Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Odd Duck: First Peek

I have mourned the loss of Odd Duck Farm to Trailer ever since it closed two years ago. It was once one of my favorite examples of how restaurant-quality food could be produced in a teeny, tiny, mobile space. Sure, there was Barley Swine to fill in some of the void (the brick and mortar owned by Odd Duck's chef-owner, Bryce Gilmore), but it just wasn't the same.

So I was excited when Odd Duck itself rose from the ashes (an odd duck rising from the ashes doesn't produce quite the same imagery as a phoenix, but I digress). This incarnation of Odd Duck is, like its swine-y sister, also a brick and mortar. Given our relatively-chilly December, perhaps this is a good thing, as it allowed me to hurry right in to check it out.

The large kitchen is the heart and the centerpiece of this restaurant. I've been loving the open kitchen trend - as long as your party consists of no more than two people, you don't sacrifice conversation by sitting at the bar, but you gain an entire layer of entertainment. Watching the beautifully-orchestrated ballet at Odd Duck entranced me. Nobody in the kitchen seemed to talk. Nobody seemed the slightest bit flustered or in much of a hurry. Yet dish after dish seemed to magically appear from within.

Odd Duck Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes

I started with a Moscow Mule, a favorite cocktail of mine. Odd Duck's version has a nice bite, likely owing to the fact that the ginger beer they use is made in-house. My friend's Aunt Polly (Wahaka mezcal, elderflower, and ghost chili (!!)) also had a not-insubstantial kick to it. I enjoyed the fact that our drinks made our taste buds stand up and take notice, as if priming our palates for the meal to come.

Odd Duck Moscow Mule
Moscow Mule

The food got off to a bit of a slow start with the Turnip Salad. Not bad, but not special, either, and the bizarre presentation of this tiny, $8 salad crawling up the side of a metal mixing bowl just didn't do it for me. It looked for all the world like somebody had accidentally knocked the bowl over and then decided to serve it anyway.

Odd Duck Turnip Salad
Turnip Salad

Things started looking up when the Charred Broccoli ($8) arrived. The broccoli is surrounded by this amazing scrambled egg that's so soft and flavorful that it was reminiscent of hollandaise sauce. Shreds of sorrel and thin slices of apple rounded out the dish.

Odd Duck Charred Broccoli
Charred Broccoli

The Chicken Fried Chicken Egg ($9) was up next. Bryce Gilmore unquestionably knows how to cook an amazing egg, but honestly, I felt like the egg's perfection was marred just a smidgen by the thick chicken-fried coating. Creative, fun, and very Texas-y, but just give me that perfect egg, please, and skip the trip through the deep fryer (I will take a dollop of that hot sauce, though!)

Odd Duck Chicken Fried Chicken Egg
Chicken Fried Chicken Egg

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Runny yumminess (say that five times fast).

I ordered the kohlrabi soup ($7) solely on the rave recommendation of my friend Kristin over at Mad Betty, whose taste in food I trust immensely. She did not steer me wrong, though I thought the large chunks of very salty bacon were a teeeeeeeny bit ham-fisted (sorry) amongst the other comparatively-delicate flavors of the soup.

Odd Duck Kohlrabi Soup
Kohlrabi Soup

The textures and flavors at play in the Goat Rolled in Pasta ($12) were wonderful; this was definitely one of my favorites of the meal. The lovely mole sauce made this earthy and comforting dish the perfect plate for a chilly winter evening. 

Odd Duck Goat Pasta
Goat Rolled in Pasta

We finished with the sticky toffee pudding ($9), which was served nestled up against a round of St. Maure. I would never have thought to pair these two together, but the gentle stinkiness of the cheese added a note of intrigue to the sweet toffee pudding, veering the dessert away from any cloying tendencies it might otherwise have had. The shavings on top were pickled apple, which helped cut some of the richness of the other ingredients.

Odd Duck Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding

My first visit to Odd Duck definitely won't be my last; there were many other offerings on the menu that I wanted to try, but for which we unfortunately lacked stomach space. The atmosphere had a pleasant energy; the kitchen show and food were delightful; and service was attentive (maybe a hair too attentive; our waiter insisted on touching our backs every single time he came by, sometimes multiple times in one visit. We interpreted this as friendly, not flirtatious - yet if back-touching had been a drinking game, we would have been sloshed by the time we left). 

