Thursday, June 30, 2011

El Greco

I've always enjoyed Greek food, but it's not something I've ever eaten a whole lot of, and there aren't a lot of Greek places in Austin. I have heard good things about El Greco, at 31st and Guadalupe, and it was finally time to go check it out with two of my girlfriends.

The place is a little more casual inside than I expected; they have a counter with a register, and perhaps they use that for order taking during lunch or busy times. Otherwise, it's a seat-yourself place, and there was once hostess/waitress managing the floor. She was warm and friendly from the start, and was patient with us as we chatted and looked at the menu. We all had a different glass of wine, and we started with the tiropita appetizer, phyllo dough filled with feta cheese. Unfortunately, I could tell from the moment they were brought out that they were anemic. They were undercooked, so there was not a great deal of flakiness to them, and the layers on the bottom were more raw than those on top. One of us commented that it needed a drizzle of olive oil. We noticed later that most of the other tables did in fact have a bottle of oil on them, but ours did not. We did eat the whole thing, but it needs some more time in the oven, for certain.
We decided to get a couple different dishes and just share everything. First came the pastitsio, also known as Greek lasagna. It's tubular noodles with seasoned ground beef, in a bechamel sauce. Not overly rich, it had nice flavor, and we got a Greek salad with it. Maybe a little disappointed that their Greek salad doesn't have nice chunks of feta cheese, but rather a sprinkling on top. The pita, while not necessarily necessary with a pasta dish, was very nice and soft.
Next was the Greek meat plate for two along with a bigger Greek salad, and  an order of "Greco peas" -- English peas in a very light and mild tomato sauce; quite tasty too.  Let's cut to the chase though, the meats were fantastic! From left to right in the picture you have: beeftekee, two lamb chops, pork souvlaki (kebab) and chicken souvlaki. 
The beeftekee is ground beef, mixed with herbs and spices, shaped into a loaf, and grilled. Well seasoned, and just a bit of feta on top. The lamb chops, while well-done, still had great lamb flavor, and I had no qualms about picking the bone up and eating it with my fingers. Both of the souvlakis were tender, moist, and grilled perfectly. Again, the meats are by far, the star of this show. On their website is a video segment on how they prepare the lamb chops -- cut them, soak (brine?), drain, marinate, grill, with the soak, drain, and marinate taking a couple hours each. Tasty though!

For dessert, how can you pass up baklava, especially when billed as "Chef Jake's grandmother's recipe"? This was in a spiral, with a lot of sweet syrup poured over top, so it kind of lost it's flakiness. It's interesting how many different forms baklava can take! I think I prefer mine with nice crisp layers, lasagna style, rather than rolled up or even shredded.
I would hope El Greco would update their website to accurately reflect the prices now being charged on the menu, and that the prices redacted on the printed menus at the restaurant would be filled in with the current rates. Also, I heard the waitress talking to the table next to us, saying they no longer serve breakfast because they didn't have enough business. It's still listed on the web, as is a coupon for free coffee with breakfast.  It is nice, though, that they have a gluten free menu online, as well as plenty of vegetarian options. Would be a shame though, to miss out on those meats. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Highball

I met a friend for dinner recently at the Highball before another friend's karaoke birthday celebration. If you aren't familiar with the Highball, they are a combination diner/bowling alley/karaoke club/live music venue, owned by the Alamo Drafthouse people. While karaoke isn't really my thing, it was a good opportunity to try out their main dining room, and get the birthday girl a cocktail before they partied into the night.

I had really wanted a 512 Wit beer, but unfortunately, they were out. Our waiter suggested and then brought me a taste of the Avery White Rascal, and then I got a pint. It was good, but not as crisp as the 512 Wit; still good for sipping though. I appreciated that he brought me a taste of it before making me decide.

