Monday, October 20, 2014

Sichuan River

Sichuan River (from the owners of A+A Sichuan in North Austin)  has taken over the Tien Jin Chinese restaurant at 4534 Westgate Blvd (on the Hwy 290 eastbound frontage road at Westgate; same strip center as Black Swan Yoga and Sap's Thai). Can't say I had ever been to Tien Jin, but I have now had food from Sichuan River three times in two and a half weeks.

My first time, I got eggplant in garlic sauce for carry out, along with the fried dumplings. My butcher friend had been there, and I thought he had said he had the eggplant with pork, which is what I asked for when I called. Turns out the pork isn't normally part of this dish (I've had it that way at Asia Cafe a place I really really like in far northwest ATX) but they had no problem adding it in. Verdict: thumbs up! Although after I had posted the picture on Facebook, one comment was that it looked like a dismembered Smurf. The eggplant is incredibly tender and the sauce was mildly sweet with a hint of a twang. The dumplings were a bit of a miss, but I am partially to blame, as they sat in a styrofoam container for 20+ minutes, and the ensuing condensation negated any crispiness that pan-frying gave them. I'd order them again, but only if I was eating there. On the plus side, the dough for the dumplings was much, much better than that at Asia Cafe, where it is WAY too thick, and the soy sauce-based dipping sauce breathed some life into them. Oh, and the eggplant dish, which comes with rice? I got three meals out of that!
The second trip, I went to dine in with a Thai friend. She wanted to try some of the cold specialty dishes, namely pig ears and crunchy jellyfish, as she has had them in Thailand, and she wanted to see how they would compare. While these are not normally dishes I would go for, I was willing to try. And now I can say I tried them, and don't need to try them again. For some, I am sure they are wonderful. But for me, they were both very similar in texture: cartilaginous.  Both were fairly bland, gelatinous, and a touch crunchy, the pig ear more so. You can't really see it, but there was some very nice julienned cucumber slices under the jellyfish. In my defense, my Thai friend didn't especially love them either.
I ordered the dan dan noodles, which I had been tipped off by the butcher that they were good, but NOT on the printed menu. Oh, no problem, said the waitress. Now, when I've had dan dan noodles in the past, they've had a decent amount of ground meat with them. These did not, but they did have the nice chili oil, a mild Sichuan peppercorn flavor, and a nice firm quality to the egg noodles. I would definitely get this again.
The third trip was dinner with my friends who first introduced me to Asia Cafe many years ago. There were five of us total, and we agreed to order a variety and just split everything. We started with some hot and sour soup, which seemed heavy on the white pepper, but not enough sour for my liking. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't anything memorable. The rest of the meal fared much better! The dry fried green beans were a touch salty, but yummy, and still a bright green (as in NOT overcooked) color.
We ordered the eggplant in garlic sauce (just as is, no pork) which was again really good, though the sauce might have been just a bit on the thick side, and I would probably ask for it with pork again.

Butcher friend had also recommended the Sizzling Sichuan Lamb, and yeah, it was spot on! It's spicy, though you could probably have them dial it back a bit (see the dried red chiles and the sliced jalapenos?!). And tender. So tender. Very heavy on the cumin (yes, not just for Latin foods!), and a little bit of Sichuan peppercorn again. I love lamb, so I was very happy. Oh, and butcher friend has always loved Asia Cafe for it's tripe, stomach, and other "weird" parts; he's been extremely happy at Sichuan River so if that's your thing, go for it!
My friends are BIG egg foo young fans, so their eyes got REAL wide when they saw it on the menu, so we ordered the pork version. This did not disappoint, and they went as far as to say it was the best EFY they had had in a very very long time. It was crispy, because they serve the sauce on the side -- genius! And what is EFY, you might ask? Think of it as the Chinese version of an omelet. And really good.
Our final dish was jumbo sesame shrimp. On the plus, the shrimp were lightly crisp, but on the negative, the sauce was just way too thick and almost cloyingly sweet. Someone had a very heavy hand with the cornstarch in making the sauce. Shrimp good, sauce not so much.
The nice thing about having a larger group of people, is not only can you try a variety, but the cost seems to go down. We paid $15 each, and that included tip.  And while they seemed a bit short handed (but all the food came in a timely manner), the only other real drawback that we noticed was the lazy susan at our table could really use a good scrubbing and re-coating of protective oil; it was clean but sticky/tacky.