I still miss the Odd Duck of days gone by; I think this Odd Duck resembles Barley Swine more than it does Odd Duck Farm to Trailer. But it's a welcome addition to Austin's dining scene, nonetheless.

Odd Duck Restaurant
1201 South Lamar Boulevard
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 433-6521

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Hidden Gem: Hanabi

It's a little bit of a crime that I have yet to blog about Hanabi. It's probably the restaurant I visit most frequently; my go-to for a reasonably-priced, relaxed, but always high-quality sushi fix.

I always visit Hanabi with my friend Liz, and we always order the matsu combo: 12 pieces of nigiri and two rolls (a salmon roll and a shrimp tempura roll) for $34.95. We invariably swap out at least one of the nigiri and at least one of the rolls. Never once have they balked or complained, and I don't think they've ever upcharged us for the changes, either, though I feel sure we have many times opted for choices that were more expensive than the ones that were supposed to come with the combo.

The service is about as good as any service I've ever had in a restaurant. Unfailingly accommodating. Attentive without being intrusive. Always pleasant and kind...even when we - and I'm embarrassed to admit that we do this with some frequency - linger past closing time, solving the world's problems over a carafe of hot sake.

And the sushi has always been, over many, many visits, incredibly fresh and generously cut and just plain delicious.

Hanabi Matsu Combo
$34.95 worth of sushi. Kind of ridiculous, isn't it?

Hanabi Matsu Combo 2

Did you see those beautiful little morsels to the right of the boat? That's monkfish liver, one of my favorite things in the universe. If you haven't tried it before, I highly recommend it - it's the paté of the ocean. It's the rare sushi restaurant in Austin that carries monkfish liver, but Hanabi consistently has it in stock.

Monkfish Liver at Hanabi
Tasty, tasty monkfish liver.

One of these days, I'm going to check out Hanabi's omakase. I have it on very good authority that it is outstanding.

So if you need a fix of excellent sushi (and come on, who doesn't?), head on over to Hanabi and discover your new favorite neighborhood sushi joint.

2525 W. Anderson Lane (on the Lamar side of Northcross Mall)
Austin, TX 78757
(512) 407-9000 

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Sound Bites: Fries at Goodall's

When I first moved to Austin in 1993, I lived in a co-op a stone's throw from what is now Hotel Ella. At the time, the majestic building housed a chemical dependency center; in 2003, it became Mansion at Judges' Hill, and this year, it got a facelift and re-opened as Hotel Ella. Hotel Ella houses a restaurant called Goodall's Kitchen & Bar that I've been wanting to try, so we wandered down here on Friday to check it out.

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We had just come from a party that had involved a margarita or three and maybe a little too much queso, so dinner was out of the question, but I couldn't resist an order of their Goodall's Fries off the bar menu.

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The fries were served piping hot in a tiny fry basket, with a side of celery seed aioli, and tossed with brussels sprouts. "Tossed with brussels sprouts?" you say - to which I reply, "Why hasn't somebody thought of this before?" Brussels sprouts are having a "moment," and I'm so glad for it. More, please.

The fries were super crispy and resplendent with garlic, possibly the most garlicky fries I've ever tasted (i.e., wake-up-the-next-morning-tasting-garlic garlicky). We couldn't get enough of them. If these fries say anything about the rest of the menu, I have high hopes for this great new Austin hot spot.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Sound Bites: Italian Cream Cake from Upper Crust Bakery

I've never been much of a fan of Italian cream cake. Most specimens I'd met in the past were too something - too dry, too sweet, too...not chocolate. But then a friend requested Italian cream cake for her birthday, so I dutifully headed on over to Yelp and found some rave reviews of the Italian cream cake at Upper Crust Bakery. I ordered one. Tried it. And the world of Italian cream cakes broke wide open for me.

This Italian cream cake was a revelation. It was moist. It wasn't too sweet. It was plentiful with nuts. The frosting had a wonderful, cream-cheesy tang to it. I'd asked them to dress the top with colored sugar, which crunched oh-so-delightfully between my teeth. I wanted more.

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In a three month period, I bought three whole Italian cream cakes from Upper Crust. Every single time there was an occasion, I would volunteer to bring the cake and delightfully dial up another one. Seriously, I even bought one for Paralegals' Day / Boss' Day / my law partner's birthday (which we celebrated simultaneously in our office, because it was impossible to match up our schedules more than once).

