Monday, June 24, 2013

Royal India

I love Indian food, but apparently I am not having great luck with it in South Austin. Last fall I went to Asiana (see my post here) and was completely uninspired by the offerings (not to mention the decor), but have come to find out several foodie friends of mine like the place AND it made the Austin Chronicle's "First Plates" critic's picks list. Then last month, I tried Royal India, in the old Estancia Churrascaria location on the westbound Hwy. 290 access road, just before Brodie Lane in Sunset Valley. My friend and I met for an early Saturday evening dinner, and got there at 5:30 when they opened.

I ordered an iced chai tea which then took about 20 minutes to come. And when it did come, it was warm, and didn't have much flavor to it -- very little of the cardamom that I love about a hot or cold chai. So I told the waiter that. He said Indians don't drink it iced, only hot. And I understand his point completely (and no, there was not an iced option on the menu), but don't you think from the hospitality/customer service standpoint, that perhaps he should have said when I ordered it that it would essentially be a watered-down hot chai drink? Basically, we argued over the chai. He took it to the back and returned with more ice in it, but that didn't exactly help either. Fortunately, he did take it off the bill.

And on to the food. We shared an order of the vegetarian samosas, which I found to be bland. No cumin or coriander (or really any spice or salt) could be detected in the mashed potato interior.  Ironically, their online menu describes these as "well-seasoned."
My friend had the Aloo Gobi, a cauliflower and potato dish, which was fairly spicy; this was the best dish we ordered.
I had the lamb (kakori) kabobs from the Royal Tandoor portion of the menu. The ground meat was over-worked, and hence dried out. Tough meat is not very good meat in my book. I think the flavor was okay, though not memorable, but the execution was not.
I really wish I had better things to report. If you have been to Royal India and liked it, please tell me what you ate! I would love to have better things to write about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Salt and Time

About a month ago, I had lunch at the new Salt and Time Butcher Shop + Salumeria at 1912 East 7th Street. A long time staple at the area farmer's markets, the owners used a Kickstart campaign to help fund their brick and mortar mecca to all things meat. When you walk in, you're on the butcher side of the place, with fresh and cured meats staring at you. To the right is the bar and eating area, where the daily specials are posted on the wall. Sorry, but this is not really a place for vegetarians!
My friend had the Roast Beast, which she proclaimed to be one of the best sandwiches she had ever had. 
I had the Pulled Pork,which I thoroughly enjoyed, however, my one critique is that the menu says caramelized onions, and this is clearly cole slaw with maybe an onion or two in it. But it was delicious and I ate all of it! The bread is perfect for the sandwiches, as it's just chewy enough, yet tender and strong enough to hold up to its contents. They have an in-house baker who also sells the breads.
I took some pancetta (top) and bacon home..... yeah, both are fatty, but fat equals flavor, right?! They slice these nice and thick.
And that night, I had a lovely carbonara dish with the pancetta, which renders up very nicely.
Check their website for butchering classes, meat specials, and monthly menus. If you appreciate the art of meat, whether fresh or cured, go check out their offerings!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bits and Bites

