High Life: Top Chefs Austin

Most of what I know about Texas comes courtesy of a childhood obsession with the TV show 'Dallas' (the upcoming reboot is a cause for concern, slightly redeemed by the casting of original stars like Linda Gray and Larry Hagman) and a more recent addiction to 'Friday Night Lights'. So basically I know nothing about Texas except some base stereotypes, and that it's also home, unexpectedly, to two of the most arts-friendly cities in America, Austin, and on a much smaller scale, Marfa. 

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Hotel San Jose

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Room at the San Jose

I stopped in to Austin for a couple of days in November to investigate Texas' softer, more expressive side and I left enlightened (and 5 pounds heavier). (Fans of Top Chef will know that the current season is based in Texas, and a recent episode featured a visit to Austin). My culinary overindulgence began an hour after arriving – I was whisked to the retro-chic Hotel San Jose by Margo Richards, one of the head honchos of Austin's CVB office, where I quickly changed and then joined Margo to head to Uchi, chef Tyson Cole's temple to subtly innovative Japanese cuisine. The sign at the entrance expresses a lot about this unbelievable eatery – bold, minimal and informal… fancy food without any of the accompanying fuss. I was wearing my now trademark black dhoti sweatpants with a simple blue Miyake sweater, because Margo had assured me that there was no dress code. I thought she was just saying that to make me feel comfortable, but after being seated I noticed a plethora of sandals, shorts,and t-shirts. I'm not sure that sporting a bikini would have been out of place either. Welcome to Austin! The live-and-let-live attitude that represents the cities international image extends to eating out – it's about being true to yourself, not dressing to impress someone else. The food was unbelievable… dishes like oak-grilled escolar with candied citrus and pork jowl with brussels sprout kimchee were some of the exceptional courses I stuffed myself with. 

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Sign outside of Uchi

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Interior of Uchi


Maguro and goat cheese

The next morning I headed out to the 1886 Cafe and Bakery at the Driskill Hotel (a historic property that hails from, you guessed it, 1886). I don't usually eat breakfast, but I decided to go for it – eating fatty foods seems like a fair compensation for waking up early in the morning. I ordered the 3 egg omelet with country potatoes but the dish that arrived surely had to be at least 5 eggs-worth of omelet, or else have come from a ginormous hen. And the side dish wasn't made from any old Idaho spuds… they included blue, sweet and other varieties of potatoes. By now I had gained at least 3 pounds.

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Interior of the 1886 Cafe and Bakery at the Driskill Hotel

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The bakery's pastry selection is even more famous than their eggs

A few hours later, I found myself eating, again. This time the scene of the crime was La Condesa, known for Mexican fare that's lighter and more refined than the stereotypical dishes – the ceviche and fish tacos were sublime, but I have to confess that my attention was more focused on my margarita, which came complete with a lemongrass salt rim. After this meal, I decided to take a slightly longer break before stuffing my face again – for dinner I headed to Carillon with Elaine Garza (who owns local PR megafirm, Giant Noise), another award-winning restaurant, this time with a slightly less sexy location – the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, part of U of T Austin's campus. Although the dining room felt a bit impersonal, Chef Josh Watkins' eclectic farm-fresh fare, including dishes like seared escolar with pistachio and crisp pork belly with asian pear salad, is obviously the product of his heartfelt passion for the art of cooking. 

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Seared escolar with chanterelle mushrooms, blueberry puree and pistachio at Carillon 

At this point I had tipped the extra 5 pound mark, which seemed like a good time to head out of Austin, and onto Marfa. I might head back for SXSW this Spring – the films and music are fine and good, but, more urgently, there are other restaurants waiting to be explored. 


photo credits: Carillon – Carlton Wade

                      1886 Cafe and Bakery – courtesy of 1886 Cafe and Bakery at the Driskill

                       Uchi – Maguro and Goat cheese – Rebecca Fondren

                                Interior – Denise Prince

                                Uchi Sign – Paul Baradagjy

                       Hotel San Jose – Allison B. Smith