2013 January at John Mackey's Blog

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  • January 6, 2013

    Barley Swine

    Back in October, I spent several days working at the University of Texas at Austin. I’ve previously blogged about the UT-Baylor football game, dinner at Uchiko, and the concert itself.

    There’s one more thing that has to be blogged : a delicious dinner at a (fairly new) Austin restaurant called Barley Swine. Jerry Junkin took me and his grad students to dinner there on my last night in town. (As I pointed out to both Jerry and the grad students, this is not how most grad students eat outside of UT. Leftovers stolen from the band refrigerator this was not.) The food was maybe the best I’ve had in Austin, and it looked pretty, too. I just hope that more than two months after the trip, I can match up the pictures with the descriptions from the menu…

    Okra is gross, right? Turns out: no. It can be really, really good, as it was in this dish: grilled okra, black-eyed peas, hush puppy, and goat feta. Not surprisingly, the hush puppy was even better than the hush puppies I grew up on at Long John Silvers.

    This is soft duck egg, grilled zucchini salad, popcorn, and goat cheese. Yeah, popcorn. With duck egg. How they imagined this would be good — and be right about that — I’ve no idea.

    I think this is the blue crab scrambled egg, almond, papaya, and avocado…

    Ah, but this is grilled butternut squash, peanut, jalapeño, and coconut milk. These combinations are all crazy and somehow perfect.

    This is pulled pig face, potato salad, pickle, egg yolk, and apple. Lordy, this was good. I don’t eat much meat anymore, but I’m glad I made an exception for this. I had no idea that “pig face” could be a compliment.

    This was another special — a crusted, grilled fish. It was so good, we ordered another round of it.

    As he does at every meal, Jerry Junkin ordered a bottle of the blood of a sacrificed band geek.

    Crispy stuffed pig ankle, fois gras, beans, and hot sauce.

    Grilled lamb loin and sausage, eggplant, falafel, and persimmon.

    Rabbit, schnitzel, shishito pepper, radish, and chanterelle.

    This was a special, I think, and I don’t recall exactly what it is, but I think it was another amazing pork dish — and I think we ordered two of this one, too.

    Dessert number one: olive oil mousse, meyer lemon, parsley sorbet, and chickpea cookie. None of this sounds good, but all of it was.

    German chocolate cake.

    Lastly: Hefeweizen (wheat beer!) donuts, smoked pork ice cream (!!!), whiskey, and chile. Yes, that’s a strip of bacon sitting perfectly on the smoked pork ice cream. This had to have been one of craziest, most exciting desserts I’ve ever had. Salty, sweet, and spicy — with BACON?!

    This place is incredible. It’s in a weird location in south Austin, and it’s pretty small, and they don’t take reservations, and it’s communal seating, but all of that is worth it as soon as you taste the first dish. Go with a big enough group so you get the full table of 6 (and don’t end up sitting with strangers) and you have a large enough party to order one of everything on the menu like we did. This may be the best restaurant in Austin right now.

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    January 5, 2013

    Next: Kyoto

    Another year, another trip to Chicago for the Midwest Band (and orchestra – but whatevs) Clinic, and another visit to a spectacular Grant Achatz restaurant.  Back in 2009, it was Alinea (blogged here — and still, as the title says, The Best Meal I’ve Ever Had).  Last year, it was Achatz’s (then) newest restaurant, Next. The idea was that Next would completely change its identity several times per year, so on one visit the restaurant might be based on Achatz’s childhood in the 1980’s (the theme for Next: Childhood — blogged here), or another it might be a Japanese restaurant — specifically, Japanese kaiseki, a multi-course, elaborate meal, served famously in Kyoto.  (Back in 2007, AEJ and I stayed at Tawaraya, a 300 year old ryokan (an inn) in Kyoto, where we were served a kaiseki meal in our room.  You can read about that experience here — the “real deal” version of what inspired this year’s restaurant: Next: Kyoto.)

