graced the top and the surprise bites of pancetta scattered throughout the plate quickly dashed that plan (escarole salad, $6).

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When we saw the pasta course, we had to rally ourselves a bit. Olive & June's seafood linguine ($17) features their house-made pasta topped with mussels, squid, shrimp, peppers and tomatoes, and garnished with fennel fronds. The surprise of this dish was the broth, which had all the richness of a pot that had been simmering on the stove for hours. Really fantastic.

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A generous filet of orata ($22) arrived next. The skin on this was wonderfully crispy, and the fennel and tomato served with it were cooked just right, so the vegetable flavor was still there, but there was enough juice to permeate the fish.

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We also tried a couple of sides ($6 apiece) - a bowl of lacinato kale that would have been quite healthy save for the rest of our indulgences, and a fabulous dish of what was billed as "pumpkin" but was actually grilled kobucha squash (we later learned that kobucha is also called Japanese pumpkin). The texture of the squash was a little dry, but the wonderful oaky-grilled flavor still made this a dish we would order again.

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We ended the meal with an order of their bombolini, which is a fancy way of saying "doughnuts" - of course, they were fancified by the ethereal orange mascarpone and the housemade nutella (ahem, housemade nutella!) that was served with them.

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We were super impressed by our first meal at Olive & June, and the fact that they are in our neighborhood virtually guarantees that there will be many return visits. Congratulations to Chef Cirkiel and his crew on what we are sure will be another successful venture.

Olive & June
3411 Glenview Avenue
Austin, TX 78703
(512) 467-9898
Their website
Their Facebook page

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Food Photo Friday: Jino's Sushi and Bistro

The lead-up to this post started as a tale of woe about arriving for lunch at a long-time favorite, Bistro 88, and discovering the doors locked and an ominous chain strung across the door. When I looked at the lunch menu for the establishment that replaced it, Jino's Sushi and Bistro, my heart sank a little. One of the four appetizers was krab rangoon, and a sweet and sour dish topped the entreé list. I sent out a tweet in an attempt to discover some back story, and Mike Sutter from Fed Man Walking tweeted back that it was owned by a Suzi's alum and that the chef - Chef Choo - was previously at Afin. My heart sank a little more.

But my screen name isn't Optimista for nothing, so I ventured in with a fellow foodie for lunch last week. Both of us assiduously avoided the Suzi's-esque side of the menu and ordered a sushi combo plate. Mine came with miso soup, salad, four pieces of nigiri and a "Mr. Jino Roll" (shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber topped with spicy tuna, spicy sauce, and tempura flakes)($17).


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If you've been to Afin, you'll recognize the unconventional flavors here. This is by no means a traditional sushi joint; whether that's a good thing or not depends on your palate. I personally found the sauces interesting, if not all perfectly complementary, and the nigiri was very generously sliced and fresh. Given that this location is such a convenient spot for me to meet downtowners for lunch, I'll undoubtedly be back, although it'll likely take some persuading for me to venture off the sushi side of the menu.

Jino's Bistro & Sushi
2712 Bee Caves Road
Austin, TX 78746
(512) 347-7707
Website

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