Sunday, April 24, 2011

Spring 2011 Austin Restaurant Week: Sunday Brunch at Garrido's

I really enjoyed this year's Austin Restaurant Week.  Unfortunately, it had to end on a so-so note.  I checked out my very first Garrido's Sunday brunch and thought that the food didn't come close to the awesome ARW kick-off party.

First, when we were seated, the ARW brunch menu was no where to be found.  When I asked for it, the wait staff did not know about whether they were even serving an ARW brunch though it was clearly listed on the website.  Our kind waiter went on a search for the ARW brunch menu but could only find their ARW lunch menu.  He offered to look the menu up on the ARW website, but luckily, I did my homework and memorized what everyone wanted to order. 

Free Chips and Salsa

The most prominent difference between the ARW brunch at Garrido's from the meals I have had at other restaurants participating in ARW is that the portions of each course is cut down.  I ordered the queso because I enjoyed it tremendously at the kick-off party, but the queso came in a condiment cup that was smaller than the one containing the complimentary salsa!  Seriously?  The pork quesadilla was underwhelming.  The filling was a bit too mushy and bland.  In contrast, the mushroom quesadilla was quite tasty.

Pork Quesadilla with mango pico and tomatillo-habanero salsa

Mushroom Quesadilla with ancho crema and cilantro

Tiny cup of queso

The main course was a big improvement from the generally lackluster appetizers.  The snapper blt was light and fresh.  The bacon helped make this dish.  The lamb sausage omelette was a bit heavy on the cheese, but pretty good.  The lamb sausage tasted almost like chorizo.  The smoked salmon was pretty standard.

Snapper BLT Tacos with habanero aioli and pico de gallo

Lamb Sausage and Cheese Omelette with asadero cheese, caramelized onions

Smoked Salmon with cilantro cream cheese, capers, and cucumbers and toast 

Well, the meal got progressively better with dessert marking the high point.  The creme brulee would have benefitted from more mango flavor, perhaps if the creme brulee was infused with mango rather than using just diced mango as an accoutrement.  The Patron Cafe XO was powerful in the chocolate tres leches, which my mom enjoyed.  My favorite dish of the meal was the zucchini bread pudding.  Zucchini doesn't really have a strong smell or taste, but somehow, you can really pick out the fragrance of the zucchini in this dish!

Creme Brulee with habanero mango honey

Pastel de Calabaza (Zucchini Bread Pudding) with lemon crema

Patrón Café XO Chocolate Tres Leches with chocolate whipped cream

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring 2011 Austin Restaurant Week: Aquarelle


I always lamented how Austin lacks French restaurants.  We have an abundance of inventive establishments that have successfully woven together a variety of culinary traditions, but sometimes, I get a hankering for authentic cuisines.  Ever since I left Paris, I haven't had another experience comparable to L'Os à Moelle's amazing prix-fixe dinner in the U.S. 

My first visit to Aquarelle last Friday brought back a hint of that French magic, the bright colors and palatte of the dishes leading up to the main course, the uncomplicated taste of a piece of well cooked meat against the backdrop of an exquisitely balanced sauce, and the dainty portion of subtley sweet dessert to bring the dining experience to a comfortable close.  However, the main thing that prevents Aquarelle from capturing more than just a hint of that French magic is the sometimes heavy-handed use of salt and the over-cooking of some minor ingredients.

Austin Restaurant Week Menu

Aquarelle really made it convenient for restaurant-goers by offering their Austin Restaurant Week menu on Thursday and Friday evenings in addition to the regular ARW days.


I love the quiet, cozy yet elegant atmosphere at Aquarelle. It's a slightly sterilized take on French hospitality, but it still manages to be one of the most charming and inviting dining rooms in Austin.

Chilled Asparagus Mousse with Baked Prosciutto

Dinner started with an amuse bouche of chilled asparagus "mousse" with a piece of prosciutto that was baked to a crisp. I was actually a bit worried about cracking a tooth on the prosciutto after producing a hollow wood sound when I knocked my spoon against it. I soaked the prosciutto in the asparagus mousse for a few seconds in an attempt to soften it. That didn't help, but at least it didn't break my teeth when I decided to chomp on it. Although the amuse bouche was light and delicious, the contrast between liquid and solid was a bit much.

