Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Event Review: Digestible Feats' Screening of "Now, Forager"

Escapism. That which allows the lucky among us to become unentombed by the stifling normalcy around us. The ability to live in the moment, away from the world we are used to; to live with every inclination toward the realm of the uncomfortable and the unfamiliar. It is for this notion that I fell in love with the night. 

It was an evening spent solo amongst a crowd of strange faces at The Off Center. 

Perfect name for this place, really.

I am a self-proclaimed foodie now and managed tonight to muster the courage to go above and beyond in the effort to earn this title. I ventured alone to the screening of an independent film that dramatized the life of a forager, a man consumed by the insatiable and somewhat impractical need to secure food in the wild through means of the innumerable varieties of naturally occurring mushroom. His knowledge was immense and his passion unrivaled. But his stubbornness would prove fatal as his inability or unwillingness to compromise would destroy his marriage as well as his connections with the modern world. As the film closed, my sweaty palms announced the fear that I might also be swallowed up in unwavering adherence to "the way things are meant to be."

Thank goodness there was food to aid my active mind in the escape from austerity. Prior to the screening we were greeted with a small taste of the glory to come. 

Hamachi with a cherry citrus glaze and basil, mango chutney with bleu cheese, and a pork meatball with a thousand island-esque sauce.

The hamachi was an overwhelming favorite for me here. The flavors were fresh and bright beyond belief, and my little taste could not have better excited my palate for the impending culinary enrichment. 

I feel like Bourdain would have approved of the scene. 


Foodies, foragers, filmmakers, and drunks gathered outside at a simple theater, all huddled around a fire pit protected by cinder blocks and covered with a metal grate for cooking. I bathed myself in the perfume of meats in metamorphosis, evolving into something beautiful and delicious. I heard one of the chefs mention pig's blood sausage, and another, grilled peach with seared beef heart. Oh god, this is it. Think like Bourdain. Eat like Bourdain. Try it all and be not afraid! 

Down 1...or 5 of these margarita jello shots in futile attempt to forget what you're about to eat. 

He'd approve of that too wouldn't he? Damn, why do I not smoke cigarettes?! Deep breath. Ok this is what you have been waiting for. You can do this. 

Making my way down the line I was greeted by men of great culinary achievement. "Wild sheep tamale? Pig's blood sausauge?" asked the executive chef at Hopfields. Yes please. That's new. "Duck liver paté? Grilled peach with seared beef heart?" offered the butcher from Fatback Boucherie. Well I don't mind if I do. All I could do was reassure myself that even if I was disgusted by them in the end, choking down these things would begin to legitimize me act as a foodie. I could finally say (truthfully) that I'd sampled a plethora of strange and disturbing foods, and I had survived. 

I made my way to an empty table with the intention of agonizing over the food in peace and making a quick exit to the restroom if my stomach rejected my attempts at inaugurated foodiedom. But my plans would be thwarted by a couple, Sarah and Aaron, who came and sat across from me. "You're here alone? What do you do?" Oh boy, now they'll know I'm bluffing about the foodie thing if I don't consume (and retain) the oddities before me. 

Ok we'll start here.

A salty crostini and some Franklin's brisket. At least those things would provide a non-threatening base for the ensuing blood and guts. Maybe I'd be alright after all. Next the duck terrine. I'd had something similar before so this wasn't too daunting. I mean I am a coon ass; I was bound to like foie gras. The liver was dense and rich, evidence of the force feeding that had transpired. Sad as the concept was, I shamelessly devoured the fatty, salty slab before me, convincing myself that flavor like that was worth the forced gluttony of a bird or two. Still intimidated by the beef heart, I left it and moved on. 

This looks a little less scary for now. 

Wild mushroom empanada, dipped in a mushroom molé? Simple and delicious. I mean who wouldn't like a fried pastry stuffed with fresh mushrooms and cream? The molé really had no semblance to any of the Mexican sauces I'd tried in the past, but that didn't mean it wasn't tasty. It was. That little salad was safe and fresh and an excellent cleanser between courses. Ok, wild sheep tamale. "These sheep certainly didn't die in vain," Aaron commented as he dug his teeth into the neatly rolled little package. Dammit Aaron! Now all I can picture is fields of sweet, fluffy white innocence and the impending doom they'd sensed as they were carted off to be slaughtered for our enjoyment. You better be right; this better be delicious. And it was. So simple. No intense overbearing flavors; just the subtlety of fresh meat, the meat of an animal that had enjoyed its life grazing wild pastures and died to ensure a richer life for those enjoying its flesh. 

Ok. I ate a cute fluffy sheep, and I eat pork all the time so this should be easier. Why am I so bothered by the prospect of ingesting its blood? Chefs and foodies alike rave about blood sausage. This is an experience I must have! "This blood sausage is the one thing here I just can't get over." Dammit Aaron! I know we just met, but you and I are going to have problems if you don't stop amplifying my greatest fears. But here I am, the blood and flesh of Wilbur already staining my hand. I have to do it. Just a tiny bite. Oh god! It's surprisingly dry and chewy for a link that is supposedly saturated in bodily fluid. But the blood is certainly there. The sting of rust hits my tongue. The flavor is something I can only describe as what I imagine would be produced were flesh and blood allowed to ferment in the sun for days. It is beautiful. I have to chuckle a little under my breath. I did it. I confronted my own culinary Goliath, and I survived the experience. Now I can try anything! 