Why am I so excited to have a Sichuan place in South Austin? I believe it's the first place really serving authentic Sichuan (Szechuan/Szechwan) down south. And they're not heavy on the Americanized Chinese dishes, though they do have some if that's your thing. And on this Saturday night, the clientele was two-thirds Chinese, and by the time we left, they had a good-sized crowd. And they are close to my work, so I see more nights of eggplant with pork in my future. Both times I have eaten there, I've had the same waitress who is very good, and speaks good English and has good humor. I am starting to hear a bit of a buzz about Sichuan River, and for those of us in South Austin, this is a great addition to our food scene.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Porter Ale House and Gastropub

I've been wanting to check out Porter Ale House since its opening in January. They are located on the ground-level of a new apartment building on South First Street, about a quarter mile north of Ben White/Hwy 290, and on site parking is available. The people who I know who have been to Porter have all reported very good things, and can now say, I concur with their findings!

Friends and I met for happy hour (Sunday - Thursday, 5 - 7 pm) on a recent Tuesday, and they offer drink specials and a few small plates at reduced prices. I started with a Tito's Mule in the requisite copper mug, that was refreshing, but not real strong.
Truffle popcorn and fries were next. The popcorn has a very nice amount of finely shredded cheese; the ketchup with the fries was a bit sweet and sort of so-so. The country pate plate comes with pickled red onions, gherkins (cornichons), and some toasted breads; good pate, but I think I do like smooth pate a bit better.
There was also the grilled flat bread with olives and hummus; I just tried a piece of the bread, and it was fantastic! It's got just a bit of yeast in it, so it's soft on the inside, but lightly charred on the outside. A whole boat of that would have been dangerous. Same with the pretzel bread that was with the beer cheese fondue; don't know if they're making their own breads or if they're getting them from someplace like Easy Tiger, but they are good. And they asked if we wanted more bread and apples (I'd guess Granny Smith) a few minutes after we received the cheesy goodness. I did notice that all of the items we got from the happy hour menu (popcorn, fries, flat bread + olives) were served in paper boats, and the other dishes on wooden planks or trays.
The best dish all around was the oxtail croquettes. They look like well-fried over-sized tater tots, and the shredded beef was super tasty and falling apart. I only ate one of those, but could have easily eaten them all.
Dessert....well, there were four of us and four desserts on the menu, so we said, "Sure, why not?!" And we were not disappointed. Now I am not the biggest pumpkin-flavored-anything lover, but this pumpkin cheesecake was pretty tasty (and my companions definitely enjoyed it). The oatmeal crunch topping on the apple pear crisp was some of the best crunchy topping ever (I mean CRUNCHY!), and it was graced with an oatmeal stout whipped cream. Not pictured were the donuts (really more like uber-crispy beignets) with salted caramel sauce and some cranberry jam on the side, which were pretty tasty in their own right; and we discovered the cranberry jam was also a nice foil with the cheesecake and apple crisp.
Now the ultimate ending to our happy hour nibbles was the peanut butter and chocolate s'mores dessert, served in a low-profile canning jar. So it's a peanut butter moussey concoction in the jar, topped with chocolate ganache, and marshmallow fluff that's been torched; and that's peanut butter powder on the front of the plate and graham cracker crumbs in the back. I think my exact words after taking my first bite of it were "Oh my flipping god!". Yes, it's that good!
The interior is smaller than I thought it would be, as it's pretty much a long, galley-style set up. We were seated in the back booth; not sure if you can get the perspective from this shot. There are three large 10-top tables on the left, a couple booths on the right, and then the bank of booths along the back wall where we were seated. A few more high tables (I think?) by the bar, and some patio seating outside, but I'd guess that total seating capacity is about 100 people total. If I make this picture really large, you may be able to make out the very urban light fixtures on the left; I loved them. Modern, clean lines (as was the whole place), they're different from anything you'd see in a "normal" bar, and I really appreciate that.
There are several things on the menu that I'd still like to try, like the beet salad and pierogies; also the French toast and pork belly on the brunch menu. Overall I think the pricing is decent, though $17 for fish and chips does seem high, but I hear they're great. We each paid $26 plus tip, and each had two cocktails and a decent amount to eat. A fun first visit with girlfriends, and I am glad to have Porter in my zip code.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News

 Upcoming Events
-- The Scarlett Rabbit is running Oktoberfest specials, October 6-26, the culmination of which will be an outdoor party with lots of food and live music on the 26th from 4 pm onward.

