Thursday, May 31, 2012

Austin and Washington Social Diary

If you know the film Dazed and Confused, you know this stadium.
by Carol Joynt

Please don't be shocked if I begin by recommending this story be read with a glass of bourbon or a margarita nearby. If it's not yet noon where you are, then don't worry; it's our secret. These badass libations are recommended because it's about Austin, TX., an authentic western town, but also a 21st Century American city, where sunshine and good food co-exist with non-conformity and modernity, and where not playing by the rules is the rule, even though the State Capitol building is occupied by a very by-the-book governor, Rick Perry.

So, sip that drink (even if it's your morning java), sit back and enjoy.
An old school All-American morning newspaper; goes well with a cup of coffee.
The last time I was in Austin in October, Gov. Perry was still a GOP presidential contender. Now, as you know, the field is down to Mitt Romney. For a casual visitor or tourist in Austin, there's little presence of Perry or even politics, the front page of The Austin-American-Statesman notwithstanding. Here's what hit you: there are so many young people it feels like a southwestern Boston; the vibe is liberal, with a visible presence of the 99 per cent; even the older people have a youthful vitality; in the urban landscape what's old is historic and not decaying infrastructure.

Old and new have a good fit. Walk a city street and the history is at hand. For example, on 9th Street, it's possible to stand in front of and admire the private Austin Club, a handsome building that dates to 1878, while gazing high up at the skyscraping towers of The Austonian or the Frost Bank Tower, both built in the last decade.
Wild, wild west in a modern city. The private, members only Austin Club, in a 19th Century building that once was the opera house.
Norwood Tower, owned by the estate of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In Austin, for every historic building there's a building of the future.
In love with light, sky and clouds, the Frost Bank Building downtown on Congress Street (right).
In all, Austin has a few dozen skyscrapers, but I'm drawn to the street level buildings of yore, bearing plaques that mention their starting point as a 19th century stable or government building or opera house. It's possible to walk Congress Street, Austin's Pennsylvania Avenue, and stop every few buildings to read an interesting plaque. The names are compelling, too. For example, one plaque marks the building where a man named Branch Tanner worked as the state's first Secretary of War. Branch Tanner! It should be a New York Times byline, shouldn't it? A country song on the radio lamented a woman named Pussy Willow Rose. I liked that name, too. When I looked it up I learned he/she was a tranvestite Laredo stripper.

Sixth Street crosses Congress and is the hub for exuberant nightlife, rich with old-west and Texas history. The bar scene is funk at its best, a less debauched version of Bourbon Street. All kinds of music pours from these places, while the alcohol flows within. A few blocks over, in the newer 2nd Street neighborhood, in front of the Moody Theater, home to the Austin City Limits studios, a statue of Willie Nelson was recently dedicated and Willie showed up to perform a free concert. The dedication day was also National Weed Day and Willie sang a new song, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."  There’s a street named after Willie, too. That’s Austin.
In the 2nd Street district, the newly dedicated Willie Nelson statue. He showed up and gave a concert for the dedication. A dreamy boot, by Old Gringo, at Allen's Boots.
The Four Seasons high rise residences, adjacent to the Four Seasons Hotel. At the University of Texas, the legendary tower.
While I was in town Sheryl Crow gave a concert for a gala celebrating the Paramount Theater, a former vaudeville house, built in 1915, which now hosts most movie premieres, re-runs of classic films, concerts, stand-up comedy and more. Two whole blocks of Congress were tented for the gala dinner and dancing.  Nearby, at the University of Texas, singer Shawn Colvin interviewed Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek about her career.

Whether it’s something huge, like the annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), or smaller, Salt-n-Pepa making a stop on their 25 city 25th anniversary tour, there’s always something going on in Austin.
The esteemed Paramount theater, which hosted a 96th anniversary gala featuring Sheryl Crow, followed by a dinner and dancing party that closed down Austin's main boulevard.
Movie theater lounge, at the Violent Crown, Austin's heart of indie films.
But I’m here to write about food. It’s not a stretch to say that Austin is for foodies what Vegas is for gamblers. Name your pleasure, they’ve got it, and at mostly affordable prices. Food trucks? They got their start in Austin and can be found everywhere. Awesome grocery stores. It’s the home of Whole Foods Market (with an epic downtown store) but also has the Central Market, which to me is Whole Foods morphed with Zabar's, and on steroids.