A cornichon to clear my mouth of the trauma it has just endured on my behalf, and it's on to the grilled peach with seared beef heart. No hesitation now; it's easy to just dig right in, and my taste buds thank me. This is phenomenal! The beef heart is chewy and salty and perfectly complements the sultry peach. The juices extracted by the grilling process drip down my chin, and I cannot contain my joy. A maniacal grin spreads over my face with the knowledge that I am consuming the heart of another creature and it is good. These are the primal pleasures we are meant to encounter through the art of eating. I feel oddly at home in this eccentric place surrounded by these fascinating people. I am happy.

And then Hank, the curator of Digestible Feats at Fusebox Festival, approaches to tell us there's more! "Manga!" he says. "What is it? Do you hate your mother?" They have freshly picked morel mushrooms, just-caught catfish wrapped in Oregon ramps, the rarest venison I have ever had the pleasure of eating, and simply grilled poblano peppers. 

I didn't think I could take anymore.

The extra-rich decadence of the previous courses rested heavy in my stomach, but I just couldn't help myself. I had to try it all! That catfish was some of the freshest I have ever been served. It was dense and intensely briny, but the bitterness of the ramp cut through it all for a bite of simple perfection. That venison was so gently seared that I may have mistaken it for tuna at first glance had I not been informed otherwise. The minimal seasoning allowed the juicy gaminess of this rare meat to shine through with unimpeded grandeur. And the mushrooms, oh the mushrooms. Morels, especially as fresh as these, possess a flavor that is unlike any other. Lightly sautéed with just a touch of ponzu, they excited my tongue with a sweet earthiness that left me with the understandable desire to harvest my own mushrooms. 

Nothing presented to me tonight was as I had experienced it in the past, and for that I am grateful. I am completely enamored with the prospect of the unknown and appreciate more than ever the immersive scenes I have finally jumped into headfirst. Hank said it best. These events are intended to foster a certain comfort with complete immersion. They are meant to overload us with sensory information that annihilates our concern with the outside world, extinguishes our affair with the daily grind. You shouldn't be thinking about what's for lunch tomorrow, how you're going to deal with your boss, or who's at home; and if you are, you're doing it wrong. Adoration of the present creates the moments that will enrich our lives forever. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

African Potluck Dinner: Dining with Those Who Truly Enjoy Food

What're you to say when your man comes home and tells you you've been invited to an African themed potluck dinner, hosted by people you know only by brief acquaintance? Hell yes, you say! Especially when you've hardly tasted African food, let alone cooked it or cooked anything like it. God I hope I don't screw this up. I'm going to look like a real ass if I can't pull anything out of the Google archives to pretend like I know how to make.

Moroccan food? No, that just seems like a cop out to me. Ethiopian food? This city is littered with semi-adequate renditions of the cuisine. I wanted to attempt something a bit more unique, something the other guests were unlikely to have experienced. After plenty of research I stumbled upon a South African recipe for something called Bobotie. The dish sounded perfect. Minced lamb, ground beef, and an entire myriad of spices I couldn't wait to experiment with. Tumeric, curry powder, ground ginger, mustard seeds, ground coriander: a veritable pantheon of flavor inducing giants (yes I stole that from Iron Chef)! Although I am still uncertain of how exactly to pronounce the title of the dish, I would manage to slowly transform the ingredients before me into an enormous, gastronomically evolutionary meatloaf. With, of course, an oddly delicious vinegar based sauce. 

After the long drag that was my 10 hour work day, I brought myself to purchase and carefully prepare each of the components that were to come together the following day to rock my world. Granny smith apple, toasted slivered almonds, dried apricots, sultanas, yellow onion, minced garlic, shaved lemon rind. Running my knife gently across my cutting board time and again, smiling at the prospect of the stunning amalgamation to come, was all slightly arousing. The sights, the smells, the knowledge that I was about to create a meal like I'd never cooked before. I was up for a couple of hours, chopping, slicing, sautéing onions with curry powder and tumeric. Oh the smell! That bright, alarming yellow. This was going to be good. Sleep came easily once I'd thrown all of the meat into the pot with the onions, mixed in the fruits and veggies, and smiled widely at my stained and fragrant fingers. I couldn't wait for the day to come. 

This was to be mind-blowing.

There were exactly 2 hours from the time I would get home from work to the time I had to leave. I would butter the pan, shape the loaf, throw it in the oven, and start the pot of red wine and balsamic vinegars (infused with dried fruits, mustard seeds, garlic, onions, almonds, and tumeric) on the stove. Time to jump in the shower and pray that nothing exploded while I tried to beautify myself. Stepping out, I could smell nothing but vinegar. I added countless cups of sugar in a desperate attempt to sweeten the sauce I wouldn't have the time to reduce as much as I'd liked. Take the dog out, come back and spin the loaf. Rummage through the piles of wrinkled clothing to find something suitable to wear, and then whisk together the mixture of milk, salt and egg that was to bake atop the Bobotie. Coat the loaf for a final bake, run to apply my minimal make-up and pour the Blatjang into a large container to cool rapidly in the freezer. Finally I had a moment to breathe and relish in the aromas that had conquered my apartment. My mouth watered in anticipation. I was confident, and good thing because this was the first meal I would ever serve without sampling. 

Looks well enough, doesn't it?

Running out with a thin towel that I'd hoped would protect my leather seats from the staining liquid that would inevitably destroy them, I was ready. And I was excited. And my car was filled with a scent that I can only describe as happiness. 

