Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Art's Ribs

Ahh, I fondly remember the days of having Artz Rib House on South Lamar, less than two miles from my house. Sadly that location closed about two years ago leaving a huge void in my baby back rib consumption (here's one of my early blog posts on Artz). Not to mention they were a bit of a South Austin institution, with live music, much of it bluegrass, several nights out of the week. Owner Art Blondin has bounced around since the closing of his namesake, but it appears he's landed upright and is in business again. Head about an hour north my friends, to Florence, TX.
Art found this building for rent on Craigslist; it was a former barbeque spot, and I am guessing it had all the right infrastructure to make it worthwhile. (Ignore the "Flaming Grill" part; you can sort of see his Art's Ribs sign in the window, and since I took this photo, he's gotten the hanging sign on the left replaced.) I visited the new Art's (slight name change from the one on South Lamar) last month, and got to see the pitmaster himself, whom I have been acquaintances with for a number of years. I wasted no time in getting my beloved baby backs, and they were just as good as I remember them -- tender, meaty, and just darn good. Art even commented on how the batch of baby backs we were eating were exceptionally large. And look at that smoke ring on the brisket and the ribs! The potato salad and cole slaw are solid too; both had good taste and consistency.
Art was wonderful to bring us a pork loin chop that was fresh off the grill. Here you can see the before and after shots! It was pure smoky meat, thick and juicy. It doesn't get a whole lot better!
Here's a shot of the menu board. Prices are on par with other BBQ spots.
And here's a great shot of Art with his smoker; this was taken by my friend Phillip Patterson, who has taken a number of pictures of Art and his new place, some of which are on the Facebook page.
Photo by Phillip Patterson, used with permission.
So PLEASE, do yourselves a favor and take a little drive north to Florence (Hwy. 183 to RR 138); they're located on Main Street (it's only about two blocks long) and you can't miss it. If you're a pork rib lover, this is absolutely the place to be!
Added Sept. 1, 2014: It is with great sadness that I share Art's unexpected passing this past weekend. I have no idea what will happen to the restaurant in Florence, but with no Art.....Hope he's enjoying some baby backs wherever he is. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Southern Traditions Meats

Some home cooking time! I was invited by Southern Traditions meats to try out a couple of their fresh, grassfed meats. (I was not paid for my opinion of their products.) They are a family-operated farm in Briggs (between Lampasas and Georgetown) that does not use any hormones, antibiotics, or corn in the raising of their animals, and have various cuts of beef, goat, and lamb available.

I picked up some ground lamb and beef at the Hope Farmers Market back in March. With the lamb, I made my favorite lamb meatball recipe that I've made for years. It's got mint, currants, and sesame seeds in them for a bit of a Middle Eastern flair. I cook these in the oven, and use a stoneware dish that has the ridges in it, so the whatever you're cooking sits up, away from the fat that renders. Well, the rendered fat from these lamb meatballs was crystal clear with few impurities -- a sign to me that this is high quality meat! Add a homemade tzatziki sauce and voila!
And of course with the ground beef, I made a big ol' burger! Seared it in a cast iron skillet and finished it off in the oven. Pretzel bun and some leftover pimento cheese from a friend! Delicious.
I would definitely get their meats again, and would love to try some local lamb chops! Look for Southern Traditions meats on Saturdays at the Cedar Park and SFC downtown markets or Sundays at Hope and Lone Star (at the Hill Country Galleria) markets.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Recent Eats, part two

Picking up where we left off, the end of March and the beginning of April were a time of LOTS of good eats! Here's a few more tasty spots.