-- Mandola's Italian in Bee Cave is celebrating their 5th anniversary with a pizza party on October 13th beginning at 11 am.

-- Art Bites, an evening of art-inspired culinary creations from area chefs, Tuesday, October 14th, at Russell Collection Fine Art (1137 W. 6th) benefiting the Austin Food and Wine Alliance, $50/person.

-- Marye's Gourmet Pizza on Bee Caves Road is throwing a two year anniversary party, Wed., October 15th, 5 - 7 pm.

-- Meet local brewers at Thunderbird Cafe and Tap Room, October 15th, 6-10 pm, also serving as a benefit for the culinary grant programs of the Austin Food and Wine Alliance.

-- Prevention Magazine's R3 Summit is October 17-18 at the Long Center; see my previous post for a coupon code for $20 off tickets!

-- Swift's Attic Sunday Supper Series on October 19th will feature a benefit for LIVESTRONG. $75/person or $100 with wine parings.

-- Truck by Truckwest, October 21-26. Buy a 1-day, 2-day, or 6-day pass and get bites to eat at a slew of food trailers. Vote for your favorite trailer and the winner gets a $10,000 prize, to be awarded at the last Trailer Food Tuesday of the season, October 28th at the Long Center.

-- Carnivores Ball, and as the name implies, not really for the vegans; October 23rd, 5:30 pm, the old Brodie Homestead (you know, sandwiched in between strip malls on Brodie Lane in Sunset Valley -- the old barn is now an event space), $55/person. Organized by Aussie blogger Burger Mary, it will feature meats from Salt + Time, The Slow Bone Crew (from Dallas), Freedman's, Fried + True, beer from St. Arnold and bourbon from Garrison Brothers.

-- Estancia Churrascaria is celebrating their 3rd anniversary October 24-26 with a complimentary dessert for their patrons. 

-- Come one, come all to Homeslice's 9th Annual Carnival of Pizza, Saturday, November 22nd, 12 - 7pm!  Games, contests, pizza, and the event serves as a fundraiser for the Austin Bat Cave, a local non-profit for youth to develop their creative writing skills.

-- Wine and Swine (always one of my favorite events!) for the Austin Food and Wine Alliance, will be Sunday, November 23rd at Star Hill Ranch; details TBA.

-- Delysia Chocolatier is opening a brand new culinary facility in Cedar Park (2000 Windy Terrace, #2C) later this month.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Prevention Magazine's R3 Summit

I am excited! And ready for something totally new to me! I have been invited by Prevention Magazine to be a VIB -- Very Important Blogger -- at their upcoming R3 Summit (refresh, revive, reinvent) October 17-18 at the Long Center.  Now in its second year, R3 features health/wellness, fitness, culinary, and beauty experts and sponsors and puts you in the driver's seat to discover new ways to optimize your health.

Friday night will feature a kickoff reception and then a screening of the documentary Resistance (regarding the use of antibiotics), followed by a panel discussion. All day Saturday will have programming on the terrace of the Long Center including:
  • Aha! Moments -- learn some breakthrough thinking that will change the way you perceive health
  • Love Your Age -- how women today are redefining age
  • Eat Clean for Optimal Health -- the power of clean eating for weight loss, energy and overall mood
  • Shake Up Your Supplements -- what you really need to know about all those vitamin and minerals out there
Some of the presenters include actresses Andie MacDowell and Annabelle Gurwitch, CBS Medical Correspondent Dr. Holly Phillips, barre3 founder Sadie Lincoln, and exercise guru Chris Freytag (I've done her videos!). There will also be skin and hair consultations, healthy cooking demos, chakra and reiki sessions, and fitness demos.

