3 Austin sommeliers pair their favorite wines with heart-healthy meals

Sure, the month of January is filled with onerous New Year’s resolutions full of strict diets and exercise. The good news is that those resolutions probably have you on the path to participate in American Heart Month this February. The even better news is that, according to many studies, drinking red wine—as long as you don’t overdo it—may actually be good for your heart.

So follow your heart with these recommendations for pairing a rustic or robust red wine with a few of Austin’s best heart-healthy dishes.

The Sommelier: Mark Sayre  

Arro
601 W. Sixth St.

Niçoise salad and Burgundy at Arro
Niçoise salad and Burgundy at Arro

 

Advanced Sommelier Mark Sayre has gathered prestigious honors, such as Texas’ Best Sommelier in 2007, Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Seven Best New Sommeliers in 2010 and a 2012 CultureMap Tastemaker Award during his career managing the restaurant at Westwood Country Club and running the wine program at Trio Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin. Now serving as service director of the wine-focused Arro, he is in his element.

Executive chef, Andrew Curren of the ELM Restaurant Group, opened the French bistro, Arro, in autumn 2013 and it quickly grew a devoted following with its unpretentious farm-to-table French fare. Arro got a facelift in the summer of 2015, expanding its outdoor seating and adding vibrant design touches to the interior. The menu was also updated with some playful touches.

Sayre has a deft touch at pairing wines from the extensive list with the everchanging menu.

“I take a broad approach to food-and-wine pairings,” he says. “I pair the structure and weight of a wine to match the food. This gives you more options. Now you can talk about red wines and seafood. Now you don’t have to talk about pairing cherry flavors in wine with cherry flavors in a dish. It’s about how the weight of the wine and the weight of the dish work together. If the texture of this dish is really elegant, let’s find an elegant wine with a little more body.”

The Meal: Niçoise Salad
This classic salad from the South of France is as satisfying as it is healthy, with grilled tuna atop leafy greens, herbs, green beans, potatoes, eggs and olives. Sayre says pinot noir is a perfect mate for niçoise salad. “The elegance and complexity in salad match elegance and complexity in the wine,” Sayre says. “The meaty flavor from tuna, savory earthiness from the olives and potatoes, and myriad herbal qualities go really well with fruity and floral tones and the core of savory and spicy flavors.”

The Wine: 2009 Domaine Michel Lafarge Premier Cru Les Aigrots from Beaune, France
This Southern Burgundy beauty is as rustic as it is elegant, with bright cherry flavors and enough oomph to muscle up to the meaty aspect of the tuna. It runs about $178. For a less expensive option, try the 2013 Soter North Valley Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Ore. This is a gorgeous wine, with juicy fruit intensity balanced with herbal scents and earthiness, and is often found in Burgundy, France. It is $48 for a bottle or $12 by the glass.

 

THE Sommelier: Nathan Fausti

Bullfight
4807 Airport Blvd.  

Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight
Cauliflower gazpacho at Bullfight

 

Certified Sommelier Nathan Fausti is a rising star in the Austin wine community. Having won the title of 2015 Texas’ Best Sommelier, he is now preparing to take the Advanced Sommelier Exam and test his skills in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Young Sommelier Competition as one of three people selected to compete in the 10-state region.

Though he’ll soon take the helm as sommelier at Due Forni, in his current position as the sommelier at Bullfight, Fausti pairs Spanish wines with Southern Spanish tapas. Finding the right wine to go with a diverse selection of flavors in multiple dishes is a fun challenge for Fausti.

Bullfight, the newest restaurant from chef Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside Projects, reflects his take on traditional Spanish dishes. Made with local ingredients, sustainably raised meats and fish, the tantalizing selection of tapas is mostly heart-healthy with plenty of gluten-free, dairy free, vegetarian, and vegan options. Executive chef, Ryan Shields, philosophy is if it doesn’t need salt, butter, cream, or flower, it’s not in the dish.

“I look for structure and match the body of the wine with the body of the food,” he says. “Wine with a lot of tannin matches fattiness. Higher alcohol goes with a heavier-bodied dish. I match for the most part and then look for some contrast. It is like adding a seasoning to the dish.”

