Last weekend New York Times chief wine critic, Eric Asimov visited Austin for few days at the invitation of Lake Austin Spa and Resort for a special culinary series and in many ways to catch up on Austin since his last residence here as a post-grad student in the 80s. As Asimov soon found, a lot has changed in Austin in the past 20 years—and all for the better.
The heralded wine and former food critic had the chance to acquaint himself with the nationally-acclaimed luxury destination resort and aid them in a special culinary tasting showcasing cuisine of their heritage with chef Corinne Trang author of Noodles Every Day and Essentials of Asian Cuisine featuring items with an Asian flare, chef Hoss Zare of Zare at Fly Trap presenting flavors of Persia, and Lake Austin Spa’s new executive chef Stéphane Beaucamp serving classic examples of French fare.
"When you’re talking about wine and food for a bunch of people, precision is the enemy of fun. If you’re too up tight about it, all you do is find flaws and problems." - Eric Asimov
Chef Stéphane Beaucamp
“Cervelle de Canut” (herbed fromage blanc) on Crostini
Seared cumin-crusted sirloin with Merlot blueberry gastrique
“Far Breton” with prunes (mini crepe cakes)
WINE PAIRING: Joseph Drouhin Saint-Veran, 2009 (Burgandy, France) and LaPostalle Cuvee Alexandre Carmenere (Chile), 2009
Chef Corinne Trang
Edamame and corn salad with walnut-miso dressing
Sour Mango Salad with five-spice pork
Tiger shrimp with sweet and spicy peanut sauce
WINE PAIRING: Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris (Oregon), 2009 and Barons de Rothschild Pauillac (France), 2006
Chef Hoss Zare
Cucumber linguini with smoked trout
Kashk Bademjoon (pureed roasted eggplant on crostini)
WINE PAIRING: Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre (France), 2009 and King Estate Pinot Noir (Oregon), 2009
Though working for much of his stay here, Asimov did have a chance to check out a few Austin hot spots and get a pulse on the direction Austin’s food scene has taken in recent years. After listening to him explain the effects of the great phylloxera (grapevine pests native to North America) on the entirety of European wines in the late 19th century to a gathering of ladies clad in spa robes and slippers, I stole a moment with Asimov to catch up on his thoughts on Austin.
CultureMap: In your short trip to Austin, did you have a chance to try a few places to eat?
Eric Asimov: Yes, I ate at Franklin Barbecue, which was really good. I’m a big barbecue fan and I’d heard so much about it that I just had to try it. I loved it. I also ate at Barley Swine. It was good too, but not all of the dishes there really came together for me. We ate at Fonda San Miguel with the other visiting chefs here the other night. It was quite a scene. We sat in the big table in the middle of the lobby and had a great time. The food was fine, but it was more about being in that great atmosphere.
I also spent some time at Congress. I wasn’t able to eat there, but had a chance to speak with June Rodil [Congress Sommelier] for a while. Her wine list there is fantastic. She’s just terrific and I was very impressed with her knowledge and palate. I also had a great cocktail at the bar. They’ve got a great place over there and I look forward to trying it one day.
I have to say that the food here at Lake Austin Spa is great too. I had a chance to taste what the new chef is doing and I’m very impressed.
By no means was I able to do a thorough culinary tour of Austin. There is a LOT for me to come back and try. I really wanted to try Foreign & Domestic, but there wasn’t any time. I just can't believe how much the city has grown as a food city. When I was in graduate school at UT in the 80s it was nothing like this. You could get good barbecue and Tex-Mex, but that was about it.
CM: Tell me about how you selected some of the wines for the Exploring World Flavors tasting at Lake Austin Spa.
EA: We have three French, two American and one from Chile. They’re all great value wines. One that I’m particularly fond of is the Oregon Pinot Gris from Willamette Valley Vineyards. I think Pinot Gris from Oregon is one of the most underrated wines. It’s a great value and they’re just so fresh and young. They’re just beautiful.
This is sort of a rough pairing. When you’re talking about wine and food for a bunch of people, precision is the enemy of fun. If you’re too up tight about it, all you do is find flaws and problems. The truth is food is so versatile and so are wines. They go with a lot of different things.
With food you have a lot of different flavors. If you think about having dinner at home, you don’t have one flavor on your plate, you’ve got a meat, a starch and vegetables and a salad. You’d drive yourself crazy trying to pick just one thing that goes with everything. You need to pick something versatile and then just enjoy being with your family and friends drinking good wine.
CM: Have you had a chance to try any Texas wines while you’ve been here?
EA: Texas wines are really hard to find in New York, and I really wanted to have a chance to visit a few vineyards while I was down here. But I’ve had to work most of the time during my stay. Unfortunately, it’s not really a vacation for me.
I’ve had wines from Becker Vineyards in the past and those have been nice. I have had a Texas Riesling that I thought was really good, but I can’t remember the producer. [Asimov and I believe we narrowed it down to the Merrill’s Vineyard Riesling from Messina Hof.]
I will say I think that many of the regions that are unexplored as far as American consumers are concerned hold a lot of potential. I’ve had great Riesling in Michigan. Upstate New York makes great wine as does Virginia. I always tell people to keep their minds as open as possible and taste these different wines. They shouldn’t write them off because they haven’t heard of them.
CM: In the next couple of weeks, I’m writing a story on the state of fine dining in Austin. Living in New York, do you feel the concept of fine dining has changed at all? Do you think it’s dead? Or just redefined?
EA: I would say that it’s been evolving for about 25 years. I would say the era of top restaurants being defined by formal service is long gone. You still see that and restaurants like that, it’s a joy to experience that kind of pleasure. But they’re very few and far between. In the same way that men don’t dress up in suits and ties and a hat to go on an airplane or to work every day. And women are not wearing dresses and suits and so restaurants have loosened up a little bit. It’s great to have a place like that for when you are in that mood. In New York you have pioneers like Danny Meyer who pioneered the idea that everyone could be more relaxed and looser without being casual and service at his restaurants is impeccable. But it’s not uptight.