Check out their website or Facebook page for all the details on the schedule and sponsors. Tickets to this national event are only $95, but as a VIB, I am pleased to offer my readers a discount code good for $20 off! Registration can be done here through their website.

Prevention hosted a dinner at Eden East this past week to kick off the Summit's festivities. Located at Springdale Farm in East Austin, it's a beautiful setting for an outdoor dinner. Executive Chef Sonya Cote is known for her use of local and seasonal foods, and they do their prep and cooking in a large trailer. With lights in the oak trees and refined picnic tables, it's a gorgeous setting with the farm as the backdrop. We were treated to a five-course meal complete with wine pairings. And speaking of pairs/pears, my favorite course was the delicate pear spoon cake served in a mason jar of course!

Thanks to Prevention Magazine for inviting me to be a VIB! In full disclosure, I have been been invited by them to be a VIB, but have not been paid for my blogging opinions or expert fitness services.

And if you're coming to R3 from out of town, here are some restaurant suggestions that are within one mile walking of the Long Center, which is conveniently located just south of downtown Austin. 
  • Along Barton Springs Road (the south side of the Long Center) El Alma (interior Mexican food), Terry Blacks BBQ (I haven't been yet, but it's supposed to be good, as they have a good pedigree), Sandy's Frozen Custard (not the healthiest, but the custard is delicious!); going further west past Lamar Blvd is a strip of iconic Austin places, but the food is not what I'd call outstanding at any. A it further down and to the north is Casa de Luz, one of the few macrobiotic places in town.
  • Walking south on South First Street: Torchy's Taco trailer park, Sway (upscale Thai), Elizabeth Street Cafe (upscale Vietnamese, with amazing French pastries for breakfast), Lenoir (fine dining, dinner only), a trio of sweets shops La Patisserie (French), Dolce Neve (gelato), Sugar Mama's Bakeshop (cupcakes and other baked goods), El Chile (Mexican),  Bouldin Creek Cafe (all vegetarian), and La Mexicana Bakery (Mexican bakery with tacos, etc. too)
  • Along South Congress Avenue: Doc's Motorworks (bar food), Perla's (seafood), Hopdoddy (burgers galore), Homeslice (pizza), Enoteca (casual Italian).
  • There are a few places just on the east side of South First Street across from the Long Center, but I don't know that I can give them a full recommendation.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ireland, Part Two: The Sights

Hope you enjoyed reading my previous post on all the wonderful food I had on my recent trip to Ireland. Now for the beautiful places we saw.

My friend Val and her husband Tim are Austinites who split their time between here and Ireland. They bought land a number of years ago, and built a house in County Mayo, just north of the County Galway border, not quite an hour from the city of Galway. Their house is situated up on a hill, about three-tenths of a mile (seems longer!) from the narrow, winding, shoulder-less road. They allow their neighbors to let a small flock of sheep come and graze, so this is the view from the house. For me, sheep, and green grass, and stone walls were never tiring to look at!
The town of Cong is about 20 minutes away from their house, and many buildings there were part of the 1952 movie The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. The town is extremely proud of it's association with the movie, and tourists can visit all the well-known sites in town and pick up their Quiet Man souvenir postcards and assorted tchotzhes.  Nearby is Ireland's oldest castle, Ashford, which dates to 1228, with several additions since then; it is currently a five-star hotel. It's backside looks over the Loch Corrib, which is dotted with tiny islands.
Ashford Castle's  beautiful grounds also house Ireland's School of Falconry where you can (for a fee of course) learn to hold and fly a hawk. Next trip! (The people in the background are looking at some of the birds in their enclosures; I think they have over 30 birds -- hawks, falcons, and an owl!)
Galway is a quaint city with a nice area of shops, pubs, and restaurants that is closed off to motor traffic. Unfortunately a number of tourist shops too, and once you see one shamrock placard or Guinness key chain, you've seen them all. Fortunately, there are other things to see, like the home of the claddagh ring, and just the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists.
We were there on a Saturday morning, and the farmer's market and a few food trailers are set up around St. Nicolas Church, which dates to 1320 and is the largest medieval church still in use in Ireland. We also saw the building where a young man named John Lynch was killed, giving way to the term "lynching".
It was then off to the Aran Islands, a chain of three small islands accessible by a 45 minute ferry ride from outside of Galway. We spent the night on the largest of the islands, Inishmor, which is roughly 9 miles long by 2 miles wide at the widest point. Part of the charm of these islands includes that fact that the native still speak traditional Irish amongst themselves (called Irish, as opposed to Gaelic, I learned) and English with the tourists. Inishmor only has a population of about 1000 people, and most everyone knows everybody. What once was a fishing industry has given way to tourism, and there are lots of B + Bs scattered throughout.