Central Market is a dream market for a food nut. Hey, they’ve got a whole section just for blue cheese, and another for camembert; 8 or 9 varieties of pistachio nut; big and beautiful Texas produce, meat and Gulf seafood; and memorable Texas coffee laced with pecans. I wandered Central Market for an hour, gaping with envy.
At the epic Whole Foods Market in downtown Austin, an assortment of colorful candy apples. Remember, the city's motto is "Keep Austin Weird," including the candy apples.
A destination market, Austin's Central Market -- awesome from one end to the other.
At Central Market, blue cheese and only blue cheese.
Do you like gooey French cheeses? At Central Market your passion will be indulged.
A buffet of dips and spreads at Central Market.
Speaks for itself. Fresh Texas portobellos.
Fresh coconuts, guava and quince.
A good message at Central Market: Sometimes Dinner Is The Conversation. And, yes, "wow."
Bags, ready to go, with "dinner for two," at Austin's Central Market.
The diversity of restaurants is especially fun. It can be a grand meal at Trio at The Four Seasons Hotel or the Driskill Grill at the Driskill Hotel or Tex-Mex at Torchy’s Tacos or Chuy’s. Some of the best Japanese cooking I’ve had in the United States was at Austin’s Uchi and Uchiko. Uchiko Chef Paul Qui just won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest and earlier won the most recent season of Top Chef. Both places are pricy and worth it. 

But during a week in Austin my most expensive dinner was at the al fresco Lucy’s Fried Chicken. That delicious feast — wood grilled oysters with tequila, chili sauce and cheese, chicken boudin, deep fried deviled eggs, corn bread muffins, collard greens, buckets of fried chicken, lime pie, apple pie and s’mores, beers and bourbons — cost $250, tip included. But there were 9 of us. 
Sign at Lucy's Fried Chicken.
Dinner time at Lucy's Fried Chicken.
Inside Lucy's Fried Chicken with a relic juke box
Fried deviled eggs at Lucy's Fried Chicken. Yes, you read that correctly: FRIED deviled eggs.
Wood grilled "Austin" oysters with tequila, lime, chili sauce and cotija cheese.
Scrumptious, dry and crispy, Lucy's Fried Chicken. Picked chicken.
Elle, Lily, and Dale.
Roger, Spencer, Carol, and Stanley.
Upon arriving in Austin, my first meal always has to be southwestern. (And on departure, it's brisket at The Salt Lick at the airport). Call it Tex-Mex, but restaurants such as La Condesa lift that cuisine so far above the mainstream. Just try their crab tosdadas or their Mexican street corn or the flautas. Condesa’s “classic” margarita is a marvel, especially with the cactus salt on the rim. I love this place and went for dinner and returned for a Saturday afternoon lunch. Across the street is Lamberts Barbecue.

It’s in a handsome historic building. Walk by in the morning and let your nose wake up to the scent of roasting barbecued beef. It’s a dark, moody, western saloon with an utterly modern culinary aesthetic. I’m sorry it was too dark to photograph my Cold Smoked Rainbow Trout, because it was one helluva trout. Not to forget the brussels sprouts with bacon and brown butter, the waffle fries with paprika and herbs and the green chili cheese grits.
At La Condesa, the "Classic Margarita" with fresh lime juice and rimmed with cactus salt.
An assortment of dips and guacamole for the fresh taco chips at La Condesa.
Bite sized crab tostadas at La Condesa.
Flautas at La Condesa.
The ticket window and entrance to the theater. You go, kick back, relax with a drink and enjoy the show.Waitress at La Condesa. Tats, casual, an independent look is what prevails in Austin. CJ, swinging in the street, because Austin is a city of random street swings.
We also had dinner at the just-opened Swift’s Attic on Congress. Fair warning about the margarita. It’s made with Habanero peppers and will blow the top of your head off. I asked for mine to be replaced with something less fiery. 

