In this month’s Austin Best Bites – September ’16, we examine three local originals that are standard setters in their respective genres. We will take a look at latest from the king and queen of Austin dining, the home of a humble food perfectly executed, and another variation from a local restauranteur that never fails to impress.
In a city full of talented kitchen pros, none have the track record of chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki. They first teamed at La Condesa, transforming Mexican cuisine into creative dining in a town that often regards it as mere comfort food. In 2013, they moved on to open Sway, featuring Thai as expressed in Australia. All along the way, it was Ortiz’s multilayered flavor profiles coupled with Sawicki’s creativity and inventiveness that made her dessert menus the best in town.
Now, in Launderette, they are in charge from beginning to end, and the city is the winner for it. Ortiz’s complex rich flavors continue, now not bound by a single cuisine. Every plate on the menu couples unexpected combinations of taste and texture. On our recent visit, we started with a perfect example – fried olives. The crunchy breading contained the cumin flavored sausage, with an anchovy flavored aioli topping and a subtle dressing of Aleppo pepper, all combining in a perfect paean to the Mediterranean.
Our mains were just as perfect. Susan is a mussel-holic, so her choice was easy. The PEI mussels were floating in a rich broth, unbelievably punctuated by salty serrano ham, the radioactive green castelvetrano olives, and a spicy green Serrano chile butter. The dish is just one example of Ortiz’s deft touch in creating blends where the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.
After living in Germany, I am a sucker for a well prepared schnitzel, and Launderette’s didn’t disappoint. The thin pork culets were lightly breaded, fried to perfection, then served in a rich buttery stock reduction.
Visiting here and not having a Sawicki dessert is borderline criminal. Our choice was the profiteroles. Classic choux pastry shells enclosed the customary ice cream, in this buttered toffee. The balls were seated on a bed of rich caramel, with toffee and chocolate bits sprinkled alongside. This dish shows why Sawicki has won many awards, named 2012’s Best New Pastry Chef by Food & Wine magazine and was a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award nominee for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Launderette is in, appropriately, a former coin laundry in rapidly gentrifying East Austin, at 2115 Holly Street. Reservations are only available for their large tables seating seven or more. It is an experience worth waiting for. They weren’t name a Food & Wine 2016 Best New Restaurant, or made a James Beard Foundation award finalist for no reason.
When Business Insider named Austin’s Hopdoddy #1 among the nation’s best burger joints, you could hear cynical eyes rolling across the country. Ordinarily, I’d be among them. But I’ve eaten there enough to say they might be right.
You have to love a place that takes simple items like burger and fries, and says we will not compromise on a single ingredient. But do you love it enough to wait in lines that may approach 30 minutes at peak times? The answer is much the same as it is about Austin’s other monument to over-popularity, Franklin Barbeque. At either, the key is to not view the wait as only a wait. It is the chance to make new friends, send an emissary to the bar for some drinks, and just chill. After a couple of their Lil’ Prick prickly pear margaritas you forget you have a watch. Sound good?
Once you’re inside, you are greeted with a deceptively simple menu. Thirteen burgers, including chicken, tuna and vegetarian. Three salads and fries round out the food choices. Plenty of drink choices, including shakes and a wide range of draft beers, wine, and a full bar.
The burgers start with the $7 classic and go up from there. My favorite is the Llano Poblano – Angus beef, a big chunk of seared poblano chile, Tillamook pepper jack, Applewood bacon and chipotle mayo.
Another excellent choice is the Goodnight Good Cause. The Goodnight part is the Angus Beef, covered with Tillamook cheddar and caramelized onions. Add heat with sliced Jalapeno, and cool that off with a slightly sweet hickory BBQ sauce. The Good Cause part is the $1 donation from every burger sold to Lone Star Paralysis.
Hopdoddy’s mothership is at 1400 S Congress, with parking in the garage in the rear. Three others are in Austin, with four more in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. They’ve even spread the love to Southern California, Phoenix and Denver. We believe it is nice to share your toys with other kids.
We have a few restaurateurs here that have mastered consistently applying their creativity and excellence of execution across multiple cuisines. But no one is better at the concept than Shawn Cirkiel. After training at CIA and stints working for Daniel Boulud and at Domain Chandon’s Napa restaurant, he returned home to buy into an existing bistro. That led to several new openings, the latest of which is Bullfight.
Not surprisingly, Bullfight is a Spanish restaurant. The space is characteristically warm and sexy. The menu has all the expected standards – tortilla, paella, papas bravas, and gazpacho. A nice assortment of grilled seafoods and meats round out the menu.
But that’s not what we are here for. We are here to sample the Spanish themed drink menu, with inventive creations combining the typical sherry and cavas with unexpected ingredients like lavender blossoms. We started with the Doña Rosa – sherry based, with lavender infused simple syrup, sweet vermouth and topped with bubbly Spanish cava. Susan stayed with that, but I had to try the Ahumado, a smoky blend of moonshine and mescal. Not much Spanish about it, but simply fantastic.
The snacks were decidedly Spanish. We started with olives marinated in orange and garlic while we examined the menu. For the first go, we had the boquerones – Spanish sardines. I had them before in Spain, where they are served whole, dusted in flour then quickly fried. These were filleted, poached and skewered along with olives pickled mild peppers.
Next, we moved on to jamon croquetas and torreznos. The croquetas were just what you’d expect, and preferctly executed balls of chopped serrano ham blended into a béchamel, breaded and fried. The torreznos were a little more off the beaten Spanish path, and excellent. They were slices of pork belly roasted in a slightly sweet chili sauce.
Another tapas classic, bacalao fritters were served with a garlicky aioli. These salted cod fritters were perfect with our drinks. The aioli made distinctive a dish that easily slides off into bland obscurity. Another exquisitely executed experience courtesy of Mr. Cirkiel.
Bullfight is just north of downtown Austin at 4807 Airport Boulevard. Reservations are available on Open Table. Like all of the Cirkiel restaurants, it features one of the best happy hours in town from 5 to 6:30.