I was practically kidnapped by a longtime friend who insisted we go eat at North up at the Domain. And while they are a small chain (only six locations nationwide), they do make all of their food in-house, including the pasta. Turned out to be a really great meal! We started with the mussels, which have little bits of salami in the white wine and garlic broth; one of the best bowls of mussels I've had in a while.
I had the strozzapreti, a hearty pasta dish with chicken, mushrooms, spinach, and pine nuts. Very filling, I happily took half of this home for leftovers.
And dessert. Their tiramisu had a nice touch with teeny little crispy chocolate caviar balls on the top; it could have had a bit more espresso flavor to it, but the balls and the glass bowl alone made up for it. I LOVE this glass bowl, and would love to purchase some...there were no markings on the bottom of it, and I've started searching online, to no avail. Probably a 10 - 12 ounce capacity, and 4 inches in diameter at the top. If you have suggestions on where to find, please let me know!
Very pleasantly surprised by North. Our server was great, and at 2 o'clock on a Saturday, the place was packed. Also liked the creativeness in serving some of the dishes on wooden boards, which we saw at nearby tables.

One of my blogger friends had commented on one of my recent pictures from Asia Cafe (a place I have been numerous times and really enjoy), and the conversation led to us making a date to go to Szechuan House on Burnet Road, a place she really likes and I have heard good things about. Five of us met for an early Sunday dinner, and after a lengthy time studying the menu, I think we ordered some great dishes!
At the top of the picture, are the #A4 steamed dumpling with pork. They had a nice thin (but not too thin) dough around them with a multitude of tiny pleats!  Beneath it is #F9 fish with fiery sauce; we all thought this dish was okay, but maybe not the best of our assortment. It was a bit more like fish stew, and while tasty, it wasn't extremely hot (as in spicy). A crispy/fried fish would have given the whole thing a bit more body and texture. The #V6 dry fried green beans were yummy! Now they did come with a little bit of ground meat on them (and its not mentioned on the menu), so if you're vegetarian, be sure to ask them to hold off.  In the bottom left is #T1, ma po tofu with ground pork (I remember the server did ask us if we wanted meat with the tofu dish, but I don't think they asked us on the green beans.) This (and the fish dish) had some nice szechuan peppercorn flavor as well as being bathed in chili oil. If you haven't had them before (or maybe you have and didn't know what you were eating) the peppercorns produce a nice tingly, mildly numbing and tastebud-altering affect in your mouth. The #V7 was three kinds of mushrooms in a light brown sauce; the mushrooms had a really nice light smoky flavor and overall was a favorite dish. Not pictured is #P1, the twice cooked pork, which was thin strips of pork belly sauteed with green onions; very tasty, but I would love it a bit more cooked.

You can bring your own alcoholic beverages with you, and that helps keep the total cost down. For five people, we paid $15 each and were stuffed. Based off this first visit, I'd say Szechuan House is pretty comparable to Asia Cafe. I like them both, a lot! Just wish we had one of these down south!

The following week, we had a small blogger gathering at Quattro Gatti, an Italian place downtown (908 Congress Avenue) that's been open a few years, but doesn't get a whole lot of buzz. Blogger Food Fash has eaten there a few times, and arranged with the owner for us to come in and try the food in exchange for some social media mentions. (We paid for our beverages, but the food was complimentary; we were not paid for our opinions of the food.)
Gianfranco started us off with a couple of the different pizzas, and gave us a personal demonstration of how they shape the dough and cook the pizzas. The four formaggi (four cheese) pizza is above, and here he is at the pizza oven discussing how they're made. He was very animated and passionate about his pizza (as well he should!), which cook for only a few minutes in a special wood-burning pizza oven that gets ridiculously hot; the pizza should have a crust that is a bit crisp, but still chewy and toothsome.
This is the saffron risotto, not my personal favorite because I am not a huge lover of saffron, but the color was gorgeous.
One of the evening specials was housemade papparadelle with rabbit ragu, and it was fantastic! I think we all agreed this was the best dish of the night. Supple ribbons of pasta with a sauce that had a lot of flavor, but was not heavy.
And just when we though we were completely stuffed, they sent out five different desserts! From top left: affogato, cannoli, tiramisu, biscotti with vin santo (sweet wine for dipping the biscotti), and a brownie/fudgy tarte decadent combination. And between eight of us, we finished them off pretty well!
Thank you again to Gianfranco for welcoming us. I spied some items on the menu that I'd love to go back and try sometime, like carbonara, paninis and roasted sea bass. If you happen to find yourself downtown, go and check Quattro Gatti out!