The Meal: A Trio of Vegetable-driven Tapas
Escalivada with peppers, eggplant and boquerones is an absolutely gorgeous dish served with the fish artistically arranged on a ring of roasted and chilled vegetables. Cauliflower gazpacho, made with cauliflower stock, has crunchy, grilled cauliflower florets, paprika-spiced walnuts, pickled grapes and shaved fennel. It is a party of textures and smoky, sweet flavors. And grilled branzino, a traditional Mediterranean sea bass, is served in tomato broth with herbs, garlic and braised cannellini beans.

The Wine: Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva 2003, Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain
This aged red wine has savory flavors almost like sweet and sour, with mellow red fruit, cherry, soy sauce, baking spice, vanilla and a lot of earthiness that pairs well with escalivada. It’s priced at $98. For a less expensive alternative, try the Palacio de Canedo Maceración 2013 from Bierzo in Northwest Spain. This is a medium-bodied wine made with the mencia grape. It is reminiscent of Cru Beaujolais, with great aromatics, fresh cherry flavors, black pepper and a savory herb spiciness that goes well with vegetables and fish. It is $56 for the bottle or $12 by the glass.

Sommeliers Paul Ozbirn and Nathan Fausti at Bullfight
Sommeliers Paul Ozbirn and Nathan Fausti at Bullfight

The Sommelier: Chris Dufau

Emmer & Rye
51 Rainey St.

Mangalitsa pork ragout at Emmer & Rye
Mangalitsa pork ragout at Emmer & Rye

 

Certified Sommelier Chris Dufau has extensive experience in wine service from stints at the famed French Laundry and the Martini House in Napa Valley, Calif., as well as Jeffrey’s in Austin. He joined the team at the newly opened Emmer & Rye, drawn by the opportunity to work at a chef-owned restaurant in a vibrant part of town.

Named for ancient grains, Emmer & Rye uses local ingredients in its American cuisine, including herbs and vegetables grown in raised beds outside the restaurant and foraged locally. Executive chef and owner, Kevin Fink, prepares seasonally-appropriate small plates like pork trotter pressé and octopus confit. A fun way to enjoy several complex dishes, like cauliflower custard with mustard and wheat berries, is to order from the dim sum style cart service.

Pairing wines with an eclectic mix of small plates and ever-changing dim sum dishes keeps Dufau on his toes.

“I designed a list of mostly European wines that fit a broad spectrum of flavors and that work with multiple courses and multiple dishes,” Dufau says. “We have 45 wines by the bottle and six whites and eight reds by the glass that are great for everyday drinking.”

The Dish: Rye Pappardelle Pasta With a Mangalitsa Pork Ragout
The big, broad noodles are made in-house using grain that is milled in the kitchen. Served lazily folded over each other with lean cuts of pork braised in Roma tomato sauce, the firm pasta and tangy ragout are meltin- your-mouth delicious.

The Wine: Ar.Pe.Pe. Rosso di Valtellina, Nebbiolo from Lombardy, Italy
This light-style wine made near the Swiss Alps has floral, cherry and cranberry flavors that go well with the pork and many other dishes on the menu. It’s priced at $70. For a less expensive alternative, try the Claus Preisinger, Blaufrankisch from Austria. This is a solid wine, with wild, brambly fruit flavors that bring out the spiciness of the rye in the pasta. It is $45 for the bottle.

This story was originally published in the February issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand. 

What are you drinking?

The ultimate holiday indulgence: Champagne and caviar

The holidays are ripe for indulgence. It’s a perfect time for pampering family, friends and yourself. The ultimate culinary extravagance is the pairing of champagne and caviar: bliss! Both are tiny festive balloons bursting with joy, just for you.

Champagne and Caviar

What’s so special about the salted eggs of a sturgeon? It’s that almost magical pop of the delicate shell that showers your mouth with insanely delicious buttery, saline and fishy goodness. Nothing else can replicate the tactile experience or flavor.