I wish I'd taken photos of the atmosphere I was about to walk into. It was perfection. A cozy, meagerly decorated home that was so engaging and welcoming. A comfortable kitchen full of good food, irresistible smells, and new people who were the furthest thing from shy in the most beautiful way. I made my way slowly to the backyard where the feast would be held and nearly lost my mind. A giant tree stood in the middle of the yard, surrounded by tables set with modest candles and quaint tableware. New friends stood around chatting comfortably and preparing themselves for the culinary enlightenment to come. 

A gorgeous scene.

We filled the table slowly, bringing out one dish at a time. This was food created by people who didn't necessarily live to cook, but just loved food and appreciated good people. We all wanted nothing more than to contribute to this unique event. Peanut stew, raw carrot salad, some little cookies that looked like dog treats but enriched my palate with a delicate spice that I'd never before experienced, a meaty, orange dish that was spicy in a way I never knew was possible, my Bobotie with Blatjang, and a spongy tangy bread called injera with which to soak it all up. 

I mean would you look at that?

This was a culinary awakening for me. Look at that plate. These people, people I'd never met and who weren't generally concerned with cooking, would craft one of the best meals I have ever experienced. The secret? Improvisation. The lack of concern with technique or perfection. The love of the gathering and the joys of commiserating with others over a plate of good food that would silence our woes and foster enjoyment. Our ability to live in the moment as the food from the plate hit our lips was something I had never experienced. We drank, we ate, we talked openly about things I haven't mentioned to even my closest of friends. I was stimulated. Gastronomically, intellectually, emotionally. This is what I'd wanted from my culinary expeditions. For those around me to enjoy what I'd prepared and for me to enjoy all they had to offer. We must have more of these indescribable potlucks. The challenge, the invigoration, the intrigue. These are the things that appeal to me most, and for now, I live for the hope that these experiences will continue to be plentiful in my future. And yours.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Company Review: Austin Crawfish Company.

So as the self-entitled coon ass and queen of Cajun food you all know I am, you might be surprised to hear that I somehow stumbled upon a provider and preparer of crawfish in the ATX that could actually pass for the stuff of the gods we have back home in The Big Easy. 

Lovingly and knowledgeably crafted crawfish is, to put it lightly, the most glorious food known to mankind. The primal  cracking and tearing of the shells from the flesh; it brings a reflective individual back to the way food is meant to be enjoyed. There's not a Crescent City native out there who would hesitate to suck vigorously on the just-separated heads, extracting every last bit of the savory, lip-burning juices hiding inside. I'd yearned so long for the slow smolder that exacerbates the skin on my face and arms as the spicy liquid is flung wildly about in my carnal attack of this, my favorite food. 

My stubborn stupidity and false sense of superiority kept me from sampling the Texas boiled crawfish that surrounded me for six long seasons. But this year was different. Finally accepting that financial obstacles and an overeager work schedule would prevent me from visiting my beloved home for yet another indeterminate period of time, I broke down and explored some of the local fare. My first experience with Fatback Boucherie reaffirmed my concerns with peeling back my Cajun shell and letting these Texan impostors into my culinary fortress. Those little crawdads were sad. They were small, dry and lacked any sense of spice whatsoever. I mean really, what self-respecting "Cajun" cook would allow himself to put out something like that? I'd be ashamed. Let the wusses  and the mama's boys cry their salty tears. I am Jillian, queen of cayenne! Can't take a little spice? Stay the hell away from my proud Cajun kitchen. Even Luke has learned to choke it down and let my soul food embrace him, slowly building his tolerance for all things spicy. I am proud.

Sigh. So after sloshing down the most disenchanting crawfish in America, my spirits were low. But, against my better judgment, a friend of mine compelled me to consider the work of another Austinite crawfish purveyor. I was skeptical but willing, as I had become desperate for the fortifying experience that is pillaging a bucketload of expertly prepared crawfish. 

Drew mentioned that after 10, these crawfish were free, an unsettling prospect to be sure. But at this point, I was determined. I had to have my fix. So here I was, at a lesser known bar on the outskirts of downtown, at 10 PM on a Monday evening. This seafood experience was either going to kill me, or it was going to change my life. 

Walking out to the dusty yard that is the Lustre Pearl hang out spot, I got a good feeling. It just seemed right. Picnic tables sat sporadically, sheathed in white paper and topped with a roll of paper towels and a large tin bucket. To my left stood a glorious platform supporting two boilers, each the size of a six-person hot tub (I'm told they can decimate 1,000 pounds of crawfish at once!). And the best part? The moment I was caught glancing around for my friends, I heard a friendly, "You look like you could use some crawfish!" "Yes, yes I could." So we chatted briefly about my previous disappointments, and I couldn't even begin to recall his response, as I was too engrossed in the pounds of crawfish, potatoes, corn and sausage being heaped into a to go box before my eyes. 

I mean really, this is free?

Now that's more like it! I didn't bother to wait for my friends to arrive before digging in face first. I'd finished half of that thing before any of them even arrived. And let me tell you, I had no shame. They found me in a state of complete ecstasy: lips and cheeks and hands all dripping with the sweet, spicy juices I'd yearned for; my bucket already half full with the dismembered carcasses of those sacrificed for my pleasure. These were the crawfish I knew. Flavorful, wet, spicy, and to be truly enjoyed only in the absence of all manners. 

Spritely New Orleans music seemed to encourage me as I threw my un-mussed friends into the filth that is the appreciation of Cajun food. Only one was hesitant to drain the hellish juices with her lips, until my dirty little voodoo shook her soul. Nothing felt better than to confidently impress upon them a piece of my home. 