I was invited to an open house at Walton's Fancy and Staple on West 6th Street. If you're not familiar with them, they serve breakfast and lunch, and have a beautiful pastry case. But they also do catering and floral arrangements, as they aim to be a one-stop shop for your party needs. I loved this tall floral piece, and they also had fun ones hanging throughout the room.
Their "Hideaway" room was set up for the event; it seats up to 30 guests if you're looking for a place to hold an event. Their catering can of course also come to you!

It's been good pickins! No complaints about any of these Austin eateries!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Recent Eats, part one

I got to celebrate my birthday at the end of March with my parents in town, which lead to many (ok, all!) meals out. So here's a recap of the highlights, as well as a couple of events I attended, and some other meals -- the good, the great, and luckily only one bad. I feel fortunate to live in such a great food city!

Birthday celebrations started at The Flying Carpet and Regal Ravioli trailers! Special thanks to Maria, Abdu, and Zach  -- these guys all do such great work (and both do catering!) -- go check them out and tell them I sent you!

Lunch at Sway, their tom kha soup had such a flavorful broth! It's also a clear broth, not a coconut milk-based one, and while it was still rich in flavor, it was relatively light. I could eat this everyday.
Brunch at Barlata; they have some traditional dishes like their take on French toast called Torrijas, with a wonderful array of fresh fruit, and this house-cured salmon was simple and tasty.
Dinner at Uchi, the one place my father HAD to visit while they were here, and I was more than happy to oblige. This was one of the nightly specials, perfectly cooked wagyu beef with sweet potatoes done three ways: pureed, roasted, and somehow made into light as air crisps.
An invite to Paggi House, to try their new spring menu. We were treated to a multitude of dishes, from delicious herbed butter with the bread to this tuna with coconut panna cotta (that's my interpretation of it at least) to braised veal cheeks over polenta (one of my favorites of the evening) to a marvelous grasshopper brownie concoction with "dirt" that was delicious. Plus during April, they are donating money from sales of their signature cocktails to the Glimmer of Hope Foundation for their summer camp programs. (I was invited to try their food, but was not paid for my opinion.)
Lunch with a friend at the new East Side King on South Lamar. I have really loved the trailers, but haven't been in a while. We opted for the old standbys from the trailers, and am sorry to say we were left disappointed. From top left, the Brussels sprouts hardly had any Brussels, it was mostly cabbage; the chicken kara-age was soft, no crispness to the pieces; the fried beets were soggy; and the pork belly bun was just alright. I Instagramed this same photo and expressed my sentiments; happy to say someone from ESK responded with apologizes and said they would notify the kitchen of the issues. Now whether things improve, that remains to be seen, and from comments left on the photo, others have noticed a decline in quality at the trailers as well.
A dinner meeting at Stiles Switch BBQ. I have heard very mixed things about this place from day one, and from various people who's food opinions I trust. They made Texas Monthly's Top 50 BBQ places in Texas,  and clearly Texas Monthly was there on a good day. I'd say this meal was ok, but nothing spectacular. I got the three meat sampler plate: pork ribs not bad, sausage had a really really fine grind, I like mine a bit chunkier, and the brisket on the right.... it was cut really thick, had no smoke ring, and was quite dry. Great BBQ is all about consistency, and based on this one meal, I don't see how they get the high marks. The service though was uber-friendly, and they do get kudos for that! 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Bits and Bites

-- The 3rd Texas Veg Fest is April 5th at Fiesta Gardens; vendors, speakers, food and more!

-- The Texas Olive Festival is April 5th at the Texas Hill Country Olive Company in Dripping Springs. Advance tickets are $35 and benefit the Sustainable Food Center.

-- Scrumptious Chef is holding one of his pop-up events on April 5th at Tamale House East; salsa and charcuterie.

-- Banger's is holding a dinner and screening of the new movie Craft on April 8th. $15/person; a special sausage will be created to complement the Altered State saison beer.

