Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bites and brew in Austin

As is the case with all of my wife and I's getaways, this past weekendwe tried to discover some Austin food and drink establishments that we'd not had on previous visits. Save for the pilgrimage to Franklin Barbecue, everywhere else we tried was a new experience. Sufficiently stuffed with brisket and with 7 o'clock comedy show tickets, we decided on light bites at Lenoir to tide us over. I'd heard quite a few promising things about the restaurant, which has a very small dining room (think Oxheart size) and a wine garden behind the restaurant that offers small plates made mostly on their backyard grill.

Upon arrival, we went around back to the quaint bar/grill area to place our order and get drinks, a local but forgettable beer for me and riesling for her. Advertising half off on food during their 5-7 happy hour, the wine garden menu was beyond affordable. If I were to have a slight gripe about Lenoir, it is that the happy hour food is so generously priced (our three dishes cost $12 dollars) that it makes the drink menu - which is not discounted during happy hour - seem out of balance price-wise. Our two drinks cost more than our three food selections. We were not the only ones in the garden to notice this oddity, as the couple seated next to us asked one of the servers if any of the wine was half price, only to be told in an all too typical Austin hipster way "Umm, we think these prices are happy hour prices all day."

We chose a bean chaat salad and smoked snapper crostini to share, and a chocolate pot de creme with shortbread, pistachios and grapefruit for dessert. While waiting for our food, we both remarked on how serene the backyard area of Lenoir was. You have the option of high backless box-like stools upon which to sit, or you can park your kiester straight on oak logs covered with blankets. Lenoir provides a tucked away vibe despite the fact that you're only steps away from busy First Street. The food was well executed but not revelatory. I would love to try a full meal at Lenoir sometime to see how they pull off larger, more composed plates, but the wine garden options were a perfect quick nosh.

Clockwise from top left: bean chaat salad with spicy yogurt, smoked snapper crostini, chocolate pot de creme, decor and seating in the wine garden

On the way to our show we needed a coffee fix. Having read good things about Houndstooth Coffee, we stopped in for a caffeine jolt. I ordered a flat white, which was not listed on the menu but I'd read they would make if you asked. While they definitely used a quality bean, there was far too much milk in the drink.

The next morning we debated on a few different breakfast choices until we settled on the downtown farmer's market on Guadalupe, which was walking distance from our hotel. We made the rounds to visit all of the different vendors before deciding on a few items. First up was a couple kolaches from the Zubikhouse truck: goat cheese and fig preserves with sage and brown butter, and a simple beef sausage. The bread on the beef sausage was sweet but balanced well with the savoriness of the sausage, and the goat cheese and fig was delicate and flavorful. Goat cheese can be an overpowering ingredient, but was tamed down to make a great combination with the other components. Houston, we need a kolache truck! The second place we sampled was Dai Due, which seemed to be one of the most popular vendors at the market. We both had Mexican coffee which was solid, and I chose chicharrones and yucca blossom tacos with green tomato and lamb quarter salsa served on corn tortillas. Unfortunately, this dish was unsuccessful. The beauty of chicharrones is the salty crunch, and the heavy handed inclusion of the salsa turned the chicharrones into a soggy mess. The yucca blossoms provided an interesting flavor combination, but were a bit hard to eat inside such a small taco.

My wife, ever the good sport, acquiesced to my request for one last barbecue venture. For those that don't follow along on Twitter, the last four weekends have been smoky in my world. One large cookoff, the Houston BBQ Festival, a barbecue get-together at home and the previous day's Franklin voyage should have been more than enough for any normal person, but I'd been wanting to try Micklethwait Craft Meats for quite some time. After informing her of their homemade moon pies, she gave me the thumbs up to stop by. We arrived right at the 11 am opening time and received our food within an hour, a breakneck pace compared to the day before! Micklethewait's brisket was impressive and pork ribs were well smoked, but their homemade sausages have become their trademark and they did not disappoint on this day. The day's sausage was pork belly boudin blanc. It had a good bit of smoke and was packed with flavor. Another highlight from the Micklethwait visit were the exquisite jalapeƱo cheese grits. I think I have a new favorite barbecue side. The moon pie was delicious as well, though that was saved for the next day's breakfast.

Left to right: the Micklethwait trailer, Texas BBQ trinity of brisket, ribs and sausage, moon pie.

Once again full, we headed west to check out Jester King Brewery, located on the western edge of Austin close to Dripping Springs. Located off of 290 on top of a hill, Jester King is a secluded gem I wish I had in my city. Tours and admission are free, and Jester King offers drink options from different breweries and wineries as well as their own beers. It is a fantastic way to spend a beautiful afternoon, with or without children as the brewery is extremely kid friendly. There is even an onsite wood fired pizza place should you feel so inclined. If you're a fan of darker beer, I highly recommend their Black Metal Imperial Stout if you can get your hands on some.

The sprawling grounds of Jester King Brewery

Our next two stops were at Texas wineries, which I recommend much more for the scenery than the wines. I do wish our state's climate was more conducive to grape growing, but I guess we can't have it all! Our last meal was at Pieous Pizza, a new up-and-comer on the Austin pizza scene. We opted for  a simple white pie with arugula and prosciutto which was well made but had a bit more greenery than needed. Out of sheer gluttony we opted for a slice of banana cream pie which ended up being one of our best ordering decisions of the weekend. The crust was amazing and I'm quite certain we'll be thinking about it for some time to come.

Great chalk art lining the walls of Pieous Pizza | White pizza with arugula and prosciutto

Austin's food scene has some similarities to Houston, but I feel our city's cultural diversity makes for more wide ranging options. This is not meant to compare the two in some silly Austin vs. Houston rivalry. I love visiting this city, and experiencing all it has to offer. But Houston is home, and nothing beats homemade.

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