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So if you need a cake to celebrate a special occasion (note: "Have a Bad Day" Day is coming up on November 19th!), head on over to Upper Crust and buy yourself a revelation.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

On Tapas the World: Paella Lovers United's 11th Annual Spanish Culinary Festival!

So sorry, dear readers; I've been a terrible slacker-blogger. I won't bore you with my reasons. Instead, I will woo you with a gift. The gift of knowledge.

One of my favorite events of last year - and one that seems to be very much on the down low - has tickets for sale. Right now. Get them while you can - they sell out early!

Paella Lovers United (is that not the best name for an organization EVER?) is holding its 11th annual Spanish Culinary Festival on November 9, 2013. For just 39 bucks (plus service fee), you can taste tapas, pig out on piles of paella, imbibe bodacious beverages (last year, ticket price included alcohol - but the event page this year says BYOB), and fawn over Flamenco fabulousness.

In case that description didn't sell you, here are some photos from last year's festival:

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Tantalizing Tapas

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Piles

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And piles

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And piles of paella (there were MANY more piles that were not photographed)

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Pig, too!

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Hope to see you there!
(photo by the lovely Joelle Boehle)

Event info
Ticket purchase linky

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Maine-line This: Garbo's Lobster Truck

Last summer, two girlfriends and I headed off to Maine for a first annual girls' trip and food pilgrimage. We spent four glorious days escaping the Texas heat, reveling in the gorgeous Maine landscape, and eating lobster. Lots and lots of lobster.

lobster
One of the (many) casualties of our trip.

This summer, as the heat has slowly taken hold of our fair city, I've found myself spending an undue amount of time dreaming of Maine. I'd cast about a little for the perfect lobster roll here in hopes of transporting at least my taste buds north, but to no avail. Then, I discovered Garbo's lobster truck.

There is something to be said for doing one thing, and doing it really, really well. Garbo's has two offerings: a Maine-style lobster roll and a Connecticut-style lobster roll. On the Maine-style roll, the lobster is tossed in Garbo's homemade mayo with a bit of celery and some seasonings. On the Connecticut-style roll (my favorite of the two), the lobster is dressed with lemon tarragon butter and topped with some chopped scallions. In both cases, the rolls are made on lovely buns from Sweetish Hill. And in both cases, the rolls are ah-may-zing. Overflowing with tender lobster. Just enough moisture from the mayo or the butter to tie it all together without overwhelming the lobster flavor. In short, a $14 trip to Maine without having to jam yourself into a tiny seat for three hours.

Garbo's
Connecticut-style, baby.

These rolls truly rival their counterparts up north. Now if Garbo's could just bring some of that gorgeous Maine summer weather down here, I'd be the happiest woman alive.

(various locations - check website for schedule)





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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Austin Bakes for West

The seemingly-tireless and undisputedly-amazing woman behind Austin BakesKathryn Hutchison, is at it again, this time organizing a city-wide bake sale to benefit Americares' efforts in West, Texas. If you've been looking for an easy and fun way to help the citizens of West, all you have to do is visit one of the eight locations below on Saturday, May 4th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and purchase some of the delicious baked goods that will be donated by both professional and home bakers all over the city. Or, you can give directly to AmeriCares at the Austin Bakes giving page, here.


Want to do more? You can also volunteer to bake or help out with setup, sales, and cleanup on Saturday by signing up here.

I'll be at the Stiles Switch location all day Saturday - hope to see you there!

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Lucky at Lucky Robot

Austin restaurant chain Zen became a sibling a few months ago, when founder Adam Weisberg opened Lucky Robot in the space that formerly housed the South Congress incarnation of Zen. It took me a few months to make it there, but my first meal there was so delightful that I was back again the next day.

Like Zen, Lucky Robot offers Japanese-inspired fare, but the dishes at Lucky Robot feel significantly more special to me than Zen's offerings. The flavors and presentation are much more refined, and the entire experience feels less "fast food-ish" than Zen, without too much of a markup (entrées run from about $8-$13, and the portions are very generous). Ordering is done via iPads on the tables, which is kind of fun, especially since the iPad version of the menu features photos of every dish. Also, the digital menu makes it easy to spot gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, and low-calorie items, a feature that those on special diets will appreciate. One minor irritation with the iPad ordering system, though: it does not make it easy to split the ticket amongst multiple parties. Only one credit card can be used per transaction, and you don't get an itemized bill (the former issue is fixable if you ask your server to run the cards).