-- Jack Allen's is hosting a five-course tasting dinner on April 8th with Treaty Oak Spirits, $75/person. For tickets:

-- Join Sagra for a wine tasting dinner April 9th, $45/person.

-- Apothecary will hold a spring wine tasting on April 12th from 2 - 4pm, $25/person; for tickets, email them at

-- Mulberry's annual crawfish boil is April 13th, 5 - 8 pm, $10/person. 

-- The Austin Food and Wine Alliance's annual Live Fire! is April 17 at the Salt Lick Pavilion; tickets are $75.

-- On April 19th, Bangers will host Smoke Out Saturday with a low country boil (shrimp, crab and lots more) and music for $15.

-- Chavez will be open for Easter brunch on April 20th, $49/person.

-- The Carillon is doing seatings for Easter at 10:30 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 1:30 pm; $65 for adults. $19.95 for kids ages 6 - 12.

-- Eden East at Springdale Farm will hold an Easter Brunch and egg hunt, $100/person, 1 pm, April 20th.

-- Foreign and Domestic will host Indie Chef Table on April 21st, featuring Jason Vincent of Nightwood Restaurant in Chicago; $100 for table seating (35 available) $125 for counter seating (12 available), and include a glass of bubbly and gratuity.

-- April 24th, Music To Your Mouth is presenting a 4 course dinner at Rough Hollow Yacht Club, for $200/person, which will include a private concert by Kristian Bush of the band Sugarland.

-- The list of exhibitors for the Austin Food and Wine Festival (April 26-27 at Butler Park) has been announced; presenters have also been named. 

-- The annual Pachanga Latin Music Festival will be May 10th at Fiesta Gardens. They are offering a V.I.T. (Very Important Taco) package that offers access to multiple taco stands and unlimited refreshments. $33-$75/person

-- Spike TV is casting for Frankenfoods in the Austin area:
-- Paggi House has debuted a new spring menu, which I recently was invited to try. They are also donating a $1 of each handcrafted cocktail during the month of April to the A Glimmer of Hope Austin summer camps program. Pictured here, the tender and flavorful veal cheeks on polenta.

-- A-OK Chinese opened at 1509 South Lamar.

-- Tiny Pies opened a storefront at 5035 Burnet Road.

-- Noble Sandwiches now has their second location at 4805 Burnet Road.

-- P. Terry's is offering a caramel turtle fudge milkshake through mid-April.

-- Benji's Cantina is now open for lunch Monday through Saturday.

-- Porter Ale House is now offering Sunday brunch.

-- The Carillon will launch their new spring menu, and they are now opening their lunch buffet to the public (previously only open to UT staff and faculty).

-- Apothecary also has a new spring menu and a few new wines.

-- Cooper's BBQ will open at 217 Congress Avenue this fall. Yes, THAT Cooper's of Llano!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Odd Duck

Last weekend I made my first visit to Odd Duck, the trailer turned restaurant (after a couple year hiatus) from Bryce Gilmore. This sister restaurant to Barley Swine is about a half mile north on South Lamar, directly across from the construction pit where the Alamo Drafthouse will reopen. Odd Duck is a less-formal setting than Barley Swine, and seats probably four times as many customers when you include the spacious outdoor patio. We had no problems making a Sunday reservation online just two days prior, and while the restaurant was busy, they were no where near capacity. I received a phone call from the restaurant on Sunday to confirm the reservation; they also inquired about any dietary restrictions (none) and let me know most of the seating was at communal tables (ok). Upon our arrival, the hostess sat us outside on the patio (complete with drop-down siding and overhead heaters), which was away from the hubbub of activity that encircled the bar area, and thus a little quieter. And we didn't have to share a table, though it is sometimes fun to do so.

My dinner companion and I were warmly greeted by our waiter Bruno, who proceeded to explain the menu. They encourage sharing of dishes, and about three dishes per person. You can see from the pictures they use a mish-mash of vintage dishware, which doesn't always make the food stand out when photographing the plates, but it's a creative touch nonetheless. We both ordered beers, and I thought my Live Oak Hefeweizen went well with our food choices.