If you follow me on Facebook (and if not, please do!), you'll know that the Austin food community lost Austin Slow Burn founder Jill Lewis to esophageal cancer last week. Jill and her husband Kevin were/are personal friends of mine, and we're still in shock as to how quickly she was taken from us to the big queso bowl in the sky. There's a great tribute from Virginia Woods in the Austin Chronicle, and an online fundraiser is available through June 20th to help offset some of the medical expenses (even if you can give $5, every thing will help!). Another tribute/fundraiser will be held at Stubbs on July 28th. The entire line of ASB products from the award-winning queso and sweet heat jams to jerk marinade and good ol' salsas are available at Central Markets in Austin, as well as other local retailers. As Jill would say "Best damn queso in the world!" and indeed it is! 
-- Boardwalk Burgers has opened at Tech Ridge, at 500 Canyon Ridge Drive, on Parmer just east of IH-35. The fries are inspired by those found along the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, where you splash them with apple cider vinegar. I grew up on the east coast, so these are a nice memory of my youth!
-- Mettle, the latest offering from Bridget Dunlap has opened at 607 Calles Street in East Austin (what, not on Rainey!?). The French bistro-inspired menu is the work of Andrew Francisco, formerly of Olivia.
-- P. Terry's is opening a location at Mopac and Parmer. 
-- Daily Juice has opened a second location in Westlake at 3300 Bee Caves Road.
-- Food trailer Sweet Heat Meat, the winner of ATX Brands first "truck-off" has opened at the Scoot Inn, 1308 E. 4th Street.
-- drink.well has expanded their happy hour to Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 - 6 pm, with discounts on select tasty beverages, bar snacks, and sandwiches.
-- Jeffrey's and Josephine, the newer offerings from the Larry McGuire family of restaurants are now both open for Sunday brunch.
-- El Chile has officially opened/relocated in the former La Reyna at South First and Mary (and closed their spot on Manor Road). I went earlier this week for happy hour, and really enjoyed the decor -- very clean lines and big windows. Happy hour til 6pm! And my neighbors report a gelato place is going in on South First as well! 
-- Olivia will kick off their annual Summer Dinner Series with a "Whole Beast" dinner on June 20th with pairings from Hops + Grain; $75/person.
-- Salt + Time is also pairing up with Hops + Grain for a seven course dinner on June 26th, $60/person.
-- Con Olio will celebrate their one year anniversary downtown at 215 Lavaca with an event June 29th from 2 - 5 pm with Lucky Puccia's.
-- On July 6th, P. Terry's will celebrate their 8th anniversary with a t-shirt giveaway to customers (while supplies last) at all seven locations.
-- The Austin Chronicle has unveiled their "First Plates" list -- their critic's picks for favorite restaurants and trailers in town. What are your favorites?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Chat with Sugar Mama's Bakeshop!

I live near Sugar Mama's Bakeshop, located at South First and Mary Streets, and I've been a fan from their opening (Carrot cake cupcake? Chocolate mint bar? Yes, please!). I recently chatted with owner Olivia O'Neal about the bakery and their recent win on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars.
Lead decorator Andrea Leck and Sugar Mama herself, Olivia O'Neal.
South Austin Foodie (SAF): How did the concept of Sugar Mama's come about? How did you decide on a location, especially when South 1st Street wasn't as hip as it is now?
Olivia O'Neal (OO): I spent about three years prior to opening working on a business plan and testing recipes. I started the process back in 2005 and we finally opened in 2008. We wanted a location that felt like an old fashioned bakery and was close to (my) home. We drove by the space on South 1st so many times and when we walked into it, I knew it was "the one." We definitely took a chance as this area was just starting to develop and there were a lot of problems with littering, loitering and theft in the beginning. Fast forward 5 years and it's a completely different street! 
SAF: How big is your staff? Do you have people baking around the clock? 
OO: Our staff size varies from 6-12 depending on the season. We start baking at 5AM each day and normally finish around 1. We don't bake around the clock, yet. :) 
SAF: From start to finish, how long does it take to make a batch of cupcakes, and what size/quantity is an average batch?
OO: It really depends on how complex it is, for a flavor like the Marilyn Monroe which is vanilla on vanilla, I could do around 100 in a little over an hour, including baking and cooling time. The ones with fillings and special garnishes take a lot longer. The batch size depends on the day of the week and how many orders we have. It could be 24 or it could be 400, every day is a surprise! 
SAF: How do you come up with the flavors? How many rounds of taste testing do items go through before they're deemed "worthy" of a spot in the case? Personal faves? Have you gone to war with your staff over flavors? ;)
OO: We look to desserts that were favorites growing up, as well as more modern desserts. At the beginning, taste testing could go on for months, now it's usually a matter of weeks or days as we've got a good system down. My personal favorites are anything with chocolate. I am a pretty picky person when it comes to desserts and I like my staff to have a lot of input. They have to do a lot of convincing when it has cream cheese frosting, nuts or coconut as I don't really enjoy any of those things -- it's purely a texture thing for me.
SAF: Prior to Cupcake Wars (CW), what have been some of your biggest victories and challenges?
OO: Our biggest victory has been our ability to open and remain open during one of the greatest financially challenging times in the US. Our challenges are to remain focused on consistency. No matter how often you make something there will be variables which sometimes come from the producers we purchase from and we have little control over them. But making a consistent and delicious product day in and day out remains our focus and I think we're getting pretty good at it. 