Who was the first person to eat the gray-black eggs of a scary fish that looks like it just swam out of the brackish waters of Jurassic Park? Some say Greek philosopher Aristotle and his cronies were diggin’ sturgeon roe way back in the fourth century B.C. While the Persians (aka, Iranians) may be the first to salt sturgeon eggs from the Southern Caspian Sea, it’s the Russian czars who gave caviar its fame as an extravagance. Its popularity spread when the Russians started selling it as a luxury item to European royalty in the 16th century.

Caviar caught on big in the United States in the late 1800s, and by 1910, sturgeon were almost extinct in the U.S., resulting in the halting of domestic production. Similarly, the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea was decimated by overfishing, poaching and pollution. In 1988, sturgeon was listed as an endangered species, but poaching for the lucrative black-market trade after the fall of the U.S.S.R. devastated the industry. Wild beluga and osetra sturgeon have been fished to near extinction.

As a result of scarcity and regulations limiting the harvest of wild sturgeon, caviar prices have soared. Fortunately, farming sturgeon provides cost-effective and sustainable access to the good stuff.

Caviar

Order Like a Pro

You don’t have to be an in-the-know aficionado to get good caviar in a restaurant or store. Just follow a few basic tips.

  • Buy enough. You’ll want at least a 30-gram tin (about 1 ounce) for two people, but the ideal serving is 50 grams per person.
  • Know what you are getting. Caviar is the unfertilized salt-cured fish egg that can come from 26 different species of sturgeon. Look for nationality and species of fish on the tin—Russian sevruga, Iranian osetra or California sturgeon—to know what you are getting. While items like salmon caviar are technically roe and not caviar, it is common to find affordable eggs called whitefish caviar or trout caviar. Caviar is graded by the color, size and texture of its beads. The finest caviars are larger eggs that are lighter in color with firmer beads that pop in your mouth. If you are new to caviar, try milder styles like Chinese shassetra or American white sturgeon. Make sure it is fresh. Caviar stays fresh for four weeks unopened when well refrigerated. Once opened, caviar starts to soften and gets fishier. It will only keep for a day or possibly two when stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
  • That beluga isn’t what you think it is. Beluga is widely regarded as the finest caviar, but in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed beluga sturgeon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It’s currently illegal in the U.S., however, you may see river beluga caviar, or kaluga caviar, on a menu. It’s a scrumptious substitute with large, firm and luscious pearls.  Sustainably raised caviar is a good thing. Because most species of sturgeon are now considered endangered, sustainably raised, farmed caviar and other fish roe are great alternatives to wild caviar. Wild-harvested sturgeon are killed for their eggs, while eggs from farm-raised sturgeon are live harvested. Look for farm-raised varieties like white sturgeon or paddlefish roe.

Beluga Caviar

 

The Proper Way to Eat Caviar

Eat caviar in small bites, served right out of the tin with a nonmetallic spoon made of mother-of-pearl, wood or even plastic. Let the eggs spread on your tongue and pop those lovely pearls on the roof of your mouth to let the rich, nutty, buttery, salty, fishy flavors explode across your palate.

Alternately, caviar is delightful when served with blini, toast points or cold boiled potatoes with a dollop of creme fraiche—all excellent neutral backdrops that won’t compete with the flavor of caviar.

 

How to Select Champagne

Champagne is a must for pairing with caviar. The tart acidity of champagne and silky texture exquisitely enhance the enchanting, salty flavor of the caviar. It’s a match made in heaven. Even when excluding all styles of sparkling wine made outside the champagne region of France, there are still several styles to choose from. Follow these tips to simplify the selection of champagne.

  • Ask for advice. Go to a restaurant with a sommelier who can make suggestions or visit a reputable wine shop and ask for advice from the smart people who work there. Sommeliers and wine-shop owners spend all day, every day recommending wine, and are great resources for finding the best champagne for the money.
  • Know what you like. Do you prefer sweet or dry? Demi-sec, sec and extra dry are sweet, while brut and extra brut are dry.