Wondering what to get? Here's what I've tried:

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Brussel sprouts ($4.75). My favorites in town - and I have eaten a lot of brussel sprouts in this town. Tossed in a lemongrass soy. These are on my must-order list for every visit to Lucky Robot.

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Karaage Chicken ($8.00). Loads of chicken that's been marinated for 24 hours, then fried. Well-prepared, although I think I'll ask for the sauce on the side next time; as you can see in the photo, it pooled in the bottom of the bowl and made my rice more saucy than I like it.

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Bo Ssam ($8.50). Brown sugar-crusted pork belly...need I say more? Just in case the answer is yes, it's served with rice, red leaf lettuce, kim chee, ginger scallions and ssamjang (an amazing, spicy, bean-paste-based sauce that I am determined to recreate at home so I can put it on everything). Snuggle some pork belly up in a lettuce leaf, dress it with whatever of the other ingredients you like (in my case, all of them), roll it up, and go to town. Probably not recommended for a first date. Highly recommended for a tenth date (if s/he minds you eating delicious, messy food, you might as well kick them to the curb).


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Rising Sun ($11.00). Probably my favorite of the dishes I've tried here, this cholesterol-bomb features four generous slabs of pork belly, served with a rectangle of grilled rice, crispy shallots & garlic, charred scallion vinaigrette and cilantro, all topped with a gorgeously-runny fried egg. This one is definitely not on the 500 calories or less menu, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't like fatty meat - the pork belly on this dish is much fattier than the belly served with the Bo Ssam. But if you don't mind giving your arteries a little workout, order this with a side of the ssamjang (from the Bo Ssam dish) and go to town.

Lucky Robot is open 11a-10p Monday through Friday, and 10a-10p Saturday and Sunday. They offer a "Tokyo Brunch" both weekend days that features more typical brunch-ish entrées like eggs and pancakes, but with Asian riffs, like soft-shell crab, sriracha, and matcha green tea whipped cream. Much of their regular menu is available during brunch time, too, so if you'd rather start your day with a pile of pork belly, no one is going to stop you.

More craveworthy, moderately-priced, Asian-inspired fare in Austin? Lucky us.

Lucky Robot
1303 South Congress
Austin, TX 78704

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Monday, April 15, 2013

A Blog Birthday and a Smoothie for Allen

April 13th marked the four-year anniversary of this blog. Writing here has been a wonderful thing for me for so many reasons: it's a fun creative outlet; it's given me tons of photography practice; and it's been the conduit and inspiration for many, many, many wonderful meals. Best of all, though, it's helped me connect with a community of amazing, talented people who share a passion for food and a recognition that few things are as good at bringing people together.

Unfortunately, one member of the Austin food community, Allen Stern of Let's Talk Fitness, passed away earlier this month. I regret that I never met Allen personally, but he was a frequent participant in the private Facebook group for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance, and by all accounts he was energetic, generous, and kind. Allen, who had lost over 125 pounds thanks to improved diet and exercise, was a big proponent of drinking green smoothies for weight loss. As a tribute to Allen, some of his family and friends suggested that folks make a smoothie in his honor and post about it online. So it seemed fitting that to celebrate my blog's birthday, I should toast a green smoothie to a fellow food blogger who left us too soon. Allen, this one is for you.

I learned about this smoothie recipe from my awesome sister-in-law, who posted about it on her blog last month. The original recipe is here. Mine was slightly modified from both, so I'll post my ingredient list here - but the beauty of smoothies is that the recipe is really just to provide inspiration. You can fiddle with it however you like until you've got the perfect blender concoction.

Green Smoothie for Allen
1 frozen banana
1 T peanut butter (I used The Bee's Knees peanut butter, which has some honey added to it - a gift from Peanut Butter & Co. If you don't have any Bee's Knees, you could use regular peanut butter and add honey separately, to taste.)
1/2 c Greek yogurt (I used Fage)
1/4 c milk
Enough spinach to fill the blender to the top (most green smoothie recipes call for baby spinach; I used heirloom spinach from our Tecolote Farm CSA, and it worked great)

Blend and enjoy!

