Saturday, May 29, 2010

Somnio's Cafe

Along South First street in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood there are lots of little cottage houses that have been turned into businesses -- hair salons, vintage shops, head shops, and restaurants.  Somnio's Cafe is one of those houses, on the east side of South First, between Annie and Mary Streets, backing up to the creek itself.  You park in the back and then enter on the side. It's pretty small inside, with a bar/counter with about 4 stools on the opposite wall from the door, the kitchen on the left, and a mix of table sizes (I counted 28 seats total) in the middle and to the right. Small, but cute. Hardwood floors, light green walls with a light blue ceiling, funky light fixtures... it has a good South Austin vibe to it. There's also an eclectic collection of chairs from the edge of the parking lot to the trickle of a creek.

Somnio's prides itself on a heavily vegetarian menu that can be adapted for gluten-free or vegan needs. They do have some meat dishes, just not a lot of them. And they use as much locally and organically sourced items as they can. There's a list of local suppliers on their website, and a statement on the menu describing their commitment to quality, sustainable foods and living. Also worth mentioning that nothing on the regular menu is priced over $13. 

At a little after 7pm on Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I didn't know how busy Somnio's would be, and they turned out to be rather happening.  We sat right inside the door, and I had my back to the kitchen, so it was a little hard to see the specials board. I have previously heard the orange pork tacos were really good, but since May 28 is National Burger Day (who knew?!), I opted for the bison burger with sweet potato fries from the specials board. My dining companion opted to go full-on vegetarian, and had the "salad & 3 sides" plate.

Her Uncle Bob's salad and peach & tomato gazpacho came out first. The salad is grated raw beets tossed with fresh ginger in a light soy vinaigrette. You certainly tasted the ginger! It was almost overpowering, and I do love ginger; refreshing though. The soup, from the specials menu, was room temperature (that's fine for a gazpacho), and had a nice sweetness to it from the peaches. I think there was fresh mint in there, and cayenne pepper hit you in the back of your mouth. My friend thought it was too much cayenne; I only took about 3 bites of it and thought it was fine, but I can understand her point, especially if eating a whole bowl of it.
Then my ThunderHeart Bison burger came, along with a spicy pickled slaw, whole grain mustard, mayo (at my request), and a roasted red pepper tahini dip for the sweet potato fries. And in my excitement to eat, I nearly forgot to take a picture of the burger until I was part way through it. Whoops! So not the best pic below, AND my camera batteries needed charging. Anyway, the burger was good; I realize now I wasn't asked how I like my burger cooked (medium rare), and while it looks it in the picture, what arrived was probably more of a medium. But all was not lost. Don't know what else they are mixing into the meat, or if it's just because it's locally sourced and really good quality bison, but it was tender and flavorful. I did one half of the burger with the mayo & mustard, and the other with the roasted red pepper sauce....both fared well on it. The sweet potato fries are lightly battered and well fried... not greasy, but certainly a nice, dark color. Needed a dash of salt on them, but the roasted red pepper sauce was a good accompaniment.
My friend's remaining veggies from her combo plate were the Asian green beans and sauteed red cabbage. The cabbage had some kick to it also, and I didn't try the green beans. The whole plate got eaten, and I kept hearing comments from my table mate on how much she loves cabbage! For dessert, we split the fair trade, vegan brownie. It was a huge piece, I think we may have gotten lucky there! A bit too cake-like for my personal brownie tastes, but the chocolate flavor was nice; there was a occasional pecan baked into it, which surprised me when I first found one, because I had already taken a few bites without noticing any nuts when I bit into one.

What became the only downside the latter portion of our meal was the noise factor. Two tables of two each finished their meals and left, to be replaced with tables of five and six people, both of which brought their own wine/beer. (It's a BYOB place with a corking fee.) Both those two new tables were really loud, and because of hardwood floors and being a small space to start with, there's no place for the sound to go, so it just reverberates. Our primary waitress (possibly the wife part of the husband & wife team who owns Somnio; I saw the husband/chef in the kitchen) was apologetic when she brought the check, saying it had just gotten really crazy, which it kinda had, but the busy-ness wasn't her fault. Overall, it was a solid meal, and I am glad to know a quality place that supports other local businesses in my neighborhood.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Justine's Brasserie

Deep in far east Austin lies a new mecca, an "if you build it, they will come" establishment. On East 5th Street, even east of Springdale, lies Justine's Brasserie, a renovated cottage house on a big lot, surrounded by warehouses, that has brought causal French bistro food to the gentrifying neighborhood. I had been to Justine's once before, in early October, on a Thursday evening, following a work function. As we were driving there at 10 pm, my first thought was "where the heck are we going?", followed by "is it even going to be open?". Not only were they open, they were packed. And on this, my second time there, on a Monday night, they were filled up inside, with only a few little tables outside available. 