Do you like your wine to be tarter or richer? Champagne made with all chardonnay grapes, called blanc de blanc, is more elegant, with lemon-juice freshness and high acidity. Champagne made with pinot noir is typically bigger, richer and more structured.

Pick your year. Champagne made with wine from multiple years is called non-vintage and will have “NV” on the label. It is usually less expensive than vintage-dated champagne. If you choose vintage champagne, some good years to consider are 1995, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

Consider being adventurous.  If you want a solid champagne without spending a lot of time scouring the wine list, pick a non-vintage bottle from one of the major houses, like Bollinger, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot. If you feel more adventurous, try a grower champagne, or fizzy wine made by the same house that grows up to 88 percent of their own grapes rather than buying it from other sources. Look for a tiny “RM” on the label, meaning récoltant-manipulant, which signifies it is an independent grower and producer. It’s possible to find high-quality champagne at a great price from houses like Egly-Ouriet, Guy Charlemagne, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils and Serge Mathieu.

Where to Get it in Austin 

There are several stores in Austin that sell quality caviar, but two with high-quality caviar year-round include:

Lone Star Caviar

512.636.8265

As the only caviar-specific retailer in Central Texas, Lone Star Caviar sells a wide array of wild caviar, from domestic sturgeon in a 4-ounce container for $280, to golden osetra imported from Iran in a 3.5-ounce tin for $350. To ensure freshness, the retailer only keeps a small amount in stock. Proprietor Bill Kirchenbauer recommends calling ahead to pre-order. He delivers in the Austin area usually within 24 hours.

Whole Foods Market

Each Whole Foods location carries a limited selection of caviar year-round and increases the selection to six to 10 varieties during the holidays. Ryan Boudreaux, a seafood coordinator, says Whole Foods carries caviar from small, sustainably farmed, artisanal companies like Tsar Nicoulai Select California Estate Osetra. Various quality levels are available, from a farmed white American sturgeon for $40 for an ounce, to a reserve-style white sturgeon caviar for $90 an ounce.

Whole foods follows its seafood-sustainability practices for the purchase of caviar, which precludes it from buying Russian sturgeon. It only carries fresh caviar. Boudreaux recommends customers talk to a fishmonger to check the date of caviar before buying it. It has a finite shelf life of 60 to 90 days. He recommends packing it in ice, even for a short drive home.

Caviar

Clark’s Oyster Bar

1200 W. Sixth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Clark's
Champagne and Caviar at Clark’s

 

This neighborhood seafood restaurant and raw bar has the casual charm of a beachside bistro. Known for its outstanding oysters and bangin’ cocktails, it also has a respectable selection of champagne and caviar.

The sparkling-wine list offers a diversity of styles and prices, with nine types, ranging from $44 to $240 a bottle.

“Our sparkling-wine selection gets rotated frequently,” says June Rodil, master sommelier and wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality. “I think it’s important to have a mix of non-champagne as well as champagne from the big houses, grower-producers and non-vintage and vintage to fit the menu.”

The Clark’s caviar lineup, chosen by Chef John Beasley, follows the same principle of offering a variety of styles and prices. Beasley selects caviar and seafood only from sustainable sources. He looks for clear consistency of the beads and flavor varieties for five to seven styles. The menu caries inexpensive golden whitefish roe and wild paddlefish caviar starting at $30 an ounce, as well as a selection of white sturgeon and osetra for as much as $240 for 50 grams. Each is served in a traditional setup, with a mother-of-pearl spoon, blini, creme fraiche and a selection of garnishes. The Clark’s servers are trained to provide recommendations on caviar to help guests make a good choice for their taste preferences and budget.

“Less expensive fish roe, like paddlefish, have a more mellow, murky and earthy flavor,” Rodil says, “When you move up to sturgeon, you’re starting to get an unctuous, rich, beautiful, rounded bead with an almost mineral and clean taste.”

The perfect pick: For a flawless pairing, Rodil recommends the royal white sturgeon caviar and Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Champagne, served in half bottles.

