Friday, November 27, 2009

Pasta Carla-ara (or: Midnight in the Garden of Good Eats)

For months now, my friend Carla has been talking some big talk about how she knew where to acquire the best carbonara in town. I've been known to crave this delectable dish and have even devoted a blog post to it, so of course I needed to investigate this rather audacious claim.

We waited a while till the weather grew cooler, then Carla pronounced it Carbonara Time. On the appointed day, we met at La Traviata, a sweet little restaurant on Congress Avenue that I'd been to, but it had been years. As I battled to find free parking (I have a strong aversion to paying for parking, particularly when the closest lot to the restaurant costs $10 for the privilege of occupying a space for an hour or two), I groused that THIS was why I didn't like eating dinner downtown.

But as we entered the restaurant, my irritation dissipated almost instantly. La Traviata is small and packed, but it has an elegant, cozy feel to it that is utterly charming. We snagged a small table in one of the nooks near a street window, under a sparkling chandelier.


Almost immediately, our affable server provided us with sustenance, in the form of a basket full of bread with an olive oil accompaniment.


We ordered, enjoyed a lovely bottle of wine, and chatted...until this came along and rendered us mute.


Truly the most perfect carbonara I've ever had the pleasure of encountering, this specimen was composed of perfectly al dente pasta, gently piled and sprinkled with bread crumbs, then lovingly topped with a nest of slivered scallions and a farm fresh egg that was simply stunning in its simplicity. The sauce was surprisingly light - perhaps with a touch of lemon? - balancing out the rich pancetta and steering the entire dish away from the heaviness that I often encounter in a carbonara. I swooned with my first bite, and am still swooning, days later. This carbonara changed carbonara for me forever.


How does one top that meal? One doesn't. We opted out of dessert and retired to Carla's house for more wine and an after-dark tour of Carla's amazing gardens.

Carla is the co-owner of Austin Urban Gardens, and her garden at home is a testament to her prowess in that department. Despite the fact that it was pitch black outside and windy (making focusing extremely tricky, as you'll see below), I endeavored to photograph some of the fruits of her labors.







Some of the bounty that's already been harvested:


Chocolate Cherry Tomato

I could not have imagined a more delightful evening. Memorable food, wonderful company, and a passel of inspiration for gardening (I've added an EarthBox to my Christmas wishlist). As if that weren't enough, you can bet that I'll now be the first in the car if anyone suggests driving downtown for dinner.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

I'm utterly stuffed from yet another wonderful Thanksgiving meal and I think too much blood is being diverted to digestion to write much, but I wanted to post a few photos from our Thanksgiving celebration this year. As we have several times in the past, we shared the holiday with our dear friends Sarah and Jack and their sweet sons Ian and Craig, and Sarah's parents from New Orleans, Kathy and David. Several others joined us for the feast this year, too - Audrey and Carlos and their kids Sofia and Juan Diego; our friend Steve; and Jack's brother Patrick and his girlfriend, Meagan. Of course, there was probably enough food for twice that many people.

Here are a few shots memorializing the day:

Feast-ready table.

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Seriously gorgeous turkey (which I should have shot from the other direction). Sarah brined this beautiful bird using Alton Brown's recipe.

Wild rice.

Totally bizarre but realllly delicious cranberry relish slaw that Sarah's mom introduced me to years ago when we spent Thanksgiving in New Orleans at their home. It's a recipe from the mother-in-law of NPR's Susan Stamberg and involves fresh cranberries, onion, sour cream, sugar and horseradish, all mixed together and then frozen and thawed. It's super easy to make, and trust me, it's way better than it sounds. Recipe here.

Things I really should've made more effort to get a better photo of: sweet potatoes; traditional New Orleans dish using mirliton (aka chayote) cooked with butter, shrimp, bread, and cheese; and some truly fantastic stuffing. That's the carved turkey bringing up the rear.

Pumpkin cheesecake. Mmmm.

Chris' signature dessert, lemon fluff. Surprisingly eating lemon clouds.

And...the first pecan pie I've ever made!

There were also quite a few other things on the menu that aren't pictured here - cheese, crackers, and cornichons as appetizers; brussels sprouts; green bean almondine; giblet gravy; rolls; and three other pies.