Four of us arrived at 7:30 pm and told the hostess we were expecting at least 3 more people. It was crowded & noisy inside, and we followed the hostess out as she began to pull some small bistro tables together. Then the waitstaff realized there were only two women occupying the large picnic-style table, and they (smartly) asked them if they would mind moving to accommodate our large party. They graciously obliged.  

We started with some wine, and ordered the escargot and charcuterie plate while we waited for the rest of our party. You can smell the escargot coming, as a waft of garlic and olive oil comes drifting towards you. I am not an expert in escargot, and therefore couldn't tell you if they were fresh or canned (they don't taste canned!), but it hardly matters when they are in such a flavorful oil (and served in a proper escargot plate too). Simply delicious!  On the house-made charcuterie plate, from the top in the ramekin, we have a very smooth goose pate, to the right, a duck country-style, and on the left, a pork (and rabbit?) pate. All were very good; I think the duck was my favorite, largely because of the texture, and you could taste various spices in each (garlic, cloves, allspice). The cornichon (gherkins) in the middle of the plate were nice, as the acidity cuts the richness of the meats. I believe the charcuterie plate changes regularly, so it might be some different meats when you go.
 A couple people got the French onion soup as a starter. We all agreed that it was good, but not as great as it could be. The beef broth in it lacked depth, and overall, the soup needed some salt. Certainly an edible bowl of soup, but not spectacular. (And there were mentions of how the Austin Chronicle {I think it was the Chronicle they referenced} said the soup was one of the standouts, so a little disappointing.) A couple people also got the Belgian endive, pear, & Roquefort salad, which I did not try, but it was said to be extremely good by both who ordered it.

For my main course, I ordered the duck confit, which came with thinly cut French fries  and an aioli sauce. It too, was delicious. It was a large duck leg, with fairly crispy skin, and very tender, moist meat (and lots of it!) underneath.  The fries & aioli were perfect. I don't really know what else to say about it, other than I pretty much licked the plate clean!
Continuing on the duck trend, one of my friends ordered the evening special, which was a seared duck breast with baby beets and apples. I had a bite of hers, and the sweetness of the apples matched wonderfully with the savory duck meat; the breast was perfectly cooked and very moist and the skin did not appear to be excessively fatty.

Our waitress was present but not obtrusive. She allowed us space as the remaining members of our party trickled in; she wasn't pushy, and she brought us the extra things we asked for, like bread, in a very timely manner. Apparently she was also attentive, because we were there to celebrate the birthday of one in our party, and when the birthday girl ordered creme brulee for dessert, it came with a candle in it. As we were asking each other "oh, who arranged that?!" our waitress quietly said "I overheard." Kudos!  And the creme brulee was lovely; good contrast of burned sugar top with velvety vanilla custard inside.
Apart from some mosquitoes and flies swarming around at sunset, and the sporadic exhaust from the oxygen tank place across the street, it was a lovely meal on a very lovely occasion. Justine's stayed filled up outside, and when I went inside to use the restroom (which you practically walk into the kitchen to find!), it was still buzzing inside. And remember, this was a Monday night! Clearly the neighborhood has embraced the idea of Justine's, as it's a gem in the middle of the East Austin warehouse district.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll 2010

As if you need more places to go check out, here's the annual Austin Chronicle Restaurant Poll for 2010

Of course we're not always going to agree on things, and there are places listed on here I've never heard of, I never need an excuse to eat out! If you're up for a meal, let me know!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Borrego de Oro

A trusted foodie friend has eaten at Borrego de Oro multiple times, and has always spoken very highly about their mole. I LOVE a good mole, and am always on a quest to find good ones. I have made them before myself, but it certainly is time-intensive. I do have a pretty darn good recipe that's "only" about an hour of work once you have all the ingredients; if you're interested, email me.  While there are different types of mole sauces (as in, the seven moles of Oaxaca), it's the Coloradito Mole that's the most common amongst Mexican and Tex-Mex places in the US. What attracts me to this mole is its depth of flavors when properly made -- some spice from various chile peppers, nuttiness from ground almonds, sweetness from raisins, a subtle bitter savoriness from chocolate or cocoa powder (or both). It's a huge flavor party, but not everyone appreciates it. 

So I met a friend at Borrego at 7:30 on a recent weeknight; there was no one dining, but two guys at the counter placing a to go order. The friendly waitress immediately brought me water and warm tortilla chips and salsa, as I waited for my friend, who arrived shortly thereafter. Warm chips are darn addicting and go very well with cold Negra Modelo!  After studying the menu, I ordered the chicken mole plate (of course), and my friend got the shrimp fajita plate (a slight misnomer, but we'll let that pass!); we had our choice of charro or refried beans. 