And it's all thanks to these precious babies right here.

As well as Austin Crawfish Company, of course. You guys have brightened my heart with a worthy taste of New Orleans.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Restaurant Review: Trio at the Four Seasons

Trio. Those of you who've heard of it may know that they are known for their seafood, their steak, and their wine, but I gotta tell you, after my experience, Trio seriously needs to reconsider at least one of those self-proclaimed claims to fame.

This was my final stop on my tour of the supposedly premier Austin foodie destinations, and I had high hopes. All week I'd  been looking forward to expertly prepared seafood, expecting to appreciate the tasty meat of the sea like never before. Nothing could have prepared me for the crushing disappointment I was about to endure. 

Driving up to the hotel was initially promising. It was beautiful, a place I could never imagine affording for even a night. I dragged my decrepit Volkswagen onto the driveway between a shiny new Lexus and an enviable Escalade, cringing in unavoidable embarrassment as the sound of my front bumper dragging on the ground seemed louder than ever. My discomfort grew as we realized the only parking option was through valet, my voice cracking as I apologized to the doorman for the condition of my ride. I couldn't help but hear the hatred in his voice as he tried to reassure me. "Don't worry about it, sweetie. We accept people from all walks of life." Why did I immediately feel like I was entering a recently integrated country club? This was going to be interesting. 
The inside of the hotel was a breathtaking display of modern architecture. Cat and I descended the elegantly carpeted staircase to the restaurant, where we were greeted by a gaunt and timid hostess, guarding the vast glory that lay behind her.  Glistening hardwood floors, ambient lighting falling softly on the faces of the rich, enhancing the work of their spa technicians and plastic surgeons. I so did not fit in here. But hey, I was a hungry foodie in pursuit of an exceptional meal. I deserved to be there just as much as the Botox infested mummies surrounding me. 

Our meal began as Sean, the waitress' assistant greeted us with enthusiasm. Things were looking up. He didn't know we'd arrived in a puttering pile of junk. He didn't know I could barely afford the the highly discounted meal we were about to enjoy. It felt good. I liked this undercover mini-life I'd come to live for the next couple of hours. If only the meal to come would have been as magical as I'd anticipated. 

At least my date was a total hottie. 

First stop on my baffling journey of underwhelming seafood: crab gazpacho. I love gazpacho and was as giddy as a schoolgirl at her first junior high dance to have found it on the Restaurant Week menu. 

It looked delicious enough.

Beautifully presented and garnished, I ogled at the dish like it was my eighth grade boyfriend in his adorable little bow tie at our homecoming dance. That night would end devoid of the satisfaction of the sweet first kiss I had longed for, and this first course would dishearten me no less. An establishment illuminating itself with the false promise of fresh and gratifying seafood really ought to serve crab that presents with enough flavor to outshine a simple cold tomato soup. It did not. No matter how hard I tried, I could find but a trace of the briny taste of the sea I so love and craved. Diving deep into the soup that is notoriously difficult to screw up, I wondered how it was that this Zagat-rated calamity could do just that. The soup itself tasted as though the chef had poured a sizable quantity of lime juice into some marinara, shredded some cucumbers, thrown it in a bowl with some distressed crab meat and called it a dish. I was not happy. 

Ok so my appetizer wasn't great. That's alright, Jillian, keep an open mind. Because you have a gulf steam pot headed your way: grouper, clams, shrimp, chorizo, all steamed together, sharing an experience in the pot, while maintaining the unique character of their individual flavors, right? Wrong. 

It looked well enough, I suppose.

As soon as the steam hit my nostrils though, I knew something was horribly wrong. The broth was disconcertingly sweet in a way I couldn't imagine complementing the precious ocean jewels. Nonetheless, I dug in, optimistic that the flavor would trump the fragrance. Screw my optimism. I was right. I should trust my instinct. Clams first down the hatch. Not too bad because as a meat that doesn't exactly soak up a lot of liquid, I didn't catch the full effect of the aversive broth that would destroy the rest of the plate. The chorizo, dryer than any sausage I've ever tried and sliced ultra-thin, was inedible, or certainly not worth ingesting at least. Sigh. Time to move on to the jumbo shrimp. They looked promising enough but would provide me no respite from the terrible meal I was making every effort to enjoy. It was made difficult by the insipid, rubbery shellfish, embittering my soul with every painful bite I choked down. And this wasn't even the worst of the whole ordeal. The grouper, the bottom of the pot, the fish that would soak up a grotesque amount of the repulsive fluid that surrounded it, that would be the worst of it all. One bite of the filet, and I knew my meal was over. On the plus side, I was finally able to put my finger on the unsettling flavor of the broth: it tasted as though the run off produced by rinsing the shrimp had been captured, reserved, and combined with a flavorless oil to create a slippery, troublingly sweet and altogether unpleasant broth that destroyed absolutely everything it touched. A brief wave of sympathetic embarrassment for the chef washed over me as I realized that this would be the only dish I couldn't bring myself to clear from my plate over the entirety of Restaurant Week. And it wasn't because I was too full. I was actually disgusted by a plate that had been served to me in a supposedly top-notch establishment. 

I'd have to appease my insatiable desire for good food with a few small bites of the 14 ounce ribeye Cat had ordered. The char on the outside of the meat was perfect, providing that glorious crunch expected from a good steak and leading into the succulent, juicy center. 