SAF: Okay, on to CW! Is it an application process? When were you selected? When did you film? How long have you been bursting at the seams with this fabulous secret!??
OO: We were approached to audition and a former employee's partner helped us get a great video together. It really showcased us, our shop and Austin. We were selected last fall and filmed a month later in November! 
SAF: So you kept it a secret for five months!
SAF: How much info did CW give you going into it? Did you know in advance it was going to be Weird Al, or at least that you'd have to come up with these kind of crazy cupcakes?
OO: I can't say much due to the strict confidentiality agreements we were required to sign, but let's just say there are a LOT of surprises and it was very intimidating and we never knew what was coming next! 
SAF: Was everything actually filmed in ONE day? And did those carpenters really build the accordion and food trailer displays in two hours?! Apart from winning, what did you and Andrea enjoy most about the experience?
OO: Absolutely!  It was seriously the longest day of my life. The rounds go so fast and the only down time you have is while they are judging in-between rounds. No one believes me that it all happens in one day, but I swear it does!  Andrea and I loved working with the crew and feeling like movie stars in LA. We had drivers and at the end of our crazy days out there we went out to some fabulous meals at some great restaurants -- the highlight was our meal at A-Frame. The whole experience was wonderful and we're hoping we get called back to compete in a Champion Round. 
SAF: What were your "Weird Al"-themed winning flavors? (The mission was to come up with strange flavors for Al's upcoming book release party.)
OO: (clockwise from top left) 1) The Waffle King, vanilla cupcake with "razzleberry" filling, and vanilla cream cheese frosting, topped with a waffle bite; 2) Eat It, a coconut cupcake with lychee curd, kumquat buttercream frosting, and a crispy rice cereal decoration on top; 3) The ALpocalypse, a chocolate cupcake with chocolate chipotle truffle filling, and chocolate buttercream; 4) The Polka Cake (now renamed the Honey Baklava) with baklava filling and cinnamon buttercream frosting.
SAF: How was Weird Al? He seems like a pretty cool dude! (Certainly it's a flashback to my 1980's teen years.) 
OO: He is seriously one of the nicest people ever. He's actually kind of quiet when you're one on one, and he and his family were so gracious at the book release party. 


And, since Olivia and I talked, Sugar Mama's has had some very exciting news -- they're adding a second location at 2406 Manor Road, which she hopes to have open by Thanksgiving! So for now, swing by the shop on South First, and indulge in a cupcake or pie or layer bar! If you've got a sweet tooth, Sugar Mama's will certainly satisfy! 

Note: Sugar Mama's winning Cupcake Wars episode will re-air on June 21st at 4 pm CST on the Food Network.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bits and Bites -- Food News

-- Tonight (June 3) is the Austin Food for Life Seasonal Tomato Dinner at Springdale Farms, six courses, $100/person, with food from the chefs of Swift's Attic, Glass-2-Plate Catering and Cafe Josie. 
-- La Condesa is kicking off their Tequila Dinner Summer Series on Tuesday, June 4 at 6 pm, with the Ocho Tequila Pairing Dinner, which will feature a 5-course menu created by Chef Rene Ortiz. $100/person, tickets can be purchased here.  
-- Amy's Ice Creams annual Trick Olympics will be June 5 at 7 pm at the 6th & Lamar location; bring a chair and go watch! Benefits CASA of Travis County.
-- One of my favorite places in Austin (or on the edges of town, I should say!) and one of the area's best kept secrets is Travaasa Spa. They have added a 10 acre farm, with 3.5 acres for row crops, along with 100 chickens. Calling it the Farm at Travaasa, they are kicking it off with a BBQ Bash on June 15th, featuring some of the best BBQ purveyors in the state! $100/person, should be an incredible evening! 
-- Texas Tiki Week is coming, beginning June 23rd; drink.well will have a variety of events happening at their place.

