On this trip we dined at several Austin restaurant favorites as well as checked out a few new hot spots. Our overall impression was that chefs have moved out of survival mode and have begun to take more risks and dream bigger.
In 2010, Foreign & Domestic’s chef-owner, Ned Elliott, was one of the first in the city to latch onto the nose-to-tail movement, where the aim is to incorporate as much of an animal as possible in food preparation. Seven years later, the bistro was purchased by Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley, local chefs who trained together at Parkside, another Austin classic. Initially, there were concerns that under new leadership, the restaurant would lose its charm, but Heard and Lemley have done a superb job at maintaining the original high standards and elevating the fare to new heights. The venison tartare topped with an egg yolk and taro root chips was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, as was the roasted Berkshire pork chop accompanied by an apple-cabbage slaw and miso-infused Bloody Butcher heirloom grits. Elliott’s signature Gruyère-black-pepper popovers have stuck around, thankfully. When the massive puffs came our way, we gasped – no picture can ever do them justice. They were airy and the perfect balance of crunchy and chewy. This one-room spot in the quirky North Loop neighborhood is cozy and friendly, and as you drive by, it is impossible to miss the large mural of a golden-winged pig painted on the building’s façade.
Foreign & Domestic
306 East 53rd Street. Tel. (512) 459-1010
This restaurant sits discreetly at the base of a high-rise condo on Rainey Street, a bustling historic district with bars housed within bungalows on the edge of downtown. Chef Kevin Fink opened this spot in 2015 after stints at award-winning restaurants Noma in Copenhagen and the French Laundry in Yountville, California, and its menu is inventively crafted and superbly executed. He is passionate about doing as much as possible on-site, including milling heritage grains by hand daily and butchering whole animals sourced from regional farms. He has also created an in-house fermentation program so that produce picked in peak season can be used to enhance off-season dishes. The restaurant has an on-staff forager, and the menu regularly changes according to his finds. As this eatery is named after the grains emmer and rye, the highlights here are the pastas and breads. Dishes are intended for sharing, and tables of two should count on ordering five to six plates. The strozzapreti was the highlight of our meal. Made from Rouge de Bordeaux wheat, the pasta (similar to cavatelli) tossed with pokeweed tasted pleasantly earthy with a hint of mushroom. Just as chefs train for years to learn how to prepare deadly fugu, a Japanese delicacy known more commonly as blowfish, the kitchen staff at Emmer & Rye has been carefully trained how to cook the poisonous pokeweed plant. This kale-style green was delightfully tangy and a welcome discovery. The restaurant’s dining room, featuring a sleek Scandinavian-inspired design, is striking but can get noisy, so consider reserving a seat on the outdoor patio in advance. The crowd on Rainey is young, but Emmer & Rye attracts a more sophisticated clientele drawn by the caliber of Fink’s cuisine. He was a James Beard award finalist in 2020 and has recently opened a second restaurant in Austin, Hestia (see below).
Emmer & Rye
51 Rainey Street. Tel. (512) 366-5530
A few months after opening in mid-2019, Comedor was voted #10 out of 22 Best New Restaurants in America by Esquire magazine and then Best New Restaurant by Texas Monthly in 2020. Our expectations were high going in. Housed within an impressive building designed by architect Tom Kundig, Comedor has a black-steel-and-glass-brick exterior, a large inner courtyard with a climbing-ivy-covered wall (sadly browned to a crisp due to the snowstorm that hit the city in February) and a dining room with double-height windows. Founded by chefs Philip Speer and Gabe Erales, the restaurant features a contemporary Mexican menu of just 15 dishes. We encouraged our waiter to advise us on which plates to order. The rich and creamy bone marrow tacos with smoked butter and an hoja santa-pecan gremolata was a standout, but the blistered cabbage with preserved carrot and a chilhuacle negro chile mole was exceptionally bland, as was the cochinita pibil, a classic Yucatecan roasted pork dish. We were considerably more intrigued by the building’s architectural design than we were the food. I left disappointed and with a dent in my wallet. This seemed unfathomable after such rave reviews, so I did some digging. Chef Erales was let go in December and this has clearly affected the caliber of the fare. The venue is gorgeous, so if anything, head to Comedor for its Masa Old Fashioned cocktail and the bone marrow tacos, then head elsewhere for dinner.
501 Colorado Street. Tel. (512) 499-0977
Award-winning chef Tyson Cole, an American sushi master, opened this gourmet venue in South Austin in 2003, and over the years it has become a local favorite. This is not your usual Japanese restaurant. Cole’s imaginative Japanese cuisine employs fresh fish flown directly from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market several times a week. There is no soy sauce on the table nor is there a need for it. Cole has composed every flavor behind the counter, and even dishes that sound simple and arrive looking undressed are delicately coated in the most discreet of sauces. We were surprised and delighted at every turn. For example, the thinly sliced flounder paired with candied quinoa was flawless in taste and temperature — the temperature of raw fish is a key factor determining flavor – as was the sake tom kha, a salmon sashimi in a sauce of coconut, lime leaf and dill. Other dishes not to be missed are the walu walu (oak-grilled escolar enlivened with candied citrus, yuzu and ginger) and “hot rock,” for which six slices of marbled wagyu beef are lined up on a long board. Patrons sear the slices on a hot rock placed alongside; just five seconds for each was enough for us. The accompanying ponzu sauce was the ideal garnish. We rounded out our meal with the honey toast, a delicious dessert composed of brioche topped with honey ice cream and cashew praline strips. The staff at Uchi are exceptionally helpful and pretense-free, and we enjoyed every second of our two-hour meal here. The more informal branch of this restaurant, Uchiko, is located up north and is an easier reservation to acquire.
801 South Lamar Boulevard. Tel. (512) 916-4808
This is Kevin Fink’s second restaurant in Austin and now our new favorite. Named after the Greek goddess of the hearth, Hestia offers a unique menu centered on live-fire cooking. Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was the 20-foot-long woodburning grill. The dining room resembles a classic steakhouse, with warm brown-and-green leather booths and dark wood tables, but large glass windows allow for natural lighting to brighten the space. We chose to dine in the livelier conservatory-style room, though the shaded outdoor patio was also tempting. The descriptions of dishes are provided directly by the chefs, who work front-of-house, so we were able to ask detailed questions about the provenance of ingredients and the method of preparation. We were fascinated to hear that the only source of heat in the kitchen is the open flame from the hearth, and that everything on the menu has been “touched by fire or smoke” in some way. Acclaimed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann achieved global acclaim for his distinctive open-fire cooking style, and Fink has hopped on this increasingly popular trend. The exceptional grilled scallops, served thinly sliced, soaking in beef tallow and topped with diced pear infused with yuzu, were beautifully presented on the half shell. The seared salsify accompanied by blackened shallot and toasted hazelnuts and the charred lion’s mane mushroom paired with smoked koji were also delicious. Adjacent to the restaurant is Kalimotxo, Hestia’s sister eatery. This vibrant Basque-inspired bar, serving creative cocktails and pintxos, offers a very different experience but is a delightful place to sip a drink as you wait for your table at Hestia.
607 West Third Street. Tel. (512) 333-0737