Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I Am On the Fence with Mattie's at Green Pastures

I've been curious about the recently renovated Green Pastures for the past couple of months. I live in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood where the historic property's fanciful peacocks roam freely and are often seen in lawns near the Live Oak Street homestead. The Austin American-Statesman published an extensive history of the property earlier this year, which used to be known for it's hospitality. The restaurant Mattie's has just begun a happy hour program, and it turns out we were there on the first day of it though we didn't know it at the time.

When we first arrived, we skirted the patio area and went inside; there is a room with a bar inside to the left, but were informed by the hostess that happy hour was only outdoors. We told her we'd go check it out but would most likely return in a bit for dinner. Given that it was late June, it was a hot day, though thankfully one with cloud-cover and a warm breeze. At our visit, there was no tent, sun shade or fans to keep patrons cool; I hope this changes.
Mattie's Green Pastures
We started with cocktails and a couple of appetizers. The Oak Garden Ginger Buck  was very tasty and easily drinkable on a hot day; your choice of vodka, gin or tequila, and I went with vodka. Loved the thick cut potato chips, and it was a very generous portion. {Since we decided to go inside to eat, I had the remaining chips boxed up to take with me. After putting them in a zip-top bag and into my pantry at home, I promptly forgot about them. I found them two weeks later, and am happy to report they were still perfectly good!}
Mattie's Green Pastures happy hour potato chips pimento cheese
The pimento cheese sandwich was tasty, but the bread was rather on the greasy side. Now knowing this was "opening night" of happy hour, I'll chalk it up to opening jitters, because there's really no excuse for the greasiness on something so simple. But wait....it's listed a starter on the regular dinner menu..... I was a bit surprised by the plastic silverware and water cup; I do somewhat get it as it is an outdoors setting, but for a place with the pedigree that Green Pastures has, the plastic seemed like a dumbing down. And I hope that plastic ware is being recycled by the staff, not just tossed in the trash can.  Speaking of staff, one tried to take my friend's wine glass before she was completely finished.

It was a pleasure to see the peacocks, as they clearly own the place. And there are two albinos!
Mattie's Green Pastures peacocks
Mattie's Green Pastures peacocks
Having enough of the heat, we retreated indoors. For a spacious lobby area, the entry is cramped, as the exterior door opens inward, practically hitting people who are waiting by the hostess stand. I saw this happen a few times while we were there. The same hostess did not seem to remember us from less than an hour previously, and she seemed slightly chilly when we said we didn't have a reservation, but she was able to seat us.

We were seated in the rear of the first floor dining room; we were the first patrons in the room that evening, but it quickly filled up.  Green Pastures was always known for its milk punch, and my friend who is a lover of such declared theirs to be quite fine.
Mattie's Green Pastures milk punch
As neither of us were starving, we opted for a couple more items from the starters list, the pate and french fries, followed by the spinach salad with goat cheese.
Mattie's Green Pastures pate
The pate was wonderful, definitely up there with Winebelly, my local favorite.  The fries were nice and crisp and the aioli was as it should be, creamy and garlicky; to my tastes the ketchup was too sweet and clovey.  The salad was nicely plated, but I quickly discovered that the pieces of goat cheese were frozen. Was this done to shave them into thin bits? When I mentioned it to the waiter, he said that he had heard that before, but swore that's how the kitchen intended for it to be.  I find this extremely odd as it's really not pleasing on the palate. Also, I can't even remember what the dressing was because I couldn't taste it. If the goat cheese is intended to be frozen, I would not order this again.
Being full, we passed on dessert and opted to pay out. Our waiter was taking quite a while to get back to us while another staffer cleared the water glasses off the table, and then a third brought fresh napkins and spoons which seemed odd. I kind of thought it was a cardinal rule of restaurants NOT to clear the water glasses until the patrons were gone. When I finally flagged our waiter down, he said that we were being sent a dessert by an acquaintance of mine I had run into who works there. The Chocolate Avocado Cremeaux was incredible. {Thank you!!}  Loved the puffed buckwheat for that little crunch, and passion fruit is always a favorite flavor of mine. The creaminess from the chocolate concoction combined with the buckwheat, cocoa dust, and sea salt flakes was perfection in taste and texture. Hats off to the pastry chef!
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Mattie's. For the most part the wait staff is very young (college-aged) and not what I would call professional waiters, more like a summer job. An outdoor happy hour does not appeal to me in the Texas summer. For the high points in the food (potato chips, pate, aioli, chocolate cremeaux) there were the lower points of greasy pimento and frozen goat cheese. Love that they are sourcing locally and using hormone, antibiotic free meats. But different aspects need polishing, especially with the plans for a boutique hotel on the property coming in the next year. For a place of Mattie's stature, I expect more.

