Sunday, March 16, 2008

FOOD CZAR ROADTRIP #3: AUSTIN, TEXAS

Sometimes a man's just gotta do what a man's just gotta do. Even if his finances (or lack thereof) stand in the way. When I received an invitation recently to check out a new wine bar/restaurant in Austin, I very much wanted to go. My wallet, suffering as always from PPS (Perpetual Poverty Syndrome), thought otherwise. We duked it out for a while before reaching a compromise. For the sake of my readers (both of you), I would indeed make the trip, but would not stay overnight, opting instead to make the 3 1/2-hour journey twice in one day. Would I be up to the challenge? Yes, indeedy, I would, God willing and the creek don't rise. So, it was with high hopes that I set out on a picture-perfect morning, bent on adventure to a city that perpetually pledges to Keep Itself Weird. First, however, I was looking forward to making a much-anticipated stop in a now-familiar town north of Waco for breakfast.

GERIK'S OLE CZECH SMOKEHOUSE & BAKERY

I found it! After months of hearing about this place in West that served better kolaches than the Czech Stop, I finally located Gerik's Ole Czech Smokehouse & Bakery by taking Exit #353 off I35, then turning left under the underpass and continuing on Oak Street for a block. There it was, on the right, just waiting for me with armfuls of goodness. I walked in: no lines! (The Czech Stop, being right on I35 and better advertised, is a tour bus magnet and lines are not at all uncommon.) A sweet lady walked up with a trayful of pastries and asked if she could help me. I resisted the temptation to say, "Sure. Just hand over the goodies and no one gets hurt," and instead inquired gently about the availability of breakfast sausage and cheese kolaches. She obligingly handed me one, and directed me to the nearby microwave. Hello Heaven!!! The sausage was the same wonderful breakfast patty I had enjoyed at the Czech Stop (which uses Gerik's meats) but the kolache itself was much better, as sweet and buttery as a banquet dinner roll, just the perfect little mouthful of breakfast. Greatly resisting the temptation to buy more (I had to save at least some of my stomach for the Austin tasting), I instead vowed to finish my Central Texas duties ASAP and return in the evening before they closed at six to take some home to my lovely wife the Rock Star. For the record, Gerik's resembles a madeover house on the inside, with the bakery on one side and the smokehouse on the other, and as there is no website, just call 254 826-3309 for directions and questions.

The rest of my drive down was pleasant, until I ran into the mother of all traffic jams, and remembered too late that this was the weekend for Austin's world famous South By Southwest Music Festival. Dang it, and there was construction downtown to boot! After a lot of maneuvering, and some underground parking, I finally arrived at my destination.

TASTE SELECT WINES

When I walked in the place was organized chaos. Workmen were installing new shades over the large front windows. As one of the owners later confided to me, they quickly discovered that large open windows with a Southern exposure created too much glare, particularly in winter. Needless to say, the place is a work in progress, yet it looks like it will be quite intriguing when fully finished. Exposed brick and ductwork. Postmodern design on an angular bias. Glass sculptures. Trapezoidal bar and restaurant tables on one side, wine racks and wine dispensing machines on the other. (Taste is set up like a lot of wine bar/shops Down Under, with those newfangled automatic wine-dispensing machines that are all the rage. I longed to investigate them, but they were already occupied with fellow imbibers, and I had a job to do.) The owners and chef proved to be quite nice but rather preoccupied; this is quite understandable as their website at www.tasteselectwines.com promises an April grand opening, and while the place is shaping up quite nicely there is still a lot of work to do. I was given a tasting of three small plates, three larger plates, and dessert, each very well matched with cooresponding wines. Two rules quickly became evident: 1. Please pair your plates with vino. These tapas are meant to be enjoyed with the selections from Taste's well-chosen list, and vice-versa. 2. Ask the staff for recommended pairings. You'll find some surprising choices, such as the JM Boillot Puligny-Montrachet (White Burgundy) they picked to accompany the Prime Beef Tartare, but trust me, they work. The basil pesto truffle essence on the tartare played beautifully with the alcoholic bite of the chardonnay for a light yet fortifying dish. Even better was the Ahi Tuna with Tarragon Mint Vinaigrette and Preserved Lemon, which sang a delightful duet with a rather smokey Chateau de Volmer vouvray. Less impressive was the Kona Kampachi, which needed the accompanying oven-roasted tomatoes to taste like anything special.

Standing tall from the larger plates were the Pan-Roasted (Peking) Duck Breast, wonderfully fatty and tender with stone-ground grits, and an off-the-menu creation (ask about those as well) of red snapper, prawns, and bacon with nettle, which was rich and buttery, except for the nettle, which didn't exactly sting my tastebuds with delight. Only the braised short ribs didn't work, too gamy despite the best efforts of the fresh horseradish and cauliflower perogi that came along for the ride. Finally, dessert was offered and it was the best dish all day, a Cilantro Panna Cotta (an Italian, custard-like dessert) with blood oranges and candied pistachios that by itself was worth the drive to Austin.

Satisfied, I rescued my car from its underground lair, and once again battled the traffic homeward. I had considered making a BBQ side trip to Lockhart, but as I've recently recovered from illness, I decided that motoring back home was the best route for my now-aching body to take. Besides I had a date at Gerik's in West, if only I could make the deadline...

I arrived back in West a few minutes after six, crossed my fingers and tried the door. Bingo! One side was still open, so maybe my luck would hold. There was a delightful young miss behind the counter, obviously closing up, who informed me there wasn't much left. Bingo again!! She had just finished bagging up some breakfast sausage kolaches with cheese and sold them to me at the day-old discount rate! Now, my lovely bride could enjoy them as well. (She enjoyed them the next morning, for breakfast, and with one bite she agreed they were better than Czech Stop.) A rather unusual, but still successful road trip to be sure. Visit Taste and Geriks soon, and don't forget:

LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!

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