Crusty French Roll

The French roll also prompted teeth concerns.  Similar to the prosciutto, the roll made a hollow-sounding thud on the plate.  It certainly didn't quell my toothy fears when the roll felt like a baseball in my hands.  Fortunately, the roll was just a slightly crustier version of the baguette, but it didn't wow me.

Pork Ravioli with apple compote, grilled Swiss chard, almond brown butter

I picked pork ravioli for the first course.  The ravioli itself was cooked just right and it was a very tasty version of the common pork and apple complement.  However, the almond brown butter was overly salty.  It killed the sweetness of the pork and apple.  I usually scoop up all the sauce from a dish, but I found myself deliberately pulling the raviolis away from the puddles of butter on the plate.

Lump Crab Salad with zucchini, ginger and leek vichyssoise

My dining companions' lump crab salad, which was presented in a shallow pool of leek vichyssoise, turned out to be the lighter and more balanced dish, but it was still slightly too salty.

Filet of Red Snapper with chickpeas, tomato confit, kale, and garlic butter

I was super happy that a party of three meant being able to try out all three main course and dessert dishes offered on the restaurant week menu.  I was especially happy when I found out that the main course was the turning point of dinner, and the food started to impress.  I ordered the red snapper, which was perfectly cooked with a crunchy skin.  The garlic butter this time wasn't overwhelming like the almond brown butter on the ravioli.  The tomato confit under the snapper gave the fish a delightful sweetness instead of the expected tartness of tomatoes.

Filet of Flounder with orange orzo, spicy pickled cucumbers, watercress salad, and orange beurre blanc

The winner for me that evening, was the flounder.  The texture of the fish was buttery and tender.  The orange beurre blanc was perfectly light and sweet.  I haven't had a fish this good outside of Uchi and Uchiko in Austin.  The spicy pickles were a bit random.  I didn't quite understand how it contributed to the overall dish.
Beef Tenderloin in Cinnamon Demiglaze with farro, sundried cherries and marscapone, wilted spinach, and parsnip curls

The beef tenderloin was a close second to the flounder.  It was beautifully pink, moist, and tender.  The cinnamon demiglaze was not overpowering.  The focus of this dish was really about the high quality beef.

Lemon Fromage Blanc Tart with raspberries and lemon cream

The desserts were all not too sweet, which is perfect.  I thought that the lemon fromage blanc was going to be like a cheesecake, but it turned out more like a cake in a tart crust. Regardless, it was a very tasty treat.

Profiteroles with rum raisin and chocolate sauce

The rum raisin cream in the profiterole was sublime, but the puff was a bit too tough and chewy.

Nocello Crème Brulee with candied walnuts

The creme brulee was the simplest but the best dessert of the evening.  It was creamy, smooth, nutty, and not eggy.

Overall, Aquarelle has a lot of potential to be a great French restaurant.  It just needs to make each dish consistent, season the ingredients delicately, and watch out for over-cooking.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Austin Restaurant Week Spring 2011: Uchi

When I attended the "Uchi, The Cookbook" signing party a couple of months ago, I was overjoyed to score a $25 gift card when I purchased a signed copy of Chef Tyson Cole's book!  What better way to use it than during Austin Restaurant Week

Austin Restaurant Week Prix Fixe Menu and Sake Social Menu!

I made early dinner reservations because I wanted to be able to get home early to do a boat load of school work.  This turned out to be another great deal because knowing how I can never be satisfied with just 3 dishes at Uchi or Uchiko (see the ridiculous amounts of food consumed during Sake Social and Austin Restaurant Week Fall 2010 at Uchiko and 2008 Chef's Tasting at Uchi), I'm bound to exceed the prim and proper 3 course meal.  I unabashedly added 4 sake social hour dishes to 3 orders of the Austin Restaurant Week prix fixe dinner so that our party of 3 shared 13 dishes.  Yes...3 courses just turned into 13 courses.  I have no self-control.  I got an inkling that this was a wee bit insane when the waiter thought that we wanted to share one order of the prix fixe menu in addition to the sake social dishes.  Nope.  That's not how I roll.