Two more fun shots from the day:

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Ian & Sofia

I hope all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving surrounded by loved ones and lots of good eats.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Big Reds, Big Bubbles, Big Fun

On Thursday, I was fortunate enough to attend Big Reds & Bubbles as a guest of the fabulous Jennie Chen. Big Reds & Bubbles, a Wine and Food Foundation of Texas event, was a celebration of fine food, sparkling wines, and heavy red wines - three of my very favorite things. And just to add to the marvelousness of it all, the event took place in the gorgeous and historic Driskill Hotel, which ratcheted up the decadence factor several-fold. I was in heaven.

As you walked in, you were greeted by this Table o' Bubbly. Then you could pick up an empty glass and walk around for pours of a bazillion (technical term) other wines and sparkly goodness.


The Driskill.

More Driskill.

From the Driskill Grill - Scallops B.L.T. The Grill's executive chef, Jonathan Gelman, is one of my favorite chefs in town; his work is always incredibly delicious, yet it's totally accessible and doesn't take itself too seriously (e.g., the cilantro sorbet push-ups they had a La Dolce Vita). Plus, I love the fact that he's lying on the floor in his profile photo at the link above.

Florida Stone Crab claws with spicy mustard sauce from Truluck's.
They have these all-you-can-eat on Monday nights. Dangerous.

Extreeeemely delicious torched escolar with a wonderfully light citrus sauce from Kenichi. I think this is the only savory thing I ate two of all evening. In fact, I wish I could eat another one right now.

Super tender miso-cured beef tongue tacos, also from Kenichi. Soooo goood.

Speaking of delicious meat, this Yankee Pot Roast from Max's Wine Dive
was all kinds of melt-in-your-mouth amazing.

Smoked Beef Tenderloin with a Bacon Marmalade on Herb Crostini from Perry's.

I can never turn down a lamb chop. These babies were prepared by the Roaring Fork
and served with a white wine pepper jack fondue.

House-Smoked Salmon Bread Pudding with Tomato Truffle Sauce by Fete Accompli.

Guisada de Pollo en Salsa Verde from Streats, a not-yet-open, but highly-anticipated restaurant featuring street food from a slew of different countries. Their managing chef is Michael Vilim, who is probably best known for his work at Mirabelle and the sadly-departed Castle Hill Cafe.

I know this is getting long, but for your dessert fans:

Chocolate Hazelnut Sandwich Cookies with Dark Chocolate and Brandy Ganache Filling from Fete Accompli. Yes, they were as good as they sound.

An assortment of dessert offerings from the 1886 Cafe and Bakery.

Toasted Almond Bostock with Cranberry Apple Compote and Grand Marnier from Annie's Cafe & Bar.

This was truly one of the nicest food events I've ever had the pleasure of attending - thank you, Jennie, for inviting me along!

Now can somebody please hand me my stretchy pants?


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gallery of Gourdough's

Each day, every city with a Yelp community manager features a Review of the Day for that city. In Yelp-speak, a Review of the Day is also known as a ROTD. A while back, my friend Kimberly coined a tradition amongst the Austin Yelp community called ROTDC, which is a Review of the Day Celebration. If the person who gets Review of the Day wants to celebrate their review, they call an impromptu party at whichever place they'd reviewed for which they'd garnered the ROTD.

On Thursday, Kimberly got ROTD for her utterly hysterical reviews of Gourdough's. Gourdough's is a doughnut trailer which I previously blogged about here and Yelped about here. Kimberly decided to throw a ROTDC party at Gourdough's this morning, so of course it was mandatory to attend. What was great about this gathering is that there were quite a few of us, so we ordered a slew of different doughnuts, and I got photos (and tastes) of all of them. So here, for your drooling pleasure, is a photo gallery of several of Gourdough's offerings.

Starting with the savory doughnuts:

The Flying Pig - Bacon with Maple Syrup Icing

The Mother Clucker - Fried Chicken Strips with Honey Butter. This was INSANELY good. Not too sweet, and the chicken was ridiculously tender and worked beautifully with the buttery, hot, fresh doughnut. Chicken & waffles, move over - we've got chicken & doughnuts.

A special seasonal doughnut, the Gobble Gobble. It's topped with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. We were all sitting around discussing how disgusting this sounded, which for some reason made my husband think he should go purchase one. We ate it. And liked it.

And now for the sweet treats:

The Dirty Berry - Fudge Icing with Grilled Berries. A little sweet for my taste.

The Slow Burn - Habanero Pepper Jelly with Cream Cheese Topping. Tastes pretty much how you might imagine it to taste.

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Naughty & Nice - Sugar and Cinnamon. For you old school doughnut fans. Only you may not have ever had one that came out of the fryer five seconds before you ate it. Highly recommend adding some honey butter on the side (pictured).

Margaritaville - Margarita Flavored Filling and Key Lime Icing. Somebody attacked this one before I snapped a pic. Better than it looks (which isn't hard, granted).

Something peach that I can't find on the menu. It reminded me of a Hostess Peach Pie.

The crowning jewel - Mama's Cake - Filled with Yellow Cake Batter (yellow cake batter!!) and topped with Chocolate Fudge. I'm quivering just thinking about this. Or maybe that's my thighs jiggling as a result of eating this...not sure.

We even had sparkling wine to pair with our doughnuts, thanks to the ingenuity of Yelper Hoa N. This practice is highly recommended.


I really can't think of a better way to have kicked off my weekend than a totally over-the-top food outing with some of my favorite Yelp friends. Congrats, Kimberly, on getting ROTD, and throwing a fabulous ROTDC!


Friday, November 13, 2009

Fill 'Er Up! - Giovanni's Pizza Stand

The luscious aroma of garlic and melted cheese fills the air. A tall, dark guy with a hairnet is moving deftly about, pulling piping hot pizzas out of a large pizza oven, boxing them up, and sautéeing chicken on the stove. A woman is preparing additional pizzas for the oven with a sprinkling of fresh mozzarella, and another guy takes a constant stream of phone orders.

I'll give you three guesses as to where you are.




You're inside a Valero gas station.

I know, right?

But it's true. That's where Giovanni's Pizza Stand has moved, much to my confusion, as I'd seen multiple photos of their original digs in a little trailer. Fortunately, a Yelp reviewer mentioned that they had moved inside the gas station, so I pushed my doubts aside, circled the gas pumps, and found a place to park the car.

Then I saw this


and this


as I was walking up to the front door, and I knew I'd found the right place.

Stepping inside the Valero is an experience in and of itself. Most of the place looks like a regular old gas station convenience store, complete with Slurpee machine and racks of packaged "baked goods" that could survive a nuclear holocaust. But there is also a surprising selection of wine, and in the back of the store, the Giovanni's crew is camping out.


I asked the owner if Giovanni was his name, and he laughed and said, "Oh, it's a nickname." (had I re-read Jodi Bart's great writeup of Giovanni's before heading down there, I would've remembered that his name is Julio Rangel). Then he explained that he started his first business when he was in his early 20's, so he called it Giovanni's as sort of a play on words (giovane means "young" in Italian). The name stuck.

Out of its modest quarters, Giovanni's is now serving up pizza, pasta, and even breakfast tacos at reasonable prices considering the quality of the food. A medium cheese pizza is just $6; a large is $8, and toppings range from $1-$2 apiece (depending on the topping and the size of your pizza) and include such delights as shrimp, steak, chipotle pesto, basil pesto, roasted eggplant, gorgonzola, artichoke hearts, and portabella mushrooms. Pizza can also be purchased by the slice, and they'll custom top it for you. Pasta dishes run $8 with chicken, $9 with shrimp; oddly enough, the menu doesn't say how much the vegetarian selections cost.

I ordered a shrimp pizza with basil pesto, and it was one of the best pizzas I can ever remember having in Austin - quite possibly the best. The crust was perfect - thin and crispy, yet with a bit of chewiness to it so it wasn't like eating a pizza cracker. The shrimp were tender and not at all rubbery, and Julio had added some fresh basil and olive oil to the top, which made the entire thing wonderfully fragrant. I kept exclaiming, "Damn, this is good!" over and over as I worked my way through my pie.

Best pizza in Austin?

Slice cam.

Honestly, I think the quirky factor is part of what makes Giovanni's so delightful. The fact that this wonderful food is being made and served out of such unexpected quarters adds so much to the experience. It just goes to show that you can make anything special with a little love - even a gas station.

Giovanni's Pizza Stand
3010 S. Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 656-7033


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