Austin’s Eastside Cafe–From farm to table in one step

Road trip! I’ve been in Texas for the last ten days. On Thursday afternoon when I got into Austin, my friend Nancy and I went off to her neighborhood cafe for dinner. What a treat! Eastside Cafe manages to re-create, in the middle of urban Austin, the farm-to-table experience some of us remember from our grandmother’s garden cooking.  A lush acre or so of densely planted garden plots and a shaded chicken coop yield a harvest that travels only a few feet to the cafe kitchen, and then only a few more steps to our plate.

My grandmother was a very practical woman; she marshaled her flowers and vegetables like a garden militia in straight furrows an acre long. But the Eastside gardeners play!–Look how their plots swing along toward the parking lot, a little tipsy, about to lean on each other’s shoulders or brace each other on a hip.

The menu incorporates the garden produce where it can, but also offers a wider range of beautifully prepared dishes. We started with a gazpacho (did I mention that it was over 100°, even at 7:00 in the evening?–a cold soup was a GREAT idea). The corn muffin that came with it was light and crumbly–perfect.

Nancy had the chicken and spinach crepes with a yellow curry cream sauce, served with apple chutney, broccoli with lemon butter, and mixed greens with a lemon tarragon vinaigrette. (I stole some forks-full; delicious!) Because my body thought it was two hours earlier, I wanted a lighter supper, so I had the grilled Ruby Trout with shiitake mushroom ginger cream sauce. (It also came with the broccoli; plus, notice the mint leaves, straight from the garden.) Moist and flavorful–what a pleasure!

Once we looked at the dessert menu, it turned out that we had room after all–chocolate mousse pie, garnished with a flower from the passion vine growing out back. Our server was great! I made a note of her name, but I haven’t found it just yet; I’ll update this when I do. (This just in!–Courtney, known by the cafe gang as CC.) She was very pleasant and helpful (and knowledgeable about food blogs!). We didn’t stop by the gift shop, but if we had, we could have bought preserves and other products from the cafe’s garden.

I’ve been to the Eastside Cafe several times now over the last decade or so, whenever I’ve found myself in Austin. I’ve never been disappointed, but this time I was especially pleased! And the word seems to be out; later that night, talking to an old friend about where to have lunch the next day, his first thought was “what about the Eastside Cafe?” Great idea!

Find out more about Eastside Cafe here: http://www.eastsidecafeaustin.com/index.html

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Osteria La Spiga

Osteria La Spiga lives comfortably at the intersection of Old World and New–the menu, with accents of the authentic culinary traditions of Emilia-Romagna, is presented in a setting that speaks a contemporary Northwest dialect of polished wood, exposed brick, and structural steel. The expansive dining room resolves into more intimate settings defined by beams, glass, textures, booths and “cubicles.” In rustic counterpoint, a weathered Italian sideboard anchors the service area, reminding you that the preparation of your meal actually began many years ago in the old kitchens of Emilia-Romagna.

And the food is as appealing as the setting. Last Sunday, a friend and I had a lovely dinner there. Soon after you are seated, a basket of homemade flat bread arrives: a dense chewy bread, Piadina (the menu tells me) is vegan. You can eat it plain (as we did) or dress it with olive oil (you have a choice of two!), balsamic vinegar, or truffle oil (ordered a la carte).

For the antipasto, we had prosciutto-wrapped figs filled with mascarpone and drizzled with saba (a grape must syrup), served with arugula from the chef’s garden. The plate was dotted with a nice reduction of balsamic vinegar, and the figs were sweet-savory, with a pleasing mix of textures. I love arugula; this version was young enough for only a hint of pepper beneath its smoke, and the dressing was light enough to let the flavors through.

(Last time I ate here, we had the Fritto Misto di Pesce for the starter–fried calamari, shrimp, and sardines; the current menu offers the dish with bay scallops instead of sardines, accompanied by a salsa verde dipping sauce. I would have ordered it again, if we hadn’t managed to snare the very last serving of the beautiful figs.)

