St. Philip has plenty of charm, but pizza snobs should look elsewhere, at least for now
After months of feverish anticipation, St. Philip has arrived. The restaurant, a pizza parlor and bakery led by Uchi culinary director Philip Speer (but named after the patron saint of bakers, they promise), officially opens October 2.
CultureMap dined during last weekend’s friends and family preview to get a first taste of a restaurant that’s sure to be one of the fall’s most high-profile openings. While it's certainly too soon to form firm conclusions about St. Philip, an Uchi project gets graded on a curve based on the expectations diners bring to any project associated with the all-conquering juggernaut of the Austin restaurant scene.
Despite only being three days into service, St. Philip is off to a promising start. The look is clean, bright and inviting, with white brick and light wood throughout the dining room. Diners can look into the open kitchen to watch the chefs work. Long, comfortable-looking benches mark the bakeshop side of the dining room, with simple wooden tables throughout. Bar seating and community tables provide refuge for solo diners.
Service is Uchi-style, which means the servers know every component of every dish and will very thoroughly explain them as each item arrives at the table. It’s friendly and accommodating but feels somewhat heavy-handed in this more casual context. Do we really need to know about the raisins and pinenuts in the fried cauliflower or can we just discover them for ourselves?
The bar features a selection of craft beer and cask wines, as well as beer and wine-based cocktails, like a riff on the classic michelada served with a 16-ounce can of Tecate. Other drink options include sodas, fresh lemonade and draft Stumptown cold brew coffee.
The menu has four sections: shared plates, sandwiches, pizza and meatballs. The shared section contains everything from salads to more substantial items that could substitute as an entrée depending on one’s taste. We ordered a watermelon salad ($8.50), fried cauliflower ($9.50), shrimp pozole ($12.50) and ricotta dumplings ($13.50).
Wanting to explore the menu and take advantage of a good deal, we also ordered two pizzas: a classic sausage pie ($15) and a slightly more unusual wild mushroom ($14). Sadly, the kitchen had run out of the namesake, clam-topped St. Philip. Diners can build a traditional or white pie for $9.50 plus $1.75 per topping.
Finally, we ordered the house pork and beef meatballs in “green” form ($10.50) and the chicken meatballs as sliders on Dutch crunch rolls ($3.50 each).
As expected, the watermelon salad was light and refreshing; it got a little crunch from jicama and a slight spiciness from arugula. We devoured the fried cauliflower, proving again it has replaced Brussels sprouts as the formerly reviled vegetable that everyone loves.
The “pozole” confounded our expectations by lacking soup broth, but the familiar flavors came through in the mix of chorizo and hominy that accompanied the plump, sweet shrimp. Ricotta dumplings were our favorite starter: sweet and slightly crispy with some welcome saltiness coming from the included Serrano ham.
Overall, we thought the shared plates were the most successful items on the menu. I’d come back to try the chicken and churros, yellowtail crudo, steamed mussels and pan-roasted salmon.
“Green” meant the meatballs arrived under a bed of lightly dressed salad greens; our server helpfully provided all three sauces: traditional Italian red sauce, parmesan brodo and red pepper chutney. They were small-ish for the price, but plenty flavorful. The chicken meatballs arrived moist, and the slider roll has an appealing crunch.
Sadly, the pizzas were something of a letdown. The toppings on both pies came together nicely, but the crust disappointed. The dough is relatively flavorless, and it lacked any char or bubbles that mark properly baked pizza. Maybe it was just first-service jitters; a friend who tried St. Philip earlier on Sunday reported his crust had more char. Still, if Speer has decided that his crust is merely a canvas for the flavors he layers on top of it, he’ll earn the ire of pizza purists. On the other hand, people who are indifferent to that sort of obsession may really like them — there just weren’t any of those people at our table.
Desserts are a DIY-affair. Choose a platform (brownie, blondie, cookie, caramelized banana), an ice cream flavor, a sauce and toppings. Speer may be known for his very pretty, unusual desserts, but the man makes a mean brownie, too: fudgy and soft, with lots of chocolate flavor that we kicked up with chocolate ice cream.
Following the suggestion of a painted sign to “Exit through the bakeshop” yields takeaway goodies, like four kinds of cookies, coffee cake, croissants and chocolate-topped waffles. The popcorn cookie delivers on its promise of being sweet and salty, while the croissant had a rich, buttery flavor.
Our total bill with a few glasses of wine and a beer cocktail came to just under $200. We deliberately over-ordered and wound up with a whole pie to take home. Combining a pizza with three or four shared plates and an order of meatballs to feed four people would run about $75 plus drinks. Not cheap, to be sure, but fairly reasonable for the overall quality.
Is St. Philip Austin’s next great pizza destination? Not yet, and maybe not ever. Is it a solid, family-friendly neighborhood spot that feels like a concept the Uchi team could open several of throughout Texas and beyond? Very much so.