-- Picnik Austin has taken over the old La Boite trailer/ box container at 1700 S. Lamar; they are "paleo, primal, gluten-free and grain-free."
-- The Spicewood restaurant It's All Good BBQ has opened a trailer at South First and Live Oak in the SoFi Food Court.
-- Contigo is changing their Sunday hours, and will now close at 2:30 pm after brunch. 
-- The Dallas-based chain Uncle Julio's will open it's 17th location at 301 Brazos Street downtown, From their press release: “Since opening our first restaurant in Dallas in 1986, we have prided ourselves in providing the freshest and highest quality Mexican food in a fun and warm setting. We look forward to sharing our signature dishes and drinks with Austin residents.” Their space will have different seating areas that will accommodate 400 guests. 
-- Jodi Elliot of Foreign and Domestic will open her own bake shop in the next year; location to be determined. Oh those Gruyere popovers!
-- Two new food trailer parks: South Lamar and Bluebonnet (photo by yours truly!) and on Lakeshore Blvd. along Lady Bird Lake, east of IH-35.
-- Noble Pig, er, Noble Sandwich Co is adding a second location, at 49th and Burnet Road; while I wish they were coming to South ATX, this sure beats a drive to Cedar Park! :) I think they will always be Noble PIG to me! 
-- Faraday's Kitchen Store has reopened in a bigger spot at the Shops at the Galleria.

-- Confirming what most of us in Austin already know, Bon Appetit magazine has named Central Market one of the top grocery stores in the country. 
 -- I received a press release on the new Goodbee's Honey which is an affordable raw honey now exclusively in HEB's throughout the state. And it's sourced from Argentina. At least they're not claiming it to be local honey, though it IS packaged up in Round Rock.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Two New Italian Eateries -- Patrizi's + Umami Mia

In the past two weeks, I have attended two soft openings for Italian places, one a trailer, and the other brick and mortar. Both had their high points and a few things to work on.

Patrizi's is a trailer adjacent to the Vortex Theater on Manor Road; it is run by Nic Patrizi, who also runs the Jalopy trailer downtown. He's very welcoming and passionate about his food, and is sourcing from local purveyors as much as possible, like Salt and Time, Milking, Antonelli's, and Coyote Farms.
His family ran the original Patrizi's in Beaumont for years until they closed, and he has all the family recipes. He's got a nice set up at the Vortex, with a covered seating area, and planter boxes for a garden.
On the trailer itself, he invited local artists to come and paint, and then he's framed them all, including the menu. I loved the eclecticness of the paintings! The one below is actually done by one of my very talented co-workers.
Our tasting started off with a perfectly dressed Italian salad, and some antipasti, which included garlic cloves, confited in olive oil, white anchovies, a giardineria puree, and some tasty bread. Nic then brought us the first pasta dish -- the pomodoro with meatballs. Let me be clear: the meatballs were AMAZING. Some of the best meatballs I have had anywhere. Tender and moist and flavorful, made from pork trimmings and beef. I am still thinking about those meatballs!
Next was the Roma tomato sauce with fresh made ricotta with lemon zest. It was a nice heaping mound of creamy ricotta.
And the third, cacio e pepe, just your basic, clean dish with Parmesan and lots of fresh black pepper.
Nic told us upfront that the pasta we were being served was not the pasta that he would be serving once the trailer opened. He just got a new pasta machine that he hadn't even taken out of the box yet; the pasta we had was certainly on the dense side, but I heard from other bloggers who went to the next night's tasting that the pasta was really good.

I have high hopes for Patrizi's! The hospitality was all-around great, there's parking (at least when the theater isn't in session), and recipes that grandma used to make. Will certainly go back for the meatballs and I spied carbonara on the menu too!