Primi

We came hungry!–we ordered two primi. I went with the Tagliatelle Verdi al Cinghiale: green tagliatelle with a wild boar and white wine ragu. It wasn’t an easy choice. On my last visit, a friend had the Tagliatelle al Burro di Tartufo (tagliatelle noodles with white Alba Truffle butter), and I sneaked a taste–a lovely, rich sauce. But I’m glad I tried the boar ragu; the ground meat was delicate but added a distinctive earthy note to the wine sauce. You want to pay attention to this pasta! It is hand-made daily on-site. (You can watch; the pasta room, behind the sideboard, has glass walls.)  If you are like me, you usually cook with dried commercial pasta, which has a uniform texture and thickness and bland taste. Say hello to pasta with character!–This pasta has a rustic shape and texture that holds the sauce in a very different and satisfying way.

For the other “first,” my friend had the Gnocchi al Pomodoro: potato dumplings tossed in the house tomato sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano. I had this dish last time and loved it. The gnocchi are very light, and the tomato sauce is absolutely to die for–delicate, aromatic, flavorful.

Secondi

We shared a single order of the porchetta (slow roasted pork shoulder with rosemary, sage and fennel seed served with fennel alla Parmigiana). The plating under-sells this wonderful dish; even a sprig of parsley would have brightened the presentation. But don’t be deceived; you are about to taste a dish that is anything but bland. The first clue was that it was served with a spoon. After having roasted low and slow over-night, the meat fell apart into moist chunks at the first touch. I would have told you that fennel wasn’t among my favorites, but the fennel seed and mild braised fennel worked like a wonder with the flavor of the pork. (I couldn’t get enough! Unfortunately, it is bad manners to stab your table-mate’s hand, so I had to make do with my half.) We rounded out our meal with a serving of Polenta Fritta:  fried polenta wedges with a thin crisp skin over a light creamy interior. Classic!

As it happens, my stepson Ezra works at La Spiga, and in his typical top form, he brought us each a taste of vin santo to end our meal. He explains: “the drink I brought you was a vin santo from Tuscany (as all vin santos are) made from the
left-overs of grapes used to produce chianti.  It’s called ‘ Occhio di Pernice,’ which means ‘eye of the partridge.'”

Here’s Darliene, who was maitre ‘d this evening (vamping for the camera–you go, Darliene!) And here’s my stepson Ezra, the floor manager, who was bartending on Sunday. (I couldn’t get a money shot of him–he wouldn’t stay still!) For some reason (because I was totally focused on my plate?) I didn’t take a picture of our server Miranda. She did a very good job for us–unobtrusive but somehow there when we look around with a question.

I’ve had dinner at La Spiga several times now, with various of my opinionated and outspoken foodie friends (you know who you are). The consensus is: great food and very good service. Does it help that Ezra is my stepson? Probably!–but get acquainted with him and Darliene and the rest of the staff–they’ll take good care of you too. That’s the fun of having a place that draws you back again and again, where they welcome you every time.

La Spiga, owned by Sabrina Tinsley and Pietro Borghesi, is on Capitol Hill in Seattle, on 12th Ave. between Pike and Union.  http://www.laspiga,com.

Joule’s high-wire energy

Last night, a friend and I had dinner at Joule, the restaurant in my Wallingford neighborhood “curated” by Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang. (You met Rachel back in April–she masterminded one of the menus for the Food Bank Gourmet fundraiser.) Rachel was cooking, so we sat at the counter to watch as she and her two cooks calmly fed dish after  dish into the waiting hands of the bustling servers. The place was packed (those two empty stools at the counter?–we had just vacated them, and two people from the scrum by the door are nanoseconds away from taking them over). The small-plate format makes for lots of action, but the atmosphere somehow stayed relaxed. Our server Nora materialized right when needed to trade full plates for empty ones, answer questions, and generally be pleasant and helpful.

And the food! In the language of physics, a joule is a unit of energy. How do you measure the energy of a restaurant and a menu? Joule excites your palate with unexpected preparations and pairings of ingredients stocked from a global pantry. What at first reading might seem exotic becomes inevitable (and delicious!) on the tongue.

The menu is organized around “Flavors: Abroad,” “Flavors: Native,” and “Flavors: Collected” (a family-style supper of seven dishes). We didn’t travel out to the edgier regions–no grilled beef tongue with Chinese celery pesto and caramelized fish sauce, no seaweed butter or grilled octopus cocktail. Even so, we found plenty to delight us.

The asparagus salad combined shaved raw asparagus with arugula, walnuts, and basil yogurt. The earthiness of the curls of raw asparagus and lightly peppery arugula was balanced by the sweetness of the nuts and the smooth cool yogurt. We followed that with the spicy beef soup with leeks, daikon, and crème fraiche. The beef (chunks, not strands!) was tender and tasty and the broth kicked up a nice tingle. The killer plate for me, though, was the Joule BBQ (short rib steak, sweet chili sausage, and grilled kimchi)–the ribs pink in the center and succulent, the moist sausage balancing sweet chili, char, and spicy sauce in your mouth, and the (low-wattage) kimchi adding a clean touch of sour and crunch.

I couldn’t skip the “Joule box,” tapioca pearls with grapefuit brulee. (If tapioca is on the menu, I order it; there’s just something about the feel of those silky tapioca marbles in my mouth.) This version had Thai notes of lime and coconut milk. We watched the cook blast the grapefruit sections with his blowtorch and wondered what would arrive on our plates; the result was a surprisingly subtle sweet kick to the tartness of the fruit.

Joule works with some pretty high-wire concepts but doesn’t put a foot wrong in offering great food with surprising, delightful flavors, textures, and presentation. This summer they are doing a Sunday series of BBQ, as the menu says, “inspired.” I’ve missed the Backyard, Hawaii, Seatown, Thailand, South, and Korea menus, but I’ve still got a shot at Greece, New England, Vietnam, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Japan. Stay tuned!

A great crêpe place in Baltimore

This Sunday I found myself with a day to kill in Baltimore before catching my flight back home, so as usual I started off by scouting out a good restaurant or two. And I found a little gem just at the bottom of the hill in the Mount Washington neighborhood where I was staying! Crêpe Du Jour (www.crepedujour.com) is a cozy place with a lightly French ambiance, pleasant  decor, and (judging by my waiter) low-key but knowledgeable staff. And crêpes!–both savory and sweet (as well as a small survey of other bistro fare).

I went with the Crêpe Lorraine, a nice combination of (thin!) asparagus spears, brie, and prosciutto, with flecks of onion to balance the earthy flavors. It arrived at the table scribbled with an aromatic balsamic reduction; each ingredient had enough presence to say hello to you on its own before blending back into the crowd. A very nice dish!

(My plate was decorated with a drawing of the Eiffel Tower. Would it be too completely obsessive to wish that the bottom of the crêpe had been planted at the bottom of the Tower? Instead, the packet appeared to be standing on its head. Or, the Tower appeared to be stabbed into the ground!)

Gertrude’s at the BMA–another notable museum restaurant

What is going on with museum restaurants?–Long the domain of staid upholstery and starched skirts, lately they seem to be showing a lot more ankle! The current case in point, Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where I had an early supper (or was it a late lunch?) last Sunday.

The BMA is noted for the Cone Collection, a gift from sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, daughters of a prosperous late 19th-century owner of a grocery store. After their brothers built the family business into a huge textile company, “Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel” spent a good chunk of the family fortune on art, guided at first only by their own superb taste and then later by their good friends Leo and Gertrude Stein. Hence the name of this restaurant!

After spending several hours among the many Matisses (Henri was a close friend of the sisters and is well represented), the Picassos, the Modiglianis, and even the Jackson Pollacks, I was ready for a sit-down and a light meal.

Yes, I had the time-honored soup-and-sandwich combo, but it came with a few surprises! The soup was basically a minestrone, but instead of being simmered into gray anonymity,  the vegetables were lightly al dente and fortified with chunks of flavorful crab (this is Baltimore, after all). The sandwich was chicken salad, but made with large moist chunks of chicken breast, toasted slivered almonds, tarragon, and minced red onion on calamata-olive ciabatta bread. And the orzo salad actually stole the show, with a silky lemon dressing and bits of glossy red pepper. Great mix of flavors and textures! (The wine helped.)

The setting also helped! Gertrude’s extends out onto a patio at the edge of the BMA sculpture garden. It was a warm, pleasant day, so I sat outside by the fountain and admired the art as I ate.

After my meal, I wandered around the Johns Hopkins University campus next door until it was time to retrieve my roller-bag and head for the airport. What a nice day!–I’ll be back, Baltimore!