When fishing was the dominant way of life, each family would knit wool sweaters in a pattern particular to them (like a coat of arms), so if someone were lost at sea, the body could be identified by the sweater. (A bit morbid, but practical.) The anthropologist in me enjoyed seeing the different patterns and their meanings; these hung in the Aran Sweater Market.
We took a tour of the island by pony trap, and at the northern part of the island is the 3000 year old Viking fort, Dun Aengus. It was a bit tricky walking the path up to it, as the stone pathway was a bit slick, but the view headed up and from the top made it all worth it.
The fort was built with three concentric ring walls and a cheval de frise in place. This was a defense system, where they place the stones upright, pointy ends in the air, so if invaders did penetrate the island, they or their horses would have a hard time walking through the stones to the inner-most ring.
You can also lie down flat on the top of the rock and peer over the side and 300 feet down to the water! It was a bit freaky looking over the edge, but it's now one of my favorite memories of the trip.
Returning to the mainland of Ireland, we drove through County Clare and the geologic area known as the Burren. It is what's called a karst landscape, where the limestone was eaten away by glacial formations millions of years ago leaving a pavement of stones (for more explanations, go to Wikipedia or the Burren National Park's site).  The remaining soil is nutrient rich, and about 80% of all Irish plants are only found in this region, which accounts for about 1% of Ireland's landmass. It's also an area where many ancient tombs have been found, including this, Poulnabroune. It's roughly 5000 years old  (give or take a century!), and over 30 bodies were found buried in it, including children.
We also discovered the very off-the-beaten-path Burren Perfumery, which was a treasure in the middle of nowhere! Literally a cottage industry, they blend their own natural scents and make perfumes, lotions, soaps, and candles. There's a shop, an education room, tea house, and gorgeous garden to boot. Well worth a stop should you be in the area!
Leaving the Burren, we spent the night at a B + B in Doolin, and headed to the Cliffs of Moher the following day. (Doolin in the foreground, and the Cliffs begin just past the far point in the picture.)
While it was heavily infested with tourists, it was completely worth it. An accordion player (or maybe it was a concertina?) busks for handouts along the path to the visitors center, which was built into the cliff side. Going up the stepped-path to the top, a harpist is playing. And the views are stunning, even with the bit of haze on the horizon. On clear days, you can see the Aran Islands, and the similarities of the geology between Dun Aengus and Moher are evident. And if you remember the movie The Princess Bride, this is where the Cliffs of Insanity were filmed. You can walk all the way to end point in the pic below, which is looking south.
Just a few miles west of Moher is St. Brigid's Well, an homage to the patron saint of Ireland who lived in the 5th century. People come an leave their mementos for her in the little grotto.
We continued south to Dingle, which is the western-most point of Ireland, and home to some scenic views along the way.
Dingle is a such a cute little town, filled with pubs and shops, many of which have high-quality local crafts, such as paintings, ceramics, woolens and jewelry. I realized going through my pictures that I really didn't get any pictures of the town, but it's cute, so you'll just have to take my word for it! We took a drive out to the very western point, and along the way, stopped to see some of the ogham stones in the area -- writings from about 400-600 AD in the forms of lines and dashes.  And we found  a little sandy beach where we dipped our feet in the Atlantic!
Traditional Irish music (or trad music) has become a mainstay in Dingle's pubs, and a trad music festival was taking place the weekend after we left. We were treated however, to a fabulous show at O'Sullivan's Courthouse Pub, which is owned by friends of my Irish hosts. Turns out one night we were there was a CD release party for two well-known Irish musicians, Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, so I shall leave you (almost!) with the one and only video I took (and I never take video!) of some fabulous foot-thumping music!
Ireland was a fabulous place to visit, and of course it didn't hurt that I had the best hosts ever. Ever! I can't thank them enough for their hospitality and helping to plan such a wonderful trip. Like I said before, green hills, grazing sheep, and miles of rock walls are amongst the things that make me smile and think very fondly of this beautiful emerald isle.(As well as the crazy narrow roads with no shoulder!)
And, our faithful travel companion, Rua! Slainte!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ireland, Part One: The Food

I just returned from a wonderful 10 day trip to western Ireland where a friend and I had the privilege of staying with another friend who owns a house north of Galway city, just over the border in County Mayo. I'll start with the food, and my next post will be the sights.