Then last week, it was the media tasting for Umami Mia, in the old Romeo's on Barton Springs. Fun, funky design, but a lot of concrete inside. Clean lines, little pops of color.
The cocktail menu was spectacular as were the drinks themselves! From left, we have Hibiscus Nectar Cosmo, Thyme Will Tell (I think) and the Blackberry Italian Soda, adult-style.
Once we were seated, the owners and chef introduced themselves and talked about the concept of umami -- that somewhat elusive fifth taste (along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter). It's sort of hard to pinpoint WHAT umami is, but it's that savoriness, that flavor that just fills your mouth and makes you want more. It's found in foods that are high in glutamates, things like mushrooms, dairy (particularly cheeses), meats, nuts, and so on. Umami Mia wants their dishes to be an "umami bomb" in your mouth. They are also trying to source local, like Vital Farms Eggs and Johnson's Backyard Garden, and practice nose to tail butchering.

We started off with a roasted peppers and coppa salami appetizer, which had nice big shavings of Parmesan and white anchovies. This was a good dish! Great flavors, and you really can get the umami concept with this one.
Next up was the Italian Salad with large slivers of watermelon radishes, and hiding under there was some crispy pancetta, fried croutons, and a very light salad dressing; I would have liked a touch more of the dressing on it to bring everything together.  Love that they use sheet trays to serve some of the dishes.
The meatball sandwich with mission fig sauce and Gorgonzola cheese was a bit of a miss for us. For starters, ours came without the Gorgonzola, and the fig sauce was too sweet for this particular dish, though perhaps if it HAD had the salty cheese, it would have been a better balance. And while they're using oak to grill their meatballs, it just couldn't compare to the one I had the previous week at Patrizi's.
The pizzas were a little bit of a mixed bag. They are cooked for 4 - 5 minutes in an oven that runs about 600 degrees, and they will have a "slice window" for walk-up customers.  Their crusts are soft and a bit chewy. My hands-down favorite was the prosciutto and fig with Gorgonzola, with it's copious amounts of arugula. You really got the umami bomb flavors here, though I would have loved loved some extra Gorg on top to really kick the umami up! 
The mushroom pizza with shitakes, creminis, and caramelized onions might be a good option for the vegetarians, but it seemed a bit heavy. That's balsamic glaze drizzled across the top along with goat cheese.
Our table found the Mexican pizza to be a bit strange. Described as their house adobo sausage with corn, tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, lime, and queso fresco, there was WAY too much going on here, but not enough flavor, especially from the sausage to associate it with Mexican foods.
Now the pasta itself was really nice -- thin, uniform strips that easily twirled on your fork. But when I think of carbonara, I really want the pancetta, egg, and Parmesan to shine, so the pine nuts, lemon, and herbs were a bit of a different take on it for me. It was hard to find any pancetta in this dish, though it tasted good. I don't know if this is the actual serving size you would get if you ordered it; I think for the price ($16) I would be a bit disappointed in the portioning of this dish.
And finally, the desserts. It's almost better if we don't go there because these were both very strange. I am noticing they do not have desserts listed on the menu that's on their website, and these were not the desserts that were originally planned for our meal (Citrus Prosecco Jello with Poteet Strawberries and Pop Rocks). What they served was a tiramisu with matcha tea powder and I believe chestnuts or hazelnuts inside, and then a chocolate pot de creme with orange, malted milk balls, golden raisins and togarashi, a Japanese condiment of chile flakes.  The tiramisu seemed like heavy whipping cream with squishy nuts mixed in; the matcha flavor was pretty minimal and got lost with the dense mouthfeel of the cream. I am not a huge fan of chocolate and orange together, so that was strike one, but it had a granular texture for strike two; pot de creme should be silky smooth. I hate to say this, but someone is trying WAY too hard with the desserts. Maybe the matcha and togarashi are a nod to the Japanese researcher who scientifically discovered the taste of umami, but I was not a fan. And it's not to say that Italian-themed restaurants all have to serve standard tiramisu or cannolis, because they don't, but golden raisins (strike three), really?
The waitstaff at Umami Mia hustled throughout the night, and were very professional and friendly. There will be an outdoor bar, as well as an herb garden, and the aforementioned slice window -- lots of possibilities there on Barton Springs!

So please take both of these reviews with a grain of salt because they were both soft openings. Patrizi's and Umami Mia both have tons of potential and once they each have a couple months to shake things down, I will happily go back to both and try them again. And while they are both Italian, they have very different focal points, and should both do well.