We started with the Parker House rolls with shredded meat from the pig's head, mixed with some seasonings. I could have eaten an entire meal of these and been perfectly happy! Whoever oversees Odd Duck's breads is doing a marvelous job. Warm, buttery, soft, tender, and filled with a well-balanced meat mixture. Do not miss out!
Next up were the mustard seed tater tots with pimento cheese. I didn't really find many mustard seeds in the potato cubes, but maybe they're ground up. It seems that these were mashed potatoes, spread thinly in a pan, left to cool and harden before being scored into little squares, and then fried. Devoid of any trace of grease, which was nice. But I sort of missed the texture of little potato pieces found in a traditional tot. The pimento cheese has great cheesy flavor, but it's whipped to the state of more of a mousse than a "regular" cheese spread, and there was much more pimento to go around than there were tots. Bread would have been handy to scoop up the mousse. While the texture of the pimento may not have been my most favorite, they get points for modernizing and putting their own spin on traditional fare.
There were two fish options on the menu, and we asked our waiter's opinion. He steered us towards this, the raw cobia (a whitefish), with bacon, soy, grapefruit, and sunflower seed clusters. We both thought the dish would be more successful without the soy sauce. But while it goes with fish and with the bacon (pork belly), it didn't go with the grapefruit. Though one could also argue that the grapefruit was the item that should have been removed. All said, the individual components worked, but I didn't feel it worked together as a whole concept.
Our next plate was the carrots roasted in hay with chevre and pistachio crumbs, or what I have been calling a forest of carrots. Fun, artful presentation, different types of carrots cut in different ways, and a good amount of chevre on the bottom of the plate (though you can't really see it in this picture). The pistachio crumbs gave a really nice texture to the softened carrots. By now we realized we needed bread for the ample amount of chevre.
So remember how I said earlier whomever is doing the breads is doing a marvelous job? I had already felt that with the Parker House rolls, and then we had this: their spent grain loaf with salted, cultured butter. So glad I eat carbs! :) This warm bread was also amazing on its own, but then if you slathered some butter on a piece.... try it yourself, and I dare you not to say "oh my god!".
And speaking of carbs, this black olive pasta with braised goat, sage, and Parmesan was also a huge winner. It's a bit on the salty side (which is sort of ironic to me because I always thought the food at the Odd Duck trailer was under-salted) with the olives and Parmesan, but it all just melts in your mouth. I am guessing they braise the goat, because it was tender and juicy. Really a wonderful umami mouthful.
For dessert we picked the buttermilk pie on a peanut crust with sweet tea and celery. Celery? As far as we could tell, the only celery were the little green leaves you see for garnish. Yes, they were celery leaves, but young tender ones. I didn't object to them, but not sure they added anything to the dish. The sweet tea turned out to be a jelly-like reduction (if you can make out the brown dots on the plate) that tasted just like sweet tea. The buttermilk pie part was fine, but it didn't overly excite me. I am wondering now what made it so yellow in color...maybe there was celery puree in it, but it didn't really taste like that.
Here's a shot of the porch seating. I'd say there were about 8 - 10 picnic tables that would each hold six people comfortably. Wish I had had more of an opportunity to look around in the main dining room, but I can say the seating around the bar was pretty much entirely filled, as were the inside tables.
From the people I know who had eaten here since their December opening, pretty much everyone has had good things to say. One friend though had a horrible service experience, so I sort of kept waiting for something to happen. But I thought from the hostess to our waiter, the service was great. Bruno was knowledgeable about the menu, and while his choice of fish dish wasn't my favorite dish of the evening, I don't necessarily feel that he led us astray. He was friendly, and never gone for too long, even though we were outside. I should also add there is an emphasis on local and seasonal foods, and there's a page on their website listing their vendors/sources.

Odd Duck is a welcome addition to my South Austin neighborhood, and I am pleased to make its acquaintance. I look forward to more carb-filled meals there!