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Austin Songkran Festival at Wat Buddhananachat

Every year, the Thai Buddhist temple in Del Valle, Wat Buddhananachat, throws a big Songkran festival celebrating the Thai New Year. We went a couple of years ago, and it was a super fun and very culturally-interesting experience. Dozens of vendors were making and selling all kinds of Thai food - from Thai fried rice to intestine soup to curries galore, as well as tons of other offerings that were unfamiliar to me, and all of which I wanted to try. I sorely wished I had a spare stomach that day! There's also live music, dancing, and a Miss Songkran beauty pageant. Here are a few photos from when we went:

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This year, the festival is on Saturday, April 20th. The festivites go from 10:00 a.m. until midnight. It's family-friendly, entrance is free, and you just have to pay for whatever food you buy. I highly recommend this event for all you Thai food lovers, and for anyone else interested in experiencing a Thai cultural celebration.

Here's the link to the event Facebook page.


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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sound Bites: Sarah's Kale Chips

If you'll pardon a little introspection, I feel like I'm getting a little bogged down (blogged down?), here. Part of the problem is that I tend to fill my schedule until it's bursting at the seams, so writing the long, very detailed posts that I'm prone to just isn't happening. Food Photo Friday helped bust that pattern loose a little, but then I got too caught up in finding photos that were worthy. So I'm going to experiment with a new series called "Sound Bites," for when I just have a little something to say (and/or a little time to write).

What better subject for the first of the series than a company whose slogan is "Bite me"? I discovered Sarah's Kale Chips when I won a box of them from a contest that The Austin Bodyworker threw during SXSW. I make kale chips at home fairly frequently, so I wasn't expecting these to be anything different. But they very much were. My homemade kale chips are very light and ethereal - like eating crispy kale air. Sarah's kale chips have some substance to them. They're heartier, if you can really use that word to describe a kale chip. And sometimes when you're snacking, you need that.

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The box I got in the contest was Sarah's sour cream and onion flavor. I know what you're thinking: "Sour cream and onion kale chips?!?"  That's what I was thinking, too. But the flavor is just right - not at all fakey, and just the thing to make the chips taste more like a snack and less like a health food. The list of ingredients includes cashews, dates, garlic, miso, apple cider vinegar, chives, sea salt, and pepper - so there's no actual sour cream, and vegans can enjoy them, too! I'll have to admit; I don't think I would ever have thought to add those things to kale (particularly the cashews, which I suspect are a big part of what "grounds" the texture of these chips). But the end result certainly works - so well that I feel quite sure I could devour an entire box at one sitting. 

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Sarah also offers a vegan cheese flavor, which I can't wait to try. Also, if you live in Austin, her website says you can pick up your chips to avoid shipping costs and get a free hug! What are you waiting for? 

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Guide to Thai-riffic Thai in Austin


My second post for the 2013 Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide is on Thai food. Thai food is one of my favorite genres of food, and I've long lamented the relative scarcity of outstanding Thai here in Austin. But a few spots stand out as being consistent winners in my book. Read on to find out which Thai restaurants have most curried my f(l)avor.

Sway
I had every intention of getting a full blog post on Sway up before now. I'm pretty sure it's the restaurant I've frequented most since its opening in December of last year (though Épicerie is close behind). I've long been a big fan of executive chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki, the dynamic duo behind La Condesa, though I'll admit I was a little skeptical when I heard they were opening a Thai restaurant, too. Could they really be as good at Thai food as they are at Mexican?

Yes. Yes, they can.

What I love most about Sway is that their dishes are full of flavor, but still taste clean and fresh. Most everything is made from scratch, including their deeply wonderful nam prik pao. My favorite dishes at Sway include the son-in-law, the jungle curry, the tiger cry, the kai yaang, and the salt & pepper tofu. For dessert, the Thai tea affogato or the jasmine tea panna cotta. I still aspire to writing a full-length blog post about this fabulous place, so I'll reserve the long-winded dish descriptions for that day, but here are a couple of photos to whet your appe-Thai-te.

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The Son-In-Law - braised pork shoulder, crispy farm egg, thick soy, chili vinegar

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Jasmine Tea Panna Cotta - served with coconut-lychee sorbet, red grape, lychee, palm sugar, Thai basil, shiso, and crunchy amaranth

This sweet restaurant and coffee bar on West Mary is a favorite of mine for many reasons. I love that they source locally and use humanely-raised meats. I love that the owner, Jam Sanitchat, teaches cooking classes at their store, passing on her passion for cooking and her secrets about her favorite Thai ingredients. And most of all, I love the food. Fresh Thai flavor abounds in every dish (in case you haven't been since they changed things up here, they now cook everything to order - no more reheating out of the cold case!). And you can cool things down afterwards with a scoop of their housemade vegan ice cream. The ice cream flavors are marvelous (everything from mint chip to ginger lemongrass), and you won't for a second miss the dairy.