Served with 5 different steak sauces of course. 

The problem is that the steak was good, not great, and we only really liked one of the five sauces. It was far more enjoyable than the dish I'd abhorred, but it definitely was not enough to save my overall assessment of the place.

A couple of desserts were to follow, sadly destined to perpetuate my less than respectful view of Trio. 

Beautifully presented, devastatingly unimpressive. 

On the left are PB&J S'mores, which I'd hoped would bring some sense of the gourmet to the picture, but once again, I'd be crushed. The reddish-purple blobs are heaps of an unimpressive jam. The peanut butter cookie beneath that mound of whipped cream was burnt beyond edibility, and I had found yet another plate here not to be cleared. The dessert on the right was markedly more palatable, but that's really all I can say about it. I mean come on, in that little jar is a mediocre slab of pound cake, some vanilla flavored whipped cream, and some fresh berries. Although based on the rest of my meal, I guess it wouldn't be too surprising if they managed to somehow screw that up too. 

Really the only saving grace at Trio was Sean, who seemed genuinely concerned with my hardly ruffled entrée. Despite my pleas, he brought out the manager, chef, and waitress to speak with me. I've never been the type to make waves in a restaurant, nor have I ever expected anything complimentary when I was displeased with a meal, but I appreciated it as it came. The service really was fantastic here, and I enjoyed the freebie booze so much that I don't really remember enough about my dessert gratis to write about it objectively.

The little trio sure was adorable though.

The overall lesson here? Don't necessarily expect the locally acclaimed food to live up to your expectations. Try it for yourself with an open mind, and don't be ashamed to disapprove of the food you're served. But most importantly, if you want to open an expensive restaurant with less than desirable food, slap it onto a hotel where repeat business isn't necessary. Betray the tourists and pray that new ones will just keep on coming. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Restaurant Review: Trace at the W Hotel

I know it's been beyond annoying for you as the readers, but I have to say, I couldn't be more pleased that I waited until I was good and ready to write this review properly. In all honesty, I wasn't expecting too much from the first 2 restaurant I visited during Austin Restaurant Week, so I thought it might be nice to wait until I had tried each of the second two to write their reviews. Little did I know, the experiences would be so entirely different, one exceeding all of my wildest expectations, and the other, well you'll have to wait and hear about that monumental disappointment until the next posting. 

As it turns out, my experience at Trace at the W Hotel would be the best I'd have all week, and I'd venture to say it just might be the best culinary experience I've had, well, ever. My expectations were extremely high, as my friend and former coworker now works as a chef at Trace, and I sought to crush his haughty arrogance (as any friend would) with my overcritical tongue. Although I am quite annoyed with my inability to make but one criticism of my experience, I can't really say I lost. After all, Trace did provide me with the best meal of my adult life. And really, who could argue with that? 

I need to learn to set a table like this. 

From the moment we walked into the Hotel, Luke and I were shot into an immediate state of discomfort, although not as unpleasant as it might sound. He and I just simply aren't accustomed to the life of the rich, so adjusting to something so lavishly beautiful was a bit of a challenge, a challenge to be thoroughly enjoyed with a fancy (and potent) cocktail in hand. 

We'd agreed to order different things for each course of our glorious meal so that we could each relish in the unique and delectable flavors of more of the plates offered here. My chef friend David daringly recommended that I try the gumbo for my starter, knowing full well that I am a Cajun girl, born and bred. The disappointment I expected, however was not to come of this wonderful bowl of shrimp and andouille gumbo. 

It's rather true. Happiness IS a warm gumbo. 

I was immediately pleased to recognize the familiar garlic bread served with all gumbo in the homeland. Things are looking, and smelling, pretty good so far. So I dig in. Luke catches me speechless. Oh my goodness, a restaurant outside of Louisiana can actually make a decent gumbo! The roux was perfectly browned, and the spice was unreserved. Each bite was bursting with the flavors I'd known and loved so long, and yet missed so dearly since Katrina wreaked havoc on my home. The texture was impeccably balanced, and the shrimp, perfectly cooked, something I would not be able to say for any of my other Restaurant Week experiences. The only qualm I'd have was with the andouille, and even that was acceptable. But hey, I'm a coon ass, and this is the only area in which I can claim to possess any sort of expertise. That rich, delicious, slow-smoked wonder was missing from the my favorite sausage, and it seems as though the butcher was shy with the fat, a notion I am not at all familiar with. Fortunately though, the perfectly cooked coating of flour and lard, seasoned with a carefully-balanced slew of Cajun spices, would save the slightly bogeyed andouille.

Somewhere between my rapid shoveling of gumbo from bowl to mouth, I found the time to taste Luke's roasted beet salad, another dish with which I would be unexpectedly pleased. 

You'll have to forgive my poorly lit camera-phone photos. 

In the past, I haven't always been the biggest fan of these overly sweet and starchy roots, but the distinguishable flavors that arose in this dish as a result of the slow roasting of the beets is nothing short of fantastic. The pecan vinaigrette and the pickling of the beets provided a tang that helped cut through some of the sweetness, and the dressing combined with the fried pecans sprinkled over top harmonized to accent the earthiness of the ingredients. I doubt if I will ever be so content to eat beets again in this lifetime. 

Following the enormous success of these appetizers, our anticipation of the entrées boiled ferociously, spilling over as the gorgeous plates were set before us. Allow me to begin by saying that I have absolutely never enjoyed a piece of seafood cooked as beautifully as the scallops I would proceed to cut through with but the lightest pressure from my silver fork. I relished in every facet of this experience, thanking the gods that not one of my senses was impaired at this moment. 