The mole turned out to be okay, but not the billing I was lead to believe. My guess is this batch had been sitting in a container in the fridge, and they pulled some out, and heated it up in some oil. It was fairly oily, as can been seen at the top of the plate. The chicken still had it's rubbery skin on, so I pulled that off to the side. Taste-wise, it had some chile in it, so it was a bit spicy, and it was dark brown, so probably some chocolate in there, but there was no real special flavor to it; I couldn't discern any flavor other than chile with a hint of chocolate. No almond, raisin, cinnamon, allspice.... Just kind of meh. The rice & beans were fairly standard for a Tex Mex place. My friend really liked her shrimp dish, though I didn't try it. 

The two young ladies who were the servers were very friendly. And fortunately, about 4 more tables filled up, so the place wasn't a total ghost town. So while the food was fresh, the service really good, and the food came fairly quickly, the mole was a disappointment. Maybe there are other dishes on their menu that are real standouts that I missed. (Have you been?) But if I want really good mole, I'll stick to Manuel's or Sazon or make it myself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu, Mint & Pecorino

So while I was typing up the Salt & Time post last night, my dinner was simmering away. I recently saw a Twitter post featuring this incredible looking recipe from Wine Spectator magazine. The results were great! Maybe not the best dish for a warm Austin night, but the fresh pop of mint, along with the saltiness & twang from the pecorino (aged sheep's milk cheese), and the earthiness of the lamb were a great combination, that frankly, I could eat year round!

I used the dry pappardelle noodles from DeCecco, because they were already in my pantry, but I'd love to do this dish with fresh pasta! And I substituted Muir Glen Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes for the canned cherry toms, again, because there was a can in the pantry.

Buen provecho!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Salumi from Salt and Time

I had the pleasure of getting some salumi samples from Ben of Salt and Time. We met at the Sunset Valley Farmer's Market on Saturday morning, and we chatted for a few minutes about his products. He uses locally sourced ingredients to produce his various meat products, which age at differing rates. He does use a tiny smidge of sodium nitrate in the salumis, both to ward off botchulism and to keep the meats from turning to an unappealing brown color as they age.

He's gradually breaking into the local markets; Odd Duck Farm to Trailer and the Hotel St. Cecila use some of his items in dishes/charcuterie plates, and he's starting to sell them at retail places like Antonelli's Cheese Shop (I still need to get north of the river and check them out....), Aviary and Apothecary Cafe and Wine Bar. Retail-wise, they run $25-30/pound, and I believe he said he's doing pre-sliced 4 ounce packages for places like Antonelli's. Thoughts of a farmer's market booth are also there. He's also making pickled vegetables, and is considering trying to get those into some of the area bars as good bar snacks. (Any suggestions on where he should try?) Keep an eye on his website for other events he'll be involved with; one coming up on May 28th. Last month, he did the Umlauf Sculpture Garden's annual fundraiser.

Here's a rundown on what I happily sampled, going clockwise from the 11:55 position (all pork products):

Lonzino -- Dry cured pork loin, this was sliced tissue paper thin! In the back notes, I could taste a subtle herbaceous flavor, and I emailed Ben, and he said he uses fennel and juniper in the cure. I knew I had tasted some herbs, but I couldn't pinpoint it!
Brianza -- This is a very mild sausage, with a slight twang to it; it had a very smooth texture, and larger pieces of marbled fat.
Tuscan with fennel -- One of my favorites! A nice sweetness about it, with whole fennel seeds; it's smoother grind than the brianza, but more marbled. Also some black pepper in it. Also cut very thin, you can see the slivers of the fennel when held up to the light.
Soppressata with chile -- A southern Italian speciality, as with the Tuscan there were little flecks of chile flakes to be seen. Great flavor, and while it does have chile in it, the chile doesn't overwhelm at all, and it wold be great on a cheese board. This is a little coarser and chewier than the Tuscan, with bigger pieces of fat. My other fave!
Genoa -- This was the largest in diameter, I'd say 2.5 inches around. Faint garlic flavor, nice swirled marbling, with a few larger pieces of fat. This one tasted more "porkish" to me, kind of like a strong Canadian bacon.
Chorizo -- A denser roll than the others, this had a nice piquant pop of hot smoked paprika. (Odd Duck used tiny slivers in a potato dish with a aioli.)

Really, all I can is they were great! Go and seek out these fine cured products! Eat them plain, make a charcuterie plate, or something of your own devices, but try them!

Thanks Ben!

May 14
After emailing Ben that I had posted on my blog, he sent me info about the May 28th event: