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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