My plate was beautifully presented.

The familiar smells of fresh seafood filled the air, the scallops cut like butter with the smallest of efforts, and the flavors of each of the ultra-fresh ingredients shone through brightly with each bite. The scallops were seared to perfection, presenting with that light crunch chefs train over for years. They rested gracefully atop a fluffy cauliflower purée, and baby cauliflower was dispersed over top. A grapefruit and caper pan jus lightly punctuated the dish, aiding in its flow as one delicious story. Never could I have dreamt of this unique combination of flavors, and yet I was somehow deemed fortunate enough to devour it. 

Luke's dish proved to be wildly different from the one that rested delicately on my intricate place mat, but for me it would be yet another gastronomic epiphany. In sampling his main dish, I was about to consume my first gnocchi and the freshest pesto I had ever enjoyed. The crunchy prosciutto provided a wonderful texture differential to the dish as I melted little balls of gnocchi in my mouth, reveling in the brightly colored, expertly prepared lamb quarters basil pesto. The olive oil was noticeably top-notch, and the basil, fresh and roughly chopped, rather than processed to a cheapened paste. 

If only this silly photo could do it all justice. 

Luckily, each of the plates was perfectly portioned, and we would still have room for dessert as a result. Although I am significantly less versed in the world of sweets, I am certainly able to appreciate them. The lemon tart I ordered was a flawless close to my meal, as it was full of bright, clean flavors and served with a champagne sorbet. The lemon portion of this dish was tart, and I was content with the blissfully understated sweetness. It was accented with tiny balls of strawberry meringue that lent themselves gorgeously to cutting through the acidity of the tart. The champagne sorbet cooled my palette and closed my meal with an obscenely appropriate kiss of lusciousness.

This simple dish may have transformed me into a dessert person.

The pastry chef could not have ended my meal on a higher note, and I don't know if I could have left this exceptional restaurant in a better mood. I can safely say that we have found our special occasion foodie destination for many Austin meals to come. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Working on Reviews

Just wanted to update you and let you know that I am about halfway through my Trace review, but I want this and the next to be particularly thorough. Please bear with me. I appreciate your patience. Hope everyone enjoyed something delicious today!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Blasphemy, you say!

I've just found a crawfish supplier in Austin of which I actually approve. I may have to reevaluate my life in the morning! You'll be sure to hear all about this, and a few of my previous review-worthy experiences tomorrow. I'm sorry things have been a bit nuts lately, but they're about to return to normal, I promise.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Slight Detour: Understanding your Author

So today I wrote this letter to my mother to help explain why it was that I decided to leave school at UT. Although a bit personal, I figured it might be interesting to share part of it here so that you as readers might understand a bit more about me and where I am coming from. It's been an interesting and busy few days, but I will begin posting reviews again tomorrow. Please bear with me. And enjoy!

I had the hardest time putting this into words about 6 months ago when I made the decision, but my experience since then has completely validated the choice I made. Knowing that I always have an easier time getting my thoughts on paper than out of my mouth, I made numerous attempts to write them all down and send them to you sooner, but it never felt like the right time or like I had explained things the way I wanted to. I'm sure it still won't make sense to you entirely, as it is impossible for anyone to entirely understand the personal experience of another, but I aspire to do a decent job illustrating the opportunities I've been afforded and things I've been blessed with as a result of my well-considered decision to leave school. 

Please understand that I have contemplated the consequences of my actions more times than I can count and that I am hyperaware of the things I will be missing out on without my college degree, but for me the benefits have already begun to far outweigh the consequences. Even though I am no longer in school, I feel more educated now than ever before. One of the many deciding factors for me came from my study of existentialism and my newfound awareness of my ability to create a meaningful life in a way that I never had before. At the time I'd really started to notice a disturbing loss of my sense of self, and after plenty of tedious consideration, I understood that my confusion and depression arose in part due to my method of coping with school. It is clear to me that everyone who embarks on an educational journey will handle things differently. Unfortunately my method had always been to hunker down and work, cutting all personal relationships and opportunity for self-reflection out of the equation. I remember Darien (my freshman roommate) making comments about my unwillingness to leave the room and explore the other things college had to offer besides just classes. My personality and learning style made it impossible for me to do anything but bury myself in my studies, and I completely missed out on the college experience as a result. I have always been slightly envious of Cassie and her ability to maintain friendships, participate in all sorts of different groups and activities, and still kick ass in school. She has truly mastered the art of learning through life, while still learning through school, and for this, I know she will be hugely successful.

Ultimately my decision came when I realized that I was missing out on myself and my life as a young person. I had finally found my passion in cooking, but because of school, I hadn't had the opportunity to really pursue the thing I loved most. You know I have had quite the journey, from studying international diplomacy in DC, to switching my major from journalism to biology before school even started, and then settling eventually on philosophy as an interest, but never a passion. I had found something I could tolerate enough to get a degree, but I never felt the spark of true passion that I am undoubtedly experiencing now with cooking. It has been such a joy and a huge relief to finally have a true sense of comfort in the fact that I know what I want to do with my life and have allowed myself to be completely immersed in it. In making the decision to leave school, I have afforded myself the opportunity to saturate my mind with the information I need to get where I really want to be. I have been pursuing leadership positions with Whole Foods, and I have had the time to take a second job at the food trailer, where my boss has become my mentor and has already taught me more than I could have imagined possible. I have found someone in him who has 20+ years restaurant experience and an eagerness to share his knowledge of starting a small business. I finally feel as though my dreams are within reach because I have taken the steps to make them a reality. I have had the time to do research and to experiment with cooking itself. I can't imagine a situation in which I felt more like I was on the path to success and personal happiness than I do right now. For me, this feeling is incredible, and as my parents I know it's what you ultimately want for me as well. 

