Where to eat in Austin right now: Top spots for fresh summer dining
This month, we take a look at some summer favorites for laid-back neighborhood dinners with a fine-dining appeal, new menus with a bounty of local foraged favorites and newcomers to Central Texas barbecue royalty.
Foreign & Domestic
My biggest problem with Foreign & Domestic is that I live nowhere near its North Loop location. I’ve found that when I have an available night to dine out, I usually attempt to check something off the ever-growing list of new Austin restaurants. But just like old friends you haven’t seen in a while, you have to make time for the good things in life — which includes restaurants like Foreign & Domestic that have yet to fail at delivering a beautifully executed meal in a friendly neighborhood setting.
Perhaps it was a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but on a recent visit, I felt chef/owners Ned and Jodi Elliott had managed to somehow make the experience even better. Seasonal ramp risotto was creamy and silken. Irish sea trout was perfectly sautéed and tasted of the sea with a delicate carrot purée and bathed in a vermouth-fish broth. And fried chicken and biscuits — with the obligatory fried egg on top — is a soulful dish that makes a girl proud to have been raised in the glorified South.
Save room for Jodi’s special coconut cake or decadent banana-chocolate mousse served in a mason jar and topped with a soft peanut butter cookie. Both are proof that this formally-trained pastry chef knows how to make things taste just like home.
Freedmen’s opened late last year and has managed to comfortably slide into the West Campus scene as a barbecue stronghold with a slew of smoked meats to be reckoned with. Heading up the kitchen, and the pit, is Chef Evan LeRoy who has a handful of notable New York restaurant kitchens to line his resume, but it seems barbecue is something this guy was born to do.
From pork and beef ribs to duck breast and, of course, brisket, LeRoy’s thick and peppery rub melds perfectly to the meat, giving way to punched-up flavor and beautifully tender meat. (Consistent showings on two recent visits.) Save room for sides. Grilled cabbage slaw in a cider vinegar dressing brings a nice hint of smoke and acidity to cut the fatty component of the meats, and smoked beets with goat cheese and balsamic glaze are a nice treat offering at least the “feeling” of healthy eating.
But it’s all a wash if you finish with a sweet helping of the smoked banana pudding, a barbecue dessert staple to say the least, but one with the clever additions of smoke, peanut brittle and bacon.
Having far exceeded the expectations of your average hotel restaurant, Trace continues to evolve as a regular favorite among downtown diners at the W — especially with a full-time forager on staff seeking out the best in local produce, a world-class pastry chef in Janina O’Leary and a new executive chef in Lawrence Kocurek. The must-try finds on his new dinner menu include house-made charcuterie with options of silky house paté, smoky duck rillettes and Italian-style fruit mostarda. A colorful beet salad offers a playful arrangement of beets with an herbaceous goat-cheese mousse, and a unique center cut of ribeye gets the “filet mignon” treatment prepared sous vide, finished with a char on the grill and served Kocurek’s own zesty “K-1” steak sauce.
O’Leary’s imagination runs wild on a dessert plate bringing together a happy variety of ingredients to play nicely together in dishes such as a tangy Meyer lemon budino with toasted tufts of marshmallow, a light Champagne sorbet and strawberry-thyme meringue drops. And if downtown is your site for weekday lunch, Trace’s “Lunch on the Fly” is a steal with soup, salad and choice of sandwich — veggie burger, smoked brisket or blackened redfish — for only $16. (Add fresh, warm doughnuts to-go for only $4.)