Austin's dining scene saw a number of great openings — and a number of delays — in 2014. While food fans heard news of new projects from David Bull (Boiler Nine), Team Swift's Attic (Wu Chow), Rene Ortiz (Launderette) and Drew Curren (Italic), those have all been pushed back into 2015. But the delays didn't exactly hurt the scene; dozens of new restaurants lit up the city this year.
We've found a number of new restaurants this year that are well worth your effort (if you can find the time and money to try them). In no particular order, here are our six favorite newcomers of 2014. (Note: Just-opened eateries — including Gardner and The Peached Tortilla — were not open in time for review.)
Blackbird and Henry
While the name was new, longtime foodies knew that Blackbird and Henry was for real when Mark Schmidt was announced as the chef. Schmidt's highly lauded Café 909 drew diners all the way out to Marble Falls for five years, so the idea of a follow-up in Austin was intriguing. Schmidt's approach here is both Texan and international — there are proteins like duck, leg of lamb, and braised rabbit, but both Indian and European accents sneak into the mix.
We're fans of brunch items like the egg masala with okra and the chicken schnitzel with sunny side up eggs and home fries. Lunch items like the lamb leg grilled cheese and the crispy oyster po'boy are also winners, and are well worth a visit when you're in the campus area. The wine list here is quite affordable and mostly European, while the beer selection is small but well-curated. For cocktail fans, both Broker's gin and tonics and Sazeracs are available on tap.
At first glance, laV doesn't seem like it should work. The formal feel and elegant room seem worlds apart from the East Seventh Street location. After you settle in, you begin to realize that this is the point. LaV is an experience: it's a special occasion place, but one that does allow you to dine at reasonable pricing if you choose carefully. The restaurant attracts a moneyed crowd of regulars drawn in by the wine list, but they stay because of the kitchen.
For an ideal introduction, bring a table of four; order the wood oven chicken, two or three appetizers, two small plates, two sides, and a bottle of wine like the $55 Lioco Carignan. For $50 a person, you'll sample a wide swath of the offerings without breaking the bank, and you'll get the experience and service that ranks among Austin's very best. Don't sleep on Janina O'Leary's desserts, which are both comfortable and creative. We're sorry we were skeptical, laV. You're a winner.
When the term "Southern food" is thrown around, most people think of items like fried chicken, grits and gravy. Olamaie's "garden Southern," though, runs counter to expectations. From extolling the virtues of hen in the woods mushrooms and field peas to presenting Maryland crab in a salad of Carolina Gold rice, corn pudding and Tabasco, the restaurant brings a unique point of view to Austin.
One important note: on our visits, the small plates portion of the menu has proven to be the star. During a recent visit, we simply ordered one of each (for a table of six) and passed them around. From tartare to sweet potatoes to catfish, all were impressive and large enough to share. The main courses can be a bit trickier, but on our most recent visit, the broccoli and dumpling and blackened Mahi Mahi dishes were on point. The wine list is affordable, and the drinks are strong. All told, Olamaie is something new for Austin, an ambition that should be rewarded.
When Jesse Griffiths talked of plans for Dai Due, we imagined something rustic. Instead, the modern but comfortable Manor Road spot offers an elevated experience while still sticking to Dai Due's locavore mission. We like the power dining takes on breakfast items like the brown rice bowl with kimchi, kale and fried egg, as well as lunch items like the pastrami with homemade pickles.
Dai Due is also having a lot of fun with theme nights: there's a ladies steak night on Tuesday (for just $10!), Gulf oysters on Wednesday for $12 per dozen, Gulf seafood night on Friday, and fried chicken and fixings on Sundays. Griffiths loves to teach, cook and butcher, and his spirit shows in this restaurant. The conversation flows, the vibe isn't stuffy, and the neighborhood is lucky to have him. The restaurant doesn't feel like a work-in-progress — it's fully formed and mighty impressive.
Noble Sandwich Co. — Burnet Road
The team at Noble Sandwich Co. had the benefit of experience before opening the second location. Large picnic tables, patio seating and counter service set the tone for the restaurant, which offers great scratch cooking at affordable price points. They have fresh bread, homemade pickles and brined meats, yet menu items are all $10 and under.
Our favorite sandwiches include the duck pastrami, the seared beef tongue, and the red chili braised pork cheeks. All have loads of personality, moderate portions and a depth of flavor rarely seen at an affordable lunch counter. In 2015, Noble Sandwich Co. will be open for dinner as well — all the more reason to drop in if you've not already.
Veracruz All-Natural #3 and Radio Coffee and Beer
We visit Radio and Veracruz more often than any other spot in Austin, and for good reason: they're near us. There's ample evidence of South and Southwest Austin being underserved despite a big audience, but spots like these are opening to massive business. Radio's friendly baristas, curated tap list, and extensive patio seating have proven to be a huge hit. (If you go and find fewer than 50 people there, we'd love to hear about it.)
The coffee bar's live music has been a hit, as has the "no Wi-Fi at night" policy to free up tables for conversation and revelry. The partnership with Veracruz is also ideal. Our move is to order tacos, grab a coffee and head for the patio. The Veracruz truck excels at migas, which has been well chronicled, but don't miss the fish tacos, which are among the best in the city. Other than finding parking, we can't find fault with this duo. Other entrepreneurs should take note — 78745 is a gold mine for the right ideas.