While not listed on the website at this posting, Mattie's happy hour is 4 - 9 pm nightly.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Kemuri Tatsu-ya

I now know what all the fuss is about. In less than six months, Kemuri Tatsu-ya has landed on the Best of Austin lists for both the Austin American Statesman and the Austin Chronicle. And now I totally see why. I was there for dinner about two weeks ago, and it was by far the best meal I have had in a very long time.
Kemuri Tatsuya logo
Texas meets Japan is the theme of Kemuri, which opened on East 2nd and Pleasant Valley Streets back in January. It's pedigree? From the owners of Ramen Tatsu-ya, probably my favorite ramen spot in town. The place is an izakaya, or Japanese style gastropub; lots of sake, sochu, and funky cocktails to help wash down your small plates of food (good for sharing).
Kemuri Austin
Kemuri decor
Kemuri Chinmi funky menu
I've eaten natto in Japan, and it certainly has that funk factor to it! We didn't order anything from this menu on this visit.

Kemuri Tatsuya Hot Pocketz
Crispy Hot Pocketz with smoky brisket and gouda; each one is small, like a deck of cards and you feel like you could eat a bunch of these.
Kemuri dank tofu
Called Dank Tofu, this was the most wonderful thing! Blue cheese is infused in the tofu, and it's served in a soy glaze with shiitake mushrooms and pecans. So much amazing flavor and bursting with umami mouthfuls! I am SO in love.

Kemuri chicken karaage
Chicken Karaage with kewpie mayo

Kemuri yakitori
Pork belly and scallop yakitori... these both could have been cooked just a touch more.
Kemuri soft shell crab bao
Soft shell crab bao, from the evening's specials menu, with cilantro chimichurri. Great contrast of textures from the lightly crispy crab to the softness of the bao. Totally delicious.

Kemuri onigiri
Onigiri, or rice balls, are a dime a dozen in Japan. Every convenience store sells them. This was the most interesting and flavorful onigiri I have ever had. Filled with salmon, the rice ball (triangle, really) is lightly fried (?) with what I think is a soy glaze. Super crisp on the exterior, and nice an soft on the interior. 
Kemuri Tokyo Street Corn
Tokyo Street Corn... a bit messy to eat!
Kemuri Heirloom Tomato Salad
Also one of the evening specials, an heirloom tomato salad with watermelon, cucumbers, queso fresco and yuzu honey dressing.
Kemuri unagi
The barbecue unagi (eel), also amazing!

Apart from the yakitori skewers which were a touch underdone, my only other issue was that the small water glasses went unfilled for longer periods of time, and the reason I noticed it is because I wasn't drinking anything else. But the food was amazing, the atmosphere was fun, and I can't wait to go back to Kemuri! If you only eat chicken teriyaki when you go to a Japanese restaurant this may not be your cup of matcha tea, but if you're open to exploring some new dishes and even some familiar ones just prepared differently, head over to Kemuri.

Update  9/2017
I went for a second visit last month and had the chicken thigh yakitori as well as the smoked banana pudding for dessert.
Kemuri chicken thigh yakitori
I could eat about ten of these chicken thigh yakitori, the meat was incredibly juicy. The beef tongue on the left wasn't bad either, but the thighs were killer.
Kemuri Smoked Banana Pudding
Smoked banana pudding with miso caramel

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Old School BBQ Spots: Salt Lick and Opie's

In the past month, I have been to both Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood (where I hadn't been in years) and Opie's BBQ in Spicewood (where I go a couple times a year).