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Spicy Basil Fried Rice

Madam Mam's / Sap's
I'm sure the owners of these two establishments prefer not to be linked to one another anymore (the competing restaurants are the product of the couple's split - she got the two locations that are still Madam Mam's; he turned the south location into Sap's). But it's hard not to link them when they still share a common menu. I'm hard pressed to order anything here other than the Pad Kee Mao (F5)(note that you have to ask for rice noodles or you'll get a version made with spaghetti noodles) or what is basically the rice version of the same dish, Pad Ped Ga-Prao (P8). For an appetizer, I love the Thai rice cakes (Kao Tung / A3).

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Pad Kee Mao - wide rice noodles stir-fried with your choice of protein (I always get pork), mushrooms, Thai basil, and Thai peppers

Muangthai
Few people I've told about this strip mall Thai joint wayyyyyyyyy up north near Lakeline Mall have heard of it. Yet, it's one of my favorite Thai places in town, and worth the trip. My very favorite dish here is the Chu Chee (SP4), a fried catfish fillet topped with the most amazing red curry sauce. We usually order the sauce on the side so the fillet stays crispy longer. Also, word to the wise: they are not afraid of heat, here, so we usually request our dishes mild so that the less-heat-loving folks in our group can still eat the food. But if you like it hot, they'll be happy to oblige.

I'll be brutally honest - the service here is frequently overwhelmed and, therefore, often not particularly attentive. The space is nothing fancy. But I've liked all the food I've eaten here, and particularly that fantastic catfish dish.

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O' happy red curry day - Chu Chee (fried catfish fillet served with coconut red curry sauce and lime leaves)

What are your favorite Thai places in town? I'm Thai-ing to know - please share in the comments!

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Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Guide to Upscale Dining in Austin, 2013 Edition

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


The Austin Food Blogger Alliance is once again publishing their comprehensive City Guide featuring our members' favorite restaurants in our fair city of Austin. For the fourth year (!!), I'm covering the fine dining beat. This year, I've added a Thai food post, as well.

As with my upscale dining posts from previous 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.



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

Café Josie - Café Josie has undergone a change in ownership since last year, and the menu has been modernized. I haven't been to the restaurant since the new guard took over, but I tried their udon at Wine & Swine and was super impressed. I'm looking forward to visiting the restaurant again soon.

Clark's Oyster Bar - I've only visited the relatively-new Clark's once so far, but thoroughly enjoyed my experience there. I thought the prices were on the steep side for what you get, but I am glad for a spot to add to the short list of locally-owned seafood restaurants.

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. The surrounds will delight the traditionalist in you, but the menu is more modern than you might expect.

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. Don't miss the desserts - pastry chef Laura Sawicki is a genius.

Lambert's - Not your father's barbecue. 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.

Swift's Attic - Inventive small plates in a wonderfully steampunkish space.

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. If you're celebrating a special occasion, let them know; they'll print up special celebratory menus just for you.


JUST EAST OF DOWNTOWN:

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.

Hillside Farmacy - This sweet little place is housed in a building that once was home to a pharmacy, and they've kept many of the accoutrements of the previous occupant intact. Their menu covers everything from raw oysters to ribs, and they've got you covered for every meal - opening at 8a daily and closing at 10 or 11 at night.

Salty Sow - On the casual end of upscale dining, which is one of the things I like about it. I'm a sucker for their triple fried duck fat fries, the truffled deviled eggs, the crispy chicken thighs, and the butterscotch boudino. Also, I love the fact that an entire section of their menu is dedicated to "Things in a Jar."


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. Their patio has a great view of the city.

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

Sway - one of my favorite new restaurants from 2012, Sway offers modern Thai dishes that pack a serious flavor punch. It's covered in more detail in my Thai post.

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:

The Carillon - One of my very favorite special occasion spots in Austin. 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.

Olive & June - This Italian restaurant from established Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel is a favorite of mine. I love their Sunday dinners, when they offer a very generous multi-course meal for $35 (children 12 and under are free!), 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 - The sister restaurant to Uchi. I've heard their food described as more "masculine" while Uchi's is more "feminine" - I guess my taste buds are hermaphrodites, because I love both spots.


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.

Soleil - Finally, a restaurant with a great view of Lake Travis and good food. The sunsets here are not to be missed.

Did I miss your favorite spot for a fancy meal? Leave me a comment!

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