Swift's bills the food as “modern American small plates,” with a heavy emphasis on farm to table, and dishes arrive from the kitchen in the order in which they are prepared. In other words, there’s no conventional order, and each plate is meant to be shared. It feels like Mom saying, “eat the food when it’s ready.” There’s local quail, Idaho trout, a kale Caesar salad, Niman Ranch pork. For dessert, give in to the “Foie PBJ.” Like Lamberts, the room was too dark for photos, but there’s lots of wood, leather and intimate lighting. 
CJ and Spencer, a shared family passion for food.
I was in Austin mostly to hang with my son, Spencer, who was wrapping up his sophomore year at college. Exams consumed his days. But we were able to do some dinners and lots of breakfasts, and so breakfast became a staple. He’s a Yelp-a-holic and, using the Yelp App,  determined our morning destinations; each different from the other and each worth the trip.

Blue Dahlia had an amazing frittata, and a groovy Euro-Austin scene; Galaxy Cafe was retro Jetsons in design but also classic with good eggs, bacon and toast; Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse was proudly vegetarian. I had a delicious whole wheat bagel with fresh peanut butter while Spencer had the Oven Cake Breakfast: 2 cage-free eggs, blueberry cornbread and a side of organic agave nectar and butter. Another breakfast place, Bacon, was irresistible by name alone but then I had their bacon waffles with bananas and Maple syrup and found something else to crave. Spencer had the Broken Yolk BLT:  two fried eggs, thick bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayo between two slices of Texas toast. 
The Blue Dahlia Bistro. The community table at Blue Dahlia.
Inside Blue Dahlia, a feast of fresh bread products.
At Blue Dahlia, an exemplary frittata.
Breakfast at Galaxy seems space age, but the food is down home.
Toast, eggs and bacon at Galaxy.
Austin's very Austin message: you are here.
Cappucino at the Bouldin Creek Coffee House.
Bouldin Creek Cafe's "oven bake breakfast" of fried eggs, blueberry cornbread and agave nectar.
Austin chic at breakfast the Bouldin Creek Cafe. The logical place for breakfast, Bacon.
At Bacon, bacon waffles with bananas, butter and hot syrup.
At Bacon, the fried egg and bacon breakfast sandwich.
As old-tymey as it gets: Nau's Enfield drug store in Austin, which includes a popular old-school lunch counter with handmade milk shakes and malteds.
Fresh baked donuts at Harmony Donuts on South Congress Street. An irresistible, and not necessarily incorrect, sign at the Barton Springs saloon.
We only drove by Franklin's Barbecue because people start to line-up here at 10 a.m. with a hope of maybe getting in by noon or 12:30, and hopefully before the brisket is sold out.
I stayed at The Four Seasons and their restaurant, Trio, offered a substantial breakfast menu. I would not be surprised if the Enchilada de Migas is the most popular item — scrambled eggs, cheese, onion, peppers, verde sauce and beans wrapped in a corn tortilla; all at once healthy, filling and regional. I’ve had this dish before poolside and it is just as good on the serene outdoor dining terrace, overlooking the shore of Lady Bird Lake.
At The Four Seasons, poolside cobb salad, a glass of pinot grigio and an advance copy of John Solomon's book about DSK.
The dock at the Four Seasons Hotel, on the shore of Lady Bird Lake.
A swan, preening, on the banks of Lady Bird Lake.
Breakfast at Austin's Four Seasons Hotel.
At the Four Seasons, the egg white frittata with dry and crispy bacon and a ramekin of house made ketchup.
The view from the breakfast terrace at The Four Seasons, Austin.
We returned to Trio for dinner one night and their spicy pork chops stirred a latent pork tenderloin appreciation. I got back to DC and immediately went to the butcher and bought and then roasted a pork tenderloin — all because of Trio. It’s a restaurant worthy of a Four Seasons Hotel, and the Austin Four Seasons is one of the chain’s best: new money, old money, new Texas, old Texas, locals, tourists, Dallas or Houston housewives on getaway weekends, discreet business meetings, bachelor parties, weddings, galas.

It’s all going on there and yet the hotel does not get overwhelmed. Sitting by the pool with a good book is completely relaxing. Or, take out a canoe on the lake or walk/run the miles long lakeside path.
Dinner at Trio. Sauteed spring asparagus with a perfectly fried egg and shavings of parmesan cheese.
At Trio, spicy pork tenderloin with ribs.
A nightcap at the cool, modern, but cozy lobby of the W Hotel.
The red bar, at the W.
Another very memorable dinner was at Wink. There are two chefs, Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs, who turn out some classic haute American food. Stand outs for us: pan seared scallops with bacon, mache, beets and chili oil; seared duck breast, the NY Strip. 

