One of the worst things an Austin restaurant can do in 2017 is be static. Sure, there are neighborhood staples that attract longtime customers precisely because they never change, but they are few and far between. The rest have to court a dining public always hungry for new experiences and increasingly influenced by social media flash. So how does a seasoned Austin restaurant get ahead of the hype? At least one North Loop mainstay is doing it by getting back to the basics.
Local food obsessives have probably already heard the news. In September, original Foreign & Domestic chef/owner Ned Elliott sold his upscale North Loop diner to former Parkside executive chef Nathan Lemley and former Suzanne Court Events executive chef Sarah Heard so that he could expand the brand in Houston and Cincinnati. Although still drawing crowds for its fried chicken and oyster nights, and still earning a perpetual spot on yearly "best of" lists, the neighborhood joint had somewhat fallen off the radars of those who dine for sport, both because of the changing tides of Austin’s hospitality industry and Elliott’s notorious aversion to PR. Eventually, the initial energy seemed to have worn off from the space.
A few weeks into their operation, Heard and Lemley have found a new buzz by embracing that old spirit. Although it is hard to imagine today, in a dining scene that has patrons happily chowing down everything from monkfish liver to cricket miso, Austin’s palate was not yet so exploratory when F & D opened in 2010. Dishes like fried pigs ears with shishito peppers and whole roasted branzino were far from common on Austin menus. And save for a few sushi restaurants, chef’s counters were practically unheard of. Our town owes a lot to Elliott’s pioneer spirit, and it’s no wonder the new owners wanted to build on what he and then-wife and co-owner Jodi Elliott founded.
Compare Elliott’s early menus with Lemley and Heard’s on paper and you might not notice there has been any change at all. In many ways, the chefs are working like fashion designers who have been given a heritage brand — reworking the archives to produce a contemporary line. The decadent gruyere and black pepper popovers are still there and listed at the same price. There’s still creative takes on pasta and unexpected desserts. And snout-to-tail offerings punctuate throughout. But, of course, the next chapter of Foreign & Domestic can’t be written on the menu alone.
That story is told in the way the chef couple passionately collaborate on new dishes in site of the diners. It’s in the way the servers — some who have been retained from the previous iteration of the restaurant — convincingly evangelize. And, oh, is it told in the food itself.
There is a new brightness to the cooking at Foreign & Domestic. A soft egg tops heirloom grains in a sort of porridge with beech mushrooms and sunchoke chips, spiked with the surprise of grassy dill. House cavatelli is served with farmer's cheese and topped with a salad of arugula, shaved raw onion, and tomato leaf. Even the offal dishes — like a recent lamb heart special with braised shallot and risotto rouge — have unexpected sparkle. The desserts are no afterthought, either. The pair experiment with texture and surprising ingredients like Meyer lemon pith, rosewater, and tarragon (all featured in a pan cotta with almond lace).
The new approach to food is reflected in the interior. Again, you might not notice any changes, but they are there, from a white coat of paint softening the formerly turquoise back wall to elegant new fixtures. But it still feels like the same old place — a North Loop gathering space driven by passionate chefs that’s still an Austin essential.