On top of the sense of meaning I have found through my cooking, I have had the opportunity to improve all sorts of other aspects of my life as well. I finally feel like I have had the time to make true friends, friends that I can see being around forever. You know that in the past I haven't been the one in the family who has had friends that I've stuck with. That person has always been Cassie, and I have always been so happy for her, although slightly jealous. As I mentioned previously, I have always let my personal relationships suffer as a result of my crazy learning style that disallows me to make time for anything else. Although still extremely busy with my studies of the culinary arts, they are all self-driven, and I now have the ability to learn on my own terms, making time to educate myself in other ways. For example, I now have another female (besides Cassie) that I can call my best friend. Her name is Kriscia, and she works with me at Whole Foods. I will have to tell you all about her some time soon, but in a few words, she is one of the wisest and most compassionate people I have ever met, and she has taught me more than she will ever know. It feels wonderful to have finally found it in myself to really allow those sorts of people into my life. 

A burden has been lifted that has allowed me to open myself to all of the most beautiful things in life. I have learned so much about the people around me and their personal experiences, each of which has helped me to reflect upon my own and make the changes I want to see in myself. I have become more contemplative than ever, and the world around me has become such a glorious place as seen through my new, brighter eyes. My relationship with Luke is at a new high, as I have had the energy and good fortune to really get to know him better than I ever thought possible. That man is truly amazing and really has my best interest at heart. After two years of dating, I have finally been able to open myself to these realizations, and it is clear that each of us has benefitted as a result. We have found real companionship in each other, and damn does that feel good. 

Although seemingly less monumental, I have become so much more aware of the world at large as of late as well. I listen to NPR religiously and have become more versed than ever on current events. It feels incredible to actually know what's going on outside of myself and to have the opportunity to understand society at large. I'm hoping that this understanding will help me to make positive changes in my community in the future. 

In short, I believe the decision I made to leave school has been the best decision I could have possibly made for myself. I am in the midst of self-discovery, and I have never been more open to the things I am capable of in this life. I vowed never to find myself lazy as a result of my departure from the world of formal education, and that is a promise I have more than stuck by. I am taking advantage of the opportunities around me, and I have every intention of absolutely running with them until I just can't run anymore. 

I left out a bit of the more personal prose at the end of the letter, but I hope this has given you some perspective of the journey I'm on. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Long Day

At times life in the food industry can be exhausting, like when you work yourself 14 hours per day 3 or 4 times a week. But hey, these are the things we do to get where we want to be. Unfortunately I am too tired to write the review I wanted to for Trace this evening, but it will certainly be coming your way tomorrow evening. I'll be visiting my final Restaurant Week establishment for dinner tomorrow as well, so there is still plenty more to come! Thanks for hanging with me and being such loyal followers. I promise not to let you down. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Restaurant Review: Max's Wine Dive

In my effort to fit as many restaurant experiences into the three days I would be available for Restaurant Week, there would have to be at least one I'd visit for lunch rather than dinner. After hours of meticulous consideration of each of the possible menus, I settled upon Max's Wine Dive for my mid-day meal. I don't think I could have chosen better. The patio overlooking downtown Austin was the perfect location to enjoy this sunny spring day with a glass of wine, some gourmet comfort food, and a couple of friends. 

Yes, that is my friend's baby food spoon behind my Venue Chardonnay. 

We began our meal with the MAX 'n Cheese, a dish that sounded incredibly amazing on paper, but would turn out to let us down upon actually sampling it. The pasta was tossed in truffle cream, fresh mozzarella, white cheddar, Gruyere and Grana Padano cheeses, which sounds like it should be absolutely exploding with flavor. But while the modified mac 'n cheese was extremely creamy, we all agreed that it was disappointingly bland, like the pasta hadn't been drained after it was boiled, watering down what should have been a flavor-packed sauce.

Fortunately, the meal was to improve with the next course. 
The Pulled Pork Stuffed Peppers we were about to enjoy would make the entire meal for me. 

I mean check those babies out!

Right away the presentation of the peppers caught my eye, and I had a feeling they would be something special. The two carefully-placed piquillo peppers were stuffed with juicy pulled pork and cotija and rested lightly on top of a chipotle aioli and a drizzling of cilantro chimichurri. The peppers sliced effortlessly with just my fork, and it was easy to get a little bit of everything in each scrumptious bite. The chipotle aioli was bursting with flavor and worked with the chimichurri to provide a surprising level of spice to the dish. The piquillo peppers lent a lovely sweetness to the plate, and the pork played its role as fatty protein with true elegance. The only thing I might have changed about the plate was the salt content in the pork. To me, it felt like the pork itself could have been seasoned with a slightly heavier hand. Nevertheless, this delightful appetizer had me excited for the main course to come. 

I'd heard endless rave reviews about the gourmet grilled cheese and tomato soup at Max's so I absolutely had to try it when it landed on the Restaurant Week menu. The sights beaming at me from the plate in front of me had my hopes high for the flavors I was about to experience. 

Doesn't that just look like grilled cheese and tomato soup at its best?