Even with all this food, the bill came out to be a 1/6 the amount I paid for the chef's tasting for a party of 4 back in 2008.  An aweome bargain!  And yet we managed to eat a feast that Louis the XIV would undoubtedly envy.

Zero Sen - yellowtail, avocado, shallot, yuzu, golden roe, cilantro 

Sakana Carpaccio - sliced daily selection of fish, citrus, olive oil 

We started off with the Zero Sen Roll with a sweet and spicy tamarind sauce and the Sakana Carpaccio. Although I've never had the Zero Sen Roll, it tasted familiar and comforting, but did not have the "wow" factor of other makimonos I've had at Uchi, like the Pitchfork (wagyu beef, avocado, caviar, leek crisp) or the Toledo Makimono (big eye tuna, chorizo, fried almonds, grilled garlic) at Uchiko. On the otherhand, I don't think every dish at Uchi has to have a "wow" factor to be considered a great dish. The quality of the ingredients and execution of the dish matter even more than creativity, and I think this is what makes Uchi so consistent. The Sakana Carpaccio was a simple and elegant dish.  The flavor is crisp, cool, and clean.  It's the perfect way to wake up your appetite.

Walu Walu - oak-grilled escolar, candied citrus, yuzupon, myoga 

The next dish was astonishingly amazing.  This teensy weensy, humble-looking "main course" was impeccably cooked.  The escolar was super crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside.  I loved how the super citrusy yuzupon was used instead of regular soy sauce.  This was my absolute favorite of the evening.

Hamachi Baby Yellowtail, (I forgot the type of fish of the sushi in the middle), and the Hotate Spicy Scallop with Avocado

The be-lated first course (trio of sushi)  from the Austin Restaurant Week menu came after the luscious grilled escolar.  Fresh and simple, but it's too bad that this dish isn't conducive to sharing.

Hama Chili - yellowtail sashimi, thai chili, orange

Machi Cure - maplewood-smoked hamachi, yucca, asian pear, marcona almonds, white soy

Next up were the Hama Chili and the Machi Cure from the Sake Social Menu, which turned out to be a great pairing of yellowtail sashimi, one tangy and spicy and the other smokey, crunchy, nutty, and sweet.  I noticed that Uchi is partial to using yellowtail.  I think 6 of the 13 dishes that we ordered had yellowtail!  No complaints here, just an observation.  Well, I guess it's a great occurrence because I just learned from Sushi Encyclopedia that yellowtail is considered a luxury fish!

Bacon Steakie - pork belly, watermelon radish, citrus, thai basil

I had a version of Uchi's Bacon Steakie (twice baked kurobuta pork belly with green apple onion salad and Indonesian soy sauce) in the past, and thus thought that it would be the same.  The one I had in 2008 was sweet and caramel-ish.  Surprise, surprise!  This one is baked or fried to a flavorful crunch on the exterior, and the heavier preparation is countered the flavors of citrus and Thai basil.  I'll take either version anyday. 

Uchiviche - salmon, striped bass, yellow bell pepper, tomato, cilantro 

We never had the Uchiviche, which appears to be a staple dish at Uchi, so we went ahead and ordered it from the Sake Social menu.  This was delicious, but I preferred the complexity of the Machi Cure or the clean taste of the Sakana Carpaccio or Hama Chile.  The salmon had a rich, buttery texture as opposed to the sleek Sakana Carpaccio and Hama Chile.

Hamachi Nabe - baby yellowtail, koshi hikari rice, farm egg, soy broth 

The Hamachi Nabe smelled divine even from afar.  I was taking deep breaths to savor the aroma until the last spoonful of rice.

Shag Roll - salmon, sun-dried tomato, avocado, squid ink sumiso 

Craving one more rice dish, we squeezed in one last savory dish, the Shag Roll, from the Sake Social menu.  This was a popular move because our server was balancing 4 wooden planks of Shag Rolls when he set our order on the table.  This is fried makimono done right!  The batter was thin and crunchy rather than bready, soggy, and chewy at the majority of other establishments.  Forget the nasty "Dynamite Rolls" out there.