    We were greeted with a centerpiece of hay, and a little rolled scroll.  Travis Cross read it to us, using his most exaggerated fake Japanese accent. (Hahaha, just kidding, right, Travis?) Part of the scroll read : “This season we seek to honor Kaiseki because it shares the same goal that we celebrate here at Next: an evolved dining experience that takes guests on a journey.”

    First up, we were served a tea made from charred corn husks. (You can see one of the husks on the plate.)

    It looked simple, but it was amazing. I love corn, and the taste of slightly charred corn is a delicious thing — and this was that flavor as a warm, soothing tea.

    For our next course, we were going to need some extra aromatic stimulation. Achatz does things like this regularly (pillows filled with scented air, or the smell of burning leaves tucked under your dish), and it’s always effective. So this time: the hay in our centerpiece was set aflame.

    The burning hay aroma was to accompany this: chestnut tofu, apple, and white miso.

    We went from a tiny dish to this massive platter. (Okay, not “Olive Garden massive,” but it was pretty big.) There was shrimp, all parts — the legs, the tail, and the head — along with a type of roe (fish eggs — but I can’t recall what fish), and other assorted small goodies. The dish was called “Japanese forest.”

    Yeah. All parts of the shrimp. Hello, Mr. Shrimp Head.

    I would totally eat that if I weren’t busy taking pictures. I swear. You go first, Jake Wallace.

    Yeah. It’s all you. My hands are full with this camera.

    You too, Steve Bryant! Is it as good as it looks?

    Look! Food without eyes! I’ll have one of those, please. This is duck prosciutto wrapped around what we think was daikon.

    Sashimi course number one with shiso and tamari, but all I see is edible gold, baby! To quote David Cross, “Tasteless, odorless gold. To EAT! And I thought, wow man, if that isn’t the ultimate ‘FU*K YOU!’ to poor people, then I don’t know what is.”

    I haven’t mentioned the drink pairings. For just about every course, there was either a wine, a beer, or a sake.

    Here is sashimi course number two: abalone (sliced and fanned in back) with cucumber, radish, and red sea grapes.

    Here’s the same dish from another angle, just because it’s so beautiful. I mean, look at that shell! So shiny! (It’s no edible gold, though…)

    Next was soup with anago (salt-water eel), maple dashi (to make it smoky), and shimeji mushroom. I’ll admit to not liking the eel very much. I like the eel sushi that’s covered in sauce and toasted. This was a bit fishy for me.

    Next was a custard: matsutake chawanmushi, with the aroma of warm pine needles (placed on the table and heated with hot stones). The picture is not pretty, but here it is…

    This looked like tofu at first, but it’s buri: yellowtail trout, flash-fried and served with wasabi leaf and cured yolk.

    (hiccup) MUR SAKI, PLEEZ! (I actually thought, when taking this picture, that the camera was straight.)

    Edible chrysanthemum, eggplant, and shiso leaf.

    Rice with waygu beef, crumbled egg whites, and pickle.

    And dessert: “first snowfall,” with persimmon, skin from the process of tofu-making, and maple leaves, all covered with a dusting of maple powder. It certainly looked beautiful, but it wasn’t the most delicious part of the evening.

    Seriously? More sake? You realize I weigh, like, 124 pounds, right?

    Here are some of Travis Cross’s drink selections. Much prettier.

    Next up: a bitter tea with warabi mochi covered in toasted soy.

    Sort of surprisingly, that was it. It took nearly three hours and was a lot of fun, but the ending felt a little anti-climactic. Nothing witty, nothing on fire, nothing showy at all. In fact, to me, that final desert wasn’t even very tasty (the tea’s first name, after all, is “bitter”), and the mochi was kind of hard to eat (a little too big for a single bite, but very hard to split in two with only chopsticks). “Daring,” maybe, but not “yummy.”

    We all had a blast, but — and not being one to admit a fondness for humans in general, I can’t believe I’m saying this — the company was more fun than the food. Turns out that maybe that’s what makes a meal great. (Well, that and edible gold.)

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