When examining Austin's bevy of 2014 restaurant openings, one common theme emerges from the menus. Regardless of the restaurant's culinary style, a trend toward chef-driven, comfort food is in full effect. The trend manifests in different ways: Olamaie's kitchen paints with clean lines and bright flavors, while Blackbird and Henry uses Indian and European accents in spicing and techniques.
The five restaurants in this month's roundup best embody the idea of the modern classic. All are working with things that are familiar, but each is offering a regional or thoughtful spin on the foods you love. From casual dinners to anniversary date nights, here's where to eat this month.
Blackbird and Henry
We knew that Blackbird and Henry's team was confident in the kitchen when a publicist suggested we stop by at brunch (traditionally not anyone's finest hour). Chef Mark Schmidt had a loyal Austin following from his destination dining work at Café 909 in Marble Falls, and his latest menu has quickly vaulted B&H onto the Austin American-Statesman's top 25 restaurants list just months after opening.
While the name and the focus on meats seem like the concept is a gastropub, Schmidt's menu influences vary wildly. There are some decidedly Indian touches here. The brunch menu has an excellent okra masala with halved hard-boiled eggs and flatbread, while Wednesday nights bring a $20 menu special pairing a craft beer pint and a curry of the day. The rotisserie is also a focal point, with offerings ranging from pork loin to leg of lamb served with triple-cooked fries or vegetables with rotisserie drippings. The North Campus location at 31st and Guadalupe streets is a bit off the main restaurant path (it's near Hopfields, for reference), but the food here is thoughtful and the service is welcoming. A full bar is available, with a short but carefully curated beer list and a lengthy wine list also on offer. The wine program is especially notable in that the selection is broad and a majority of the bottles clock in at under $50.
The resumes of Grae Nonas and Michael Fojtasek are stunning: they've worked in the kitchens of Danny Meyer, Mario Batali, Jon Shook and Vinny Doloto. Mining the roots of Fojtasek's Dallas upbringing and manager Ben Hickerson's Nashville background, Olamaie brings an upscale vision of modern Southern cooking to Austin. Don't think fried: These dishes are reflective of an older style of garden-based dishes served at Sunday supper. Highlights on our most recent visit included a mushroom salad with ham vinaigrette and tarragon ($9) and a wildly complex and flavorful chilled North Carolina blue crab salad with Carolina gold rice, kuri squash pudding, popped sorghum and Tabasco sauce ($16).
Fojtasek has said that his childhood "meat plus three" dinners are a source of inspiration, and the food reflects it with dishes like skillet cornbread with charred cabbage, green tomato and Benton's bacon, along with desserts like pecan pie and sweet potato ice cream. Our favorite current dish, though, is one of the most obscure — don't miss the Smoky Hen of the Woods mushroom main course with braised peanuts, smoky tomato likker and sorghum shallots ($23). Perhaps the heartiest veggie entree you'll ever find, the mushrooms give the dish earth, smoke and heft, and the overall effect is uniquely savory, dark and wonderful. Half Step's Josh Loving consults on the beverage menu, meaning that thoughtful cocktails are within easy reach here.
This brand-new East Sixth Street restaurant just opened Monday, but you're already familiar with the team. Contigo's Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart helm this space, which they describe as "focusing on seasonal vegetables, simply prepared and elegantly executed." You can see the emphasis on the initial menu, which presents in the Eleven Madison Park-style of a highlighted key ingredient up top and accents below. Don't confuse vegetable-focused with vegetarian — this isn't a meat-free zone. You'll find Cornish game hen, Spanish mackerel and various meat fats and accents interspersed through the menu. That said, the vegetables are the focus and star of the initial offerings.
Snacks ($3-5) include complex one-bite dishes like cauliflower with golden raisins, cashews and basil. (Note that the snacks are small and not intended for sharing.) Larger sharable plates include dishes like okra done two ways with fat back (pork), sour cream, almonds and dill. Entrees run the pricing gamut from an $18 parsnip dish with beef fat, smoked mushrooms and capers to a $38 dry-aged beef with zucchini, black garlic and kale that guests rated highly at the recent friends and family opening. The beverage program focuses heavily on low alcohol wines and small cult producers like Australia's Ochota Barrels and California's Broc Cellars. A limited selection of farmhouse beers is also available.
Sawyer & Co.
The crew behind Sawyer & Co. had been quietly cooking in Austin for years. (If you've been to a Supper Friends dinner, this is the same team.) The diner occupies the legendary Arkie's Grill space on East Cesar Chavez and honors its history by offering up casual dining at reasonable prices — only a couple of items cross the $15 mark, while many are under $11.
The diner's angle is putting a New Orleans spin on traditional favorites, so dishes like a boudin scramble and the shrimp and grits are focal points. There are also "choose your own" veggie platters and fried seafood combos with catfish, shrimp and oysters designed as mainstays of the lunch and dinner menus. Sawyer & Co. is also serving a rotating selection of kegged and on-tap cocktails, along with whimsical non-alcoholic drinks like Arnold Palmers and praline iced coffees.
Family-owned Jacoby's has a great origin story. The original location is a cafe and feed store in Melvin, Texas, and when Adam Jacoby left his family home to attend the University of Texas, he decided to someday expand Jacoby's to Austin. After a long search for a location, the restaurant finally came to fruition late this summer with the help of designer Kris Swift. The culinary team used the original Jacoby's menu as a springboard, adding in more elements of seasonality and breaking up the proteins with more vegetable dishes. The resulting restaurant seems like a perfect spot to take either your parents or a first date.
The atmosphere has scored high marks from food writers and Yelpers who dig the nice patio and the design elements of the space. The entree move here seems to be the chicken fried steak with fried okra and arugula salad ($19). Other options include a bone-in pork chop with Hatch chiles, chives and persimmons ($26) and a grilled Texas quail with sweet potatoes, braised greens and crispy okra ($25). The restaurant's wine list leans food-friendly and (surprisingly, given the food) heavily European, although some stray Paso Robles and Oregon bottles make the cut. A local beer selection including Real Ale and Austin Beerworks and a full cocktail program round out the beverage selection.