For food, I ordered the Wedge salad and asked for the dressing on the side, and the Dr. Pepper Ribs. My friend ordered the blue plate special for the day, which happened to be Thanksgiving dinner. There seemed to be some miscues/miscommunication/mistakes from either the waiter and/or the food runners. The salad arrived (fully dressed, but okay, I let it slide), but we had no silverware, so I asked the runner for some when she brought the food.  She sort of made a face and went over to the waiter, who was finishing at another table, and then one of them brought over the silverware. Little odd.

The salad, fortunately not too badly drenched, was quite good. Nice and crisp iceberg, nice twang to their house-made Thousand Island dressing. Some blue cheese would have been a perfect addition!
Then our main plates came. The Dr. Pepper ribs are "spice infused, Dr. Pepper glazed pork ribs with toasted peanuts." What that description doesn't tell you straight up is that they are a sticky mess! To me, ribs are meant to be picked up with your fingers and eaten straight off the bone (my father sits there with a fork and knife.... I don't get it!), so that just compounded the messiness. The flavor of the glaze and the meat was good, kind of a deep caramelization without being too sweet, but the ribs were sort of tough. They definitely need to be cooked longer to tenderize and make more succulent.
(The ribs just don't photograph well; I took a couple pictures, and this is as good as it gets. There were five ribs, stacked log cabin-style)
As we finished eating, the birthday girl came and joined us for a bit, and also ordered the Thanksgiving plate to go along with her cocktail. Same thing happened. The food arrived, and there was no silverware. I *think* it was the same runner who had previously brought our food, but this time, it took a little longer than it should have for the silverware to materialize. I didn't pay enough attention while there to look at other tables to figure out if it's the host/hostess' responsibility to bring silverware when they seat you, the waiter's job, or the food runner's. It didn't seem that either the waiter or the runner were brand new, but who knows. It left a little bit of an off-impression in my book.

I would easily go back and try some of the other items on the menu. But even me, and my love for pork, I don't think I'd get the ribs again if they're prepared the same way. Just too tough. And messy. One other drawback, it got REALLY loud in there when the band started playing. We were sitting at a table by the front windows, on the far side of the room from the stage, and you had to practically yell to talk to your table companions. I expect that at a concert, but not at a dining establishment. Maybe it's quieter on the bowling side. It was interesting to see that the dinner crowd was a total mixed bag of younger hipsters, older couples, girl's night out, and everything in between. That's South Austin for ya.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bits and Bites

-- The Q Card is hosting a launch party for Sugar Shack BBQ on Saturday, June 25th. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged, which will go towards victims of the recent Texas wildfires.

-- Bon Appetit magazine has declared Franklin BBQ "the best BBQ in America," at least for their brisket. You can read my recent post here..... Franklin was also just featured in Edible Austin. It WAS darn good brisket, and the pork ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and tasty. But is it the BEST BBQ?

-- Look for the Austin Beer Guide to make its way into stores any moment now.

-- Now calling themselves TenOak Bourbon Bar + Lounge, their back room lounge, Elixir, opens next Friday.

-- Parkside is showcasing their summer raw oysters with bubbly pairings from sommelier Ashley Gaas. Stop in for half price oyster platters during happy hour, Monday - Friday 5 - 7 pm.

 -- Haddingtons (where I still need to check out) is hosting a beer and cheese pairing event on Monday, July 25th; tickets $65/person call the restaurant to reserve. North Coast beers will be paired with cheeses selected by Cathy Strange of Whole Foods, and includes a five course tasting dinner.

-- Sagra is opening their doors to a free family-style feast on Wednesday, July 13th, beginning at 4pm. Guests will be seated on a first come, first served basis, and they will serve until food runs out. The menu includes: insalata misto, porchetta, vegetable tiella, and potato fennel gratin. Sagra has also recently revised their cocktail menu, moving away from simple syrups, and utilizing their bounty of fresh herbs from their own garden!

-- And you know you've arrived when a new hot dog gets it's own press release! From Frank (and I do love their dogs), comes the Sonoran Dog -- a 100% Vienna beef dog, "porked" (wrapped in bacon and deep fried -- something that can be done to any of their dogs), the split down the middle, and topped with white American cheese, pinto beans, grilled and fresh onions, tomatoes, mayo, mustard and jalapeno sauce.

 -- Opening: at 1712 Lavaca Street, Lavaca Teppan, a Japanese grill restaurant. Looks like it's right next door to the Women and their Work gallery.... No links yet functioning on the web page.

-- Closing: The Screaming Goat and the Good Knight. Sorry, I never knew either of you, but heard good things....

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bits and Bites

 -- Tribeza magazine announces their Summer Solstice Chef's Table series, with a variety of local chefs preparing special tasting menus based on the summer bounty, June 27 - 29. It's a fantastic list of participating chefs/restaurants: Haddington's, TRIO, Foreign and Domestic, La Sombra, Jeffrey's, Shoreline Grill, Trulucks, Parkside, and La Condesa. Most of the menus are on the website, and you can buy tickets through the site as well.  It will be a great chance to meet some of your favorite chefs and talk to them about their inspirations for the menu.

-- There's a new FREE iPhone/Pad app out called Texas Monthly BBQ Finder.  And guess who developed it, yes, Texas Monthly. For each BBQ joint, it lists their hours of operation, how TM rated it, and a place to add your personal rating. Can we get an Android version, please?!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

El Meson

The second location of El Meson opened last fall, and while it's not that far from my house, last week was my first time going. I was really struck by the interior of the building, with beautiful tile work on the floors and even in the bathroom! Unfortunately, I think because of the tile, noise bounces all around, and it was fairly loud for a little bit. But we were also surrounded by two tables with young children, but good thing they left not too long after our arrival.

My friend was there when I arrived, and also at the table was a fresh melon "ceviche" that was very tasty. Nice amuse bouche palate cleanser, with melon and cucumber diced very finely.
For entrees, I had the chicken with mole rojo, and my friend the chicken enchiladas with verde sauce. Mole is often the standard dish I get at interior Mexican restaurants. I love the complexity of flavors it brings, and having made it before, I appreciate the work that goes into it. Our waiter said it's 22 ingredients, and continued to say that it tastes the same -- consistent -- every day. It was a good mole, I will certainly agree. However it lacked the depth and aforementioned complexity of a great mole sauce (or even my own mole sauce...). So thumbs up, particularly if you're not too familiar with moles. The verde sauce on the enchiladas had the requisite tomatillo tartness to it. Their sides of rice and beans didn't really excite me, not a ton of flavor in either. They actually aren't pinto beans; the waiter said they are a close cousin, but I can't remember the name.
 For dessert, we split a piece of tres leches cake, which was quite good. Not overly sweet.  
The biggest complaint I have heard about the South Lamar location is their pricing; apparently it is higher that at the original Burleson Road spot (I haven't been there either). From their incomplete website, I think Burleson serves breakfast and lunch, whereas South Lamar is lunch and dinner, which may account for some of the price differences. I wish their website would post the menu for the SoLa location. Would I go back? Yes. But given the choice between El Meson and their neighbor one block north, Sazon, I would pick Sazon.

IACP Wrap Up

Last week was the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference at the Hilton in downtown. I volunteered on Saturday, and got to sit in on a couple sessions.
-- Cooking from the Edge of Vietnam and Texas, with Chef Duc Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in Texas, but has returned to Vietnam and opened his restaurant, The Mango Rooms. He prepared some Asian fusion foods -- seared ahi tuna on top of a bed of mango salsa. Students from one of the local culinary schools had assisted by pre-making the mango salsa. Chef Tran then seared the tuna pieces, and they passed out samples -- delicious!
 -- The Science of Baking, with chemist Shirley Corriher. I actually got to chat with her a little prior to the Vietnamese session above. Shirley's class was using the same ballroom, where a demo kitchen had been erected, and she was a touch concerned about the limited amount of time for set up between the two sessions. She and her husband were rather delightful, and had enjoyed their time in Austin thus far. For those who are fans of Alton Brown's Good Eats show, you may recognize her as the food scientist who occasionally shows up to explain the food chemistry. For her session at IACP, she had a nice handout with baking tips, as well as the recipe for an extremely light buttermilk biscuit that was served with raspberry chambord butter. Yes, we all swooned when we tried the tender biscuit!
 -- Let There Be Light! Harnessing the Right Light for Digital Food Photography, with married photographers Diane Cu and Todd Porter. This engaging couple really had some great tips on how to look at lighting when you are photographing something, and they emphasized trying to use inexpensive props to bounce or diffuse light when doing a shoot. I took some good notes, which I need to review and see what I can incorporate.
-- On Saturday evening, there was an optional event for conference participants: Up in Smoke, held at Boggy Creek Farm. The event was co-sponsored by IACP and Foodways Texas, with proceeds benefiting the Sustainable Food Center. Dai Due roasted a feral hog onsite, Hoover's had pork ribs and beans, Trace restaurant had various sides, El Naranjo made lamb barbacoa...and more, those were just the ones I tried! It was a delicious finish in a lovely setting!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sushi Zushi

If you've been reading these here pages, you know that I recently went to Beets Raw Foods Cafe in the relatively new 5th Street Commons building, between Mopac and Lamar. At the time, I was more concerned about figuring out parking that I didn't really notice the western-most tenant (as in, the business you past first, as you're headed eastbound on 5th) Sushi Zushi. So when a group of friends suggested meeting there for happy hour, I at least knew where the building was, and where to park! (There is a little bit of street parking right in front, but fortunately, there's ample parking, much of it indoors, behind the building. And if you park in the indoor garage, most of the retail businesses have an entrance from the garage and street sides.)

Never really having heard of Sushi Zushi,  I checked out their website before our happy hour. They appear to be a Texas-based chain, with 4 locations in San Antonio, 1 in Dallas, and 2 here; the other Austin locale is up north at the Domain. Their website says it best: "Sushi Zushi is all about variety. With an ever-growing menu of delightful sushi, as well as cooked items, there is something for everyone." And I must say: their menu is massive. Almost overwhelming, because there are so many choices. If you click on the menu link on their website, you'll open a seven-page PDF file. So if you don't like raw fish, there's noodles, grilled skewers, and little fried things, to name a few.

And, for happy hour, they have GREAT prices! They have a variety of food items that are nicely priced, and I believe all of their signature cocktails are $5. It's a big list of Asian-influenced cocktails, like a lycheetini and a basil yuzu drink (below). Unfortunately, neither their happy hour menu nor the cocktail menu are posted on line (boo!), so I can't remember the names of everything we had!
House seafood udon noodle bowl with salmon. Very nice dashi broth, hearty noodles.
Roll with tempura shrimp; the shrimp were nice and crisp with a light batter, and not greasy.
Bacon-wrapped asparagus on the left, and a roll that I am blanking on completely...We also had edamame and one of the yakimeshi stir-fried rice bowls.
For dessert, mochi ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, and mango) and tempura fried bananas with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. 
The layout is flowing, I'd say curvi-linear, with clean lines; also a private dining room for large groups. Our waitress attentive but not obtrusive. And I particularly liked the zori shoes (the wooden clogs that were the precursor to flip flops) hung on the bathroom doors indicating W or M -- just a fun touch! I do wish their expansive menu would have a bit more definition or description of what certain category of dishes are, and even more specifics within the line items too, like what is Tampa Bay sauce? 

Overall, the quality of our food was quite good, especially for the volume they are producing. It's certainly no Uchi/ko, or even Yanagi, but it was tasty, and a fun/affordable place for a gathering. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Franklin BBQ

You'd think that a Thursday at 11:30 am would be a good time to meet friends for lunch. Get in, get out, without getting too caught up in the lunch crowd. In essence, that's a good plan, unless you are going to Franklin BBQ for that lunch. This was the line when I arrived at 11:30 am.....
 ...snaking around the front of the building. (And I know, you can hardly tell from this picture how the line was, but TRUST ME, it was a line.) Fortunately, there's shade most of the way, until the last brutal 10 minutes as we waited to get the last 10 feet into the building.  All told, it took a little over an hour from when we got in line to when we sat down with our plates.

Was it worth the wait? Yes. Though I'd say some meats were better than others. Upon arriving at 11:45, two other friends decided not to stick around, so it was just two of us, me and my trusty eating buddy, M.  She had the bright idea that we each get a two-meat plate, and that way, we'd cover all four of the meats on the menu.
My plate had the brisket and the pork ribs, along with potato salad and beans.
Hers had pulled pork and sausage, with potato salad and cole slaw.
The ribs were incredible. The meat fell off the bone instantly, and was even easy to extract from the cartilage bits. They had a very thin crust on the outer portion, and a little bit of a pinkish smoke ring, after being smoked for 6 hours. A touch greasy, but full of porky goodness flavor.

The brisket was extremely good too. These are smoked on oak for 18 hours, and they do ask you if you want lean or fatty when you order (we went fatty!). Great char on the outside, but not as crispy as it could have been. What's the name for those crispy, burnt ends of brisket? When I had previously visited their now-defunct trailer about a year and a half ago, they gave me a bite of that crispy goodness. Franklin's brisket is considered by many some of the finest in the region.

The sausage was a nice medium grind, and had good snap to the casing, and a bit of black pepper flavor, but could have benefited from some jalapeno peppers.

The pulled pork was kind of lacking in flavor, sad to say. Very tender, but this particular pig didn't have a whole lot going on. Franklin makes 3 different BBQ sauces which are in glass bottles on the tables, and the pulled pork definitely needed something to help it along.

Of the sides, I think the cole slaw had the best flavor. The red cabbage was very crisp, with a light mayo-vinegar dressing. Clean and bright. The potato salad I thought needed a bit of salt; I looked around for some at the condiment area and didn't see any, so it's a good thing I carry a bit in my purse! The beans were fairly bland too; they may not be using any pork in them.

I will say, as we waited outside in line, a guy kept coming out, checking on people, asking if they needed water or other drink while they waited. And of course, he was gauging the line to know how much more food they could serve out. But it was a nice customer service touch on a hot day. This is the sign we faced as we approached the door...
...but customers were still arriving at 1:15 pm with the sign still up, and only having to wait about ten minutes. So you can get there early (apparently people start lining up at 10:30am) and wait, or get there later and chance it that Franklin will still have food. I would certainly go back, and have heard their smoked turkey is fantastic; they were out when we got to the counter, or else we would have gotten a small piece to try. However, I think I'd be inclined to get meat only, no sides. And a beer would be good.

Oh, and make note that they still haven't updated their website to reflect their brick and mortar location; it's 900 E. 11th Street. The web has their old, now defunct trailer address, but clearly, the lack of proper info isn't hurting their business any.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bits and Bites

-- From the makers of Dripping Springs Vodka, comes ROXOR Artisan Gin, the first Texas gin and first spirit created by a chef. 
-- Monument Cafe in Georgetown has opened Monument Market, an organic, local, and seasonal market which is open daily. (Too bad I don't live north, or I'd go check it out! But GO Georgetown!) 
-- Some delicious sounding chef dinners coming up at Olivia.
-- 24 Diner named one of the best "destination diners' (as in, upscale) by Bon Appetit magazine.
-- International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) is holding their annual conference at the Hilton downtown this week. I'll be volunteering there on Saturday, and a meeting was held Tuesday evening for the volunteers. Upon leaving the Hilton, I briefly met and chatted with Dorie Greenspan, who was trying to finalize her notes for one of the panels she was on. She was super-pleasant and was worried about what she was going to wear! 
-- The annual Cupcake Riot 3.0 is this Saturday; it's a mash up of technology, beer, and cupcakes, with proceeds going to Texas Craft Brewers Guild and Keep Austin Dog Friendly. Competitive eater Hungry Todd Rungy will also be attempting to eat 6 sugar-free cupcakes in under 58 seconds to promote diabetes awareness.