Fortunately, Ireland is a land of more than just potatoes, as evidenced by the beautiful array of produce in Valerie's sizeable garden.
The zucchini, or courgettes as they known there, grow INCHES every day; the large one here weighed just over 2.5 pounds. We did not go hungry while staying there!

From Puddleducks, a cafe in the town of Cong, a marvelous salad with copious amounts of Cashel Blue Cheese. We couldn't believe how much cheese was on here!  (Named after Jemima Puddleduck from the Peter Rabbit stories!)
McDonagh's in Galway -- fish and chips; this is pollock, but we also had hake which isn't as overfished. (I couldn't really tell a difference between the fish, they're both whitefish of very similar texture.)
Some of the most wonderful mussels I have ever had, and they were probably just hours out of the waters at Killary Harbor and the town of Leenane. Served simply at the Leenane Hotel with white wine, garlic, and herbs, along with brown soda bread and chips (french fries) of course.
Over to the isle of Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands. Near the entrance to the Viking fort of Dun Aengus (more on this in my next post!)  was the Nan Phaidi House cafe that catered to the tourists, but had delicious food. Here, Guinness beef stew; really nice flavor, though the beef could have been a little more tender. The islands, which were traditional fishing villages, are also known for houses with thatched roofs. And as throughout Ireland, gorgeous flower baskets on your house or business.

Back on the "mainland" and down the coast a bit to Doolin, where we stayed and dined at the Roadford House B & B. Trip Advisor rates them as the best restaurant in Doolin, and it was easy to see why. Beautifully prepared lamb three ways: sausage, medium-rare chops, and confited and made into a patty.
And on to the town of Dingle, which is on the western-most peninsula of Ireland. Lunch one afternoon was at The Garden Cafe, where I was delighted to have their Dingle Dog of the Day: lamb and herb sausage with caramelized onions. The sausages are made locally, as are the buns. This was so simple, and so good! I couldn't really identify the herbs in the sausage, and unfortunately, our waitress didn't know either, but it was tasty. We sat outside in the garden, where the local cat kept an eye on everything.

Dinner that night was at Out of the Blue, which creates their menu based off of what they were able to get fresh at the fish market each day. This was a potato-crusted pollack with chives and cream; they shredded the potatoes to make the crust, and seared the heck out of it to make it marvelously crisp.
We also spent time at the Courthouse Pub where I did manage to try a Guinness. I normally don't care for dark, heavy stouts, and have not cared for Guinness when I have tried it in the States. I asked the bartender for a half-pour, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it and drank the whole thing! It wasn't bitter like I recall it previously, and apparently Guinness beer in Ireland is not pasteurized which may account for the taste difference.
The prize for the worst meal of the trip goes to John Bennys Pub -- our three separate dishes (pork loin, steak, and scallops) were all horribly overcooked. We got a good laugh out of it though, and went back to Murphy's Ice Cream for the second time that day! On my first trip, I had Dingle Sea Salt  (like heavy cream with a touch of salt) with Caramel Honeycomb (yes, as good as it sounds!), and my second, Toasted Irish Oats (subtle toasted oat flavor and texture) and Chocolate.
From the town of Ennis, at the Nolan + Lambe cafe, a very rich goat cheese tart with potato and Waldorf side salads.
And back in Galway, from the Charcoal Grill, a fantastic doner kebap (where the meat is roasted vertically on a spit, like a gyro) place, where I had chicken and lamb, topped with garlic and chile sauces. (This place happens to be the favorite of my friends who live in Ireland, and I can see why!)
All in all it was great eating in Ireland!