I dipped into the soup first, the tanginess of which was exquisite. I found it to be perfectly seasoned and absolutely delectable, despite the paste-like texture. I was not to be as pleased with the grilled cheese though, which was seriously lacking in the cheese department. The bread was obnoxiously thick and difficult to bite into. When I did tear it apart, I found that there wasn't nearly enough cheese on the bread, and the pimento cheese that was there was entirely too rich, making the entire sandwich difficult to eat. 

Feeling a bit unsatisfied, we decided to take a chance on some dessert, ordering the Pineapple Upside-Down Bread Pudding and the Hot Fudge Sundae, the first of which tasted like a bar of soap to me, and the second of which was unacceptably dry. 

Disappointing that something so tasty looking could turn out to suck so badly...

Although my meal with Max's Wine Dive was a bit inconsistent, I can't say it's not a place I will return to. The atmosphere really was fantastic, and the service was upbeat and friendly. I had an excellent time with my friends there today, and there were certainly aspects of my meal that were impressive. I just hope that if I do return to this establishment in the future, the culinary experience will prove to be more consistently extraordinary. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Restaurant Review: Siena Ristorante Toscano

Tonight's dinner marked my first meal of Austin Restaurant Week 2012, and overall, I was certainly not disappointed with my experience at Siena Ristorante Toscano. Although the building itself was a bit tricky to find, it was beautiful and inviting once we arrived. I couldn't help but ignore the fact that we'd spent 30 minutes making U-turns on the highway, and make the choice to relish in the elegance of the establishment. 

Doesn't looking at the outside get you so excited about the food?

Being led through the bar to our table was an experience all in itself. The inside of the restaurant was absolutely gorgeous and completely set the mood for the dining experience my girls and I were about to have. Luckily they promised not to mock me for photographing everything I could.

The lighting didn't allow for much, but this should give you an idea.

Although I don't know nearly as much as I'd like to about wine, I did enjoy the lovely 2008 Lucente Toscano that I decided to treat myself to over the course of my meal. For my appetizer, I decided to go with Cozze in Bianco, a lovely plate of mussels sautéed in white wine, garlic, basil, and lemon. 

The flavor here was wonderfully balanced, but unfortunately there were some issues with the plate. First of all, I had a few empty shells on my plate upon service, and one of the shells was completely unopened, signifying its death prior to the cooking process. Seeing the unopened shell caused me to question the freshness of the mussels and the care taken in the preparation of the plate. A conscientious chef would have taken the time to remove the dead mussels prior to cooking, or at least made absolutely certain not to serve something like that to a guest. Luckily the flavor was not lost as a result and I was able to enjoy what did make it to my plate. 

I could not have been more grateful to dine with 2 lovely ladies who had no trouble sharing their meals because it gave me the opportunity to sample the plates I hadn't chosen to order on my own. Christina started with the Pancia di Maiale, a slow roasted Kurobuta pork belly, served with charred brussel sprouts, crisp onions, and a blackberry-juniper gastrique. Upon sampling it, I found myself wishing I had ordered that instead. In the past, I generally haven't appreciated pork belly, as I tend to find it overly fatty and unpleasantly textured, but to my surprise, that was not at all the case here. The pork cut effortlessly with a fork, but not as a result of an overpowering fat content. The bitterness of the charred brussel sprouts perfectly complimented the simultaneous sweet and tartness of the blackberry-juniper gastrique, while the fried onions provided the variation in texture that brought the whole thing together for me. This little bite from heaven gave me hope for my relationship with pork belly yet. 

For our second course, the 3 of us all ordered the same thing: Capellini con Gamberi e Capperi, a Capellini pasta dish with shrimp, tomato concasse, capers, garlic, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and cracked red chili. 

Just gorgeous isn't it?

For the most part, I was very pleased with this course. The tomatoes were incredibly fresh, with a perfect tartness that dominated in flavor. There was an excellent balance of capers and garlic scattered artfully across the pasta, and the basil gave that pleasant little punch every few bites that let you know the flavors had been well considered by the creator of the dish. I really appreciated the slow burning spice that showed up as I neared the end of the dish as well. My one issue with this course was with the doneness of the shrimp. I found them a bit overcooked and rubbery for a restaurant of this caliber. Knowing that the shrimp I cook at home generally has a juicier, more enjoyable texture makes me feel great about my own cooking, but left me wanting something more from this upscale restaurant. 

Luckily my meal was to end on an extremely high note with the delectable desserts coming my way, and the crazy women I was fortunate enough to enjoy them with. 

Check it. Can you tell we dine finely often?

Each of them ordered the Tiramisu, which was highly anticipated for me, considering the last Tiramisu I'd had was sinfully dry. I needed a good one to renew my faith in the Italian dessert, and tonight, I was not disappointed. It was delightfully moist and light, and the coffee flavor was perfectly balanced with the creamy marscapone. The shaved almonds provided a wonderful crunch that put this particular Tiramisu over the top for me. I am eternally grateful for my generous friends who were willing to share their desserts with me. They really made my night. My Torta di Cioccolata proved to be an incredibly satisfying close to my meal tonight as well. The fluffy, chilled chocolate was light and perfectly sweetened. I appreciated the fact that neither of the desserts were too sugary and that this one was topped with a little pile of tart cherries, working in perfect harmony with the rest of the dish. It was a gratifying close to a remarkable meal.

What a marvelous beginning to my first Austin Restaurant Week! I cannot wait to see what the next few days have in store for me.