Jizake Crème Caramel with brown butter sorbet, ginger consommé

Lemon Gelato with pistachios, white balsamic, golden beet 

Coffee Panna Cotta with mango ‘yolk,’ white chocolate sorbet

Ah, dessert.  Uchi's pastry chef, Philip Speer, is a genius.  His creations never taste or look like their names or menu descriptions.  It's always a gastronomic surprise and delight.  I enjoy the guessing game before the dessert arrives in trying to picture how it will be plated, and I relish in the twists and turns of flavors.  We are so complacent about our dessert expectations - desserts are sweet, duh!  Well, I get a wake-up call everytime I taste the desserts here.  There's always some other flavor that balances out the sweet.  The most prominent example is the Coffee Panna Cotta, which is accented with an earthy chocolate and coffee "soil" that is speckled with something that tastes savory.

The lemon gelato was my favorite but is perhaps the more straightforward dish.  I was able to pick up the subtle sweetness of the beet from the glace, but I would've liked to taste more of the golden beet coulis. 

The most impressive dessert dish we had that evening was the Jizake Creme Caramel.  The brown butter sorbet floored us.  It really tastes 100% like brown butter!  On top of the tremendous deliciousness of the sorbet that was sitting on top of some crushed and toasted almonds, the server poured over it ginger consommé.  While cooing over the sorbet, we almost forgot about the star of this dish, the creme caramel!  When we finally got to it, we were treated to one of the smoothest creme caramel (or of anything in the flan category). 

I can't wait to come back for my graduation dinner!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring 2011 Austin Restaurant Week Kick-off at Garrido's!


It's finally Austin Restaurant Week (April 10-13 and 17-20) again!  I've been waiting impatiently for what may be my last ARW to sample restaurants that are still on my yet-to-try-out list.  Just when I finally feel like I'm starting to know a lot about the food scene in Austin, I find myself at the cusps of leaving town.  Well, all the more to seize the day and hit my yet-to-try-out list.

Garrido's has been on that list forever, and I'm glad that I'll finally be able to check it off my list after having its ARW brunch next Sunday.  I got a little preview Thursday evening of the delicious food that I have been missing out on all this time.

Here are some notes from the tasting:

Chips and Salsa

Although I didn't take a picture of the wonderful vat of queso served that evening, I believe Garrido's queso gives Kerbey Lane a run for its money in the vegetarian white queso category.  It is thinner than Kerbey's queso, which helps coat the chips better (queso distributes evenly across the surface of the chip instead of bulking up the dipped part and breaking the chip).  The tomato chunks give the queso a burst of fresh tartness.  I look forward to ordering it for my brunch!

Beef Tostada with Truffle and Beet Aioli

Beef Tostada with Truffle and Beet Aioli

My favorite tasting dish came out right at the beginning.  Like with any dish with truffle in it, I smelled it before I saw it.  Upon being presented the beef tostadas, I was thrown off by the magenta sauce drizzled over the perfectly cooked slices of beef.  Did my nose fail me?  Shouldn't there be a truffle sauce rather than this uncharacteristic red liquid?  It turns out that the beef was dressed in an amazing truffle and beet aioli.  These tostadas were out of this world!  Unfortunately these are no where to be found on Garrido's regular menus and ARW prix fixe menus.  Please let me know if I just missed seeing it!

Oyster Tostadas on Yucca Root Chips with Honey Habanero Aioli 

Oyster Tostadas on Yucca Root Chips with Honey Habanero Aioli

I was excited to see the famous Oyster Tostadas.  I would eat more oysters if all oysters tasted like this.

Pork Tacos

Pork Tacos

Chicken Quesadillas

The pork tacos and chicken quesadillas were enjoyable but were quite overshadowed by the beef and oyster tostadas. 

Almond Bread Pudding

I finished out my first Garrido's experience with a warm, comforting bite of nutty, chocolately, pillowy bread pudding.