They also have a wine bar and throughout both venues an excellent wine list. They offer five and seven course tasting menus with wine pairings. It’s sophisticated (for Austin) dining in a small and romantic space. They have a sense of humor, too. The menu says “wink happily welcomes omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians and all dietary issues as our larder allows.”
Scallops at Wink.
A photo doesn't really do it justice, but at Wink, the El Rey Chocolate Cake. It's a flourless chocolate cake. Plus whipped cream and Zinfandel-infused cherries.
Another thing about The Four Seasons — and the whole town, in fact — is that it’s not early to bed. In Washington, the action ends early. In Austin, restaurants, bars (especially 6th Street) start early and go late. People are out, and there’s so much al fresco drinking and dining. Yes, it can be brutally hot in the summer, but the heat is dry and the nights are comfortable.

The Lake Austin Spa at twilight.
I took a sidetrip to a place where I did not spend the night but would like to, The Lake Austin Spa. It was probably a 45 minute drive from downtown out into the famous “hill country.” At the dead end of a winding road was a sanctuary on the banks of Lake Austin; in every way a traditional spa but with particularly cozy decor, an abundance of sports activities — I want to do a Hydro-Bike! — that range from sculling and kayaking to water yoga and swimming laps. There’s the lake and two outdoor pools. But, alas, it was just a drop by. This would be an ideal place to atone for a week of eating out and late-night partying in Austin.

Before leaving town, by all means make a stop by Allen’s Boots on South Congress. It's one short hop across the (former governor) Ann W. Richards Bridge. If you have time for only one shopping splurge, this is the place. It offers every type of cowboy boot imaginable, with helpful staff to guide you, but they also have a range of beautiful clothing that includes pure western and boho, especially from the Johnny Was label, plus belts and hats and bags and scarves and bling. The men's department is just as extensive.
Look closely and you'll see all the people who nightly line up on the Gov. Ann Richards Bridge to see the thousands of bats that zoom out at twilight.
Patiently waiting for the bats.
And don't forget, at the Austin Airport, leave room in your tum for a hefty helping of The Salt Lick's brisket. I get it chopped, my son prefers the sliced. Either way, you win. And if that's not enough, they sell a whole brisket — about $50 —  to take home on the flight.
An airport treat, Salt Lick. A must stop, no matter how nervous your stomach may be before flying.
Delicious chopped brisket sandwich from Salt Lick.
Coincidentally, just as I returned to DC, a new southwestern restaurant opened in Georgetown. It’s called Bandolero and the owner is former Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella. How does it compare to Austin? That’s a tall order, but on an early visit I found the food to be imaginative and satisfying, the decor “day of the dead” clever, the music loud and the drinks — comparatively — expensive. The house margarita is made with Patron. Fortunately we can now go to DC’s Wisconsin and M and pretend to be at Austin’s Sixth and Congress. 
Bandolero, in Georgetown on M Street near Wisconsin Avenue. Dark on the outside, "day of the dead" on the inside.
Two of the Bandolero hostesses, Katie Burgoyne and Alyssa Hotz.
The Bandolero "classico" margarita, made with Patron and fresh lime juice. It is $9 by the glass or $34 by the pitcher.
As an alternative to guacamole, Bandolero offers Sikil Pak, a zingy spread made with pumpkin seeds, jalapeño and orange.
Bandolero's Mole Negro: Short ribs, papas and sesame seed.
Queso Fundido at Bandolero: Duck confit, manchego and a "sunny" egg.
One of several tempting dessert choices: Coconut Flan with pineapple and a caramel sauce.
A table for six or more at Bandolero.

Where we stayed: 

The Four Seasons Hotel
Where we ate:

Lucy’s Fried Chicken

La Condesa

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

Swift’s Attic


Uchi and Uchiko


Blue Dahlia Bistro

Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse

The Salt Lick

Where we shopped:
Allens Boots

A Spa Destination to Consider:
And Back in DC:

Photographs by Carol Joynt.
Carol Joynt's memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.