You've probably heard of Salt Lick Barbecue. What started fifty years ago in Driftwood, about 30 minutes southwest of downtown Austin on FM 1826 now has multiple locations and legions of fans.
Salt Lick BBQ

I'll admit, I was not really one of those fans. Until now. I hadn't been to the actual Salt Lick restaurant in probably ten years because it was never my favorite barbecue. And while I think I'd still pick Opie's as my pick for 'cue AND their sides are killer, I was really extremely pleased by a recent venture out to Salt Lick for a friend's birthday gathering on a Saturday afternoon in early June. I did learn, that if you're a group of ten or more, you can make a reservation and bypass the crowds. And there were crowds waiting, even at 3:30 pm, though I think many were there for the wine tasting room. But we didn't have to wait at all for a table! We were seated in the main building with this amazing meat pit by the entrance.
The Salt Lick Driftwood the Pit
Salt Lick's iconic meat pit
Salt Lick is like a regular restaurant where you order off a menu. I had Thurman's Plate, which comes with brisket, sausage, and a pork rib, along with cole slaw, warm potato salad, and pintos. While I didn't love the sweeter glaze on the ribs, as you can see it's got a nice smoke ring, and it was really tender. All the meats were good and the sides underwhelmed me. Not a lot of flavor to the slaw or potatoes, but it's really about the meats, right? A couple of us talked about how we hadn't been there in ages, and we were all pleasantly surprised. You can buy meats by the pound, but mostly, they sell plates like this. Keep in mind too, Salt Lick is CASH ONLY and BYOB.
The Salt Lick Driftwood Thurman's Plate
Thurman's Plate at Salt Lick
Many people aren't familiar with Opie's, and I like to think of it as my hidden gem. It's as good as the Lockhart places and even the Driftwood one, and it's the place I always recommend to people seeking barbecue around Austin. Nothing against Franklin BBQ, but why would I stand in line for a minimum of three hours when I can take a nice drive out Hwy 71 to Opie's, about 45 minutes to the northwest of downtown Austin.
Opie's BBQ

While Salt Lick sells mostly prepared plates of food, Opie's meat is all by the pound. When you walk in the main door, you are right by the huge meat vault/locker and there's a board above it listing cuts and prices. They always have the standards, and usually have some more special cuts like pork chops or fancy beef cuts. I stick to the basics, and ever since Artz Ribhouse in Austin closed, Opie's is my go-to place for baby back ribs. You tell the man with the large knife what meats you want and he grabs them for you; if you're eating there, they can slice up everything before wrapping them in butcher paper. Some things are by the pound like the brisket, others like the chicken are sold in half-chicken quantities only.
Opie's BBQ in Spicewood
Opie's meat vault
Pictured here is a half rack of baby backs, a sausage link, and smoked chicken, along with spicy corn and the most amazing butter beans you've ever had! (Only available on Fridays and Sundays as far as I know, and they are free, on the condiment bar along with the pintos, pickles, onions, and bread.) This ended up being food for three days for me.
Opie's BBQ in Spicewood meats
Baby back ribs, sausage, + chicken along with spicy corn and butter beans

One of the things that my friends and I like about Opie's is the quality of the sides, not just the butter beans. The spicy corn has a lot of zip to it; there's tater tot casserole which are shredded potatoes and cheddar cheese. But really, the butter beans are so velvety tender, it's hard not to fall in love. They have great cobblers and brownie bars for dessert too. I digress from the meats though! The baby backs are always tender with a black pepper rub on them. The sausage is a fairly fine grind, has a nice casing on it, and isn't greasy. This is the first time I have had the chicken in a long time, and it's just so moist and flavorful. Would make a great chicken salad.

So there you have it folks, lots of meaty goodness. Texas is all about barbecue, and everyone is bound to have their favorites and their opinions, I am no exception. And while barbecue joints are always going to be all about the meats, it never hurts to find a place where the sides are winners too. Grab a friend, take a little drive, and maybe you'll discover your new favorite barbecue spot.