“A half bottle is the perfect amount to have by yourself with caviar,” she explains. “It’s made with 100 percent chardonnay and super powerful. The caviar is a little quieter, so it goes well with the chardonnay. The wine is like a laser cutting through the creaminess of the caviar, creme fraiche and egg. [It’s the] perfect texture with the texture of the caviar. It’s a middle-tier splurge, so you can get it again if you fall in love and not feel too guilty.”

 

Congress

200 Congress Ave.

Champagne and Caviar at Congress
Champagne and Caviar at Congress

 

One of Austin’s finest fine-dining restaurants, Congress really knows how to do elegant meals. Caviar feels right at home here. Champagne is a staple.

The Congress wine lists boasts more than 20 types of sparkling wine, the majority of which are Champagne. The list runs the gamut, from the non-vintage André Clouet Grande Reserve Brut at $68, to the prestigious 2000 Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill Brut for $436.

Executive Chef David Bull has gathered stacks of prominent national awards for his craftsmanship of cuisine. Among his stellar dishes, he always has a selection that includes caviar.

“We change our caviar selection four to five times a year,” Bull says. “We want the right seasonally available ingredients. In the fall and winter months, the quality of caviar is much better. It’s all about the spawning. We incorporate farm-raised golden osetra from the Caspian Sea in a dedicate dish made with cauliflower mousse with a brown-butter cracker to highlight the flavor of caviar. It’s interactive. Use the crackers to dig in. It’s a fun experience.”

Bull’s driving force when sourcing caviar is to find high-quality eggs with the right color and separation of whole eggs that aren’t broken, as well as a good flavor profile, but caviar that’s still affordable so it’s not intimidating. However, his top priority is to serve sustainable ingredients.

“It’s a chef’s responsibility to make sure he’s not serving an endangered animal,” Bull says. “I make sure we are getting farm-raised caviar.”

It might not always be on the menu, but Congress offers stand-alone caviar service. During the holidays, look for farm-raised golden Caspian osetra served with a boiled egg, red onion, parsley and capers and toasted brioche. It’s served by the ounce for about $70.

“It’s a great bar snack if you can afford it,” says Jason Stevens, ‎director of bars and beverage at La Corsha Hospitality, which owns Congress.

The perfect pick: Stevens gets downright misty eyed when he describes the perfect combination of champagne with that bar snack.

“I like a non-vintage champagne, like Krug Brut Grande Cuvee, that has a little bit of age because it is important to have a nuttiness come out in the champagne to match the nuttiness of the caviar,” he says. “It’s really beautiful. The flavor is one thing but the textural element is another. When eating caviar, it’s so fun for me to crush the caviar on the soft palate of my mouth and let that buttery oiliness come out. The bubbles of the champagne combine with it to create an elegant, creamy mousse. The high acid cuts through the richness and lets the delicate aspects come out to play.”

Alternately, he recommends a very cold shot of vodka.

“I would make a shot with five parts of potato vodka and one part of super chilled akvavit,” he says. “Take a bite of caviar, take a taste of vodka and then more caviar. Rinse and repeat. What a lovely way to spend the evening.”

 

Jeffrey’s

1204 W. Lynn St.

Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery's
Champagne and Caviar at Jeffery’s

 

A couple years ago, Bon Appétit magazine named Jeffrey’s one of its Top 50 New Restaurants when it reopened under new ownership by McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which also owns Clark’s. It’s accurate to say it has only gotten better with age.

With one of only three master sommeliers in Austin responsible for the wine list, it’s no surprise Jeffrey’s stocks an exquisite selection of champagne. Wine and Beverage Director June Rodil organized the list by grower champagnes and négociant-manipulant champagnes in either brut or rosé. It touts superb bottles such as 2004 Bollinger Grande Année Brut, 1988 Le Brun-Servenay Champagne Exception Avize Grand Cru and 1989 Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut.

“We have a lot of guests who are really into wine,” Rodil says. “Our sommelier team can answer their deep questions and get people conscious about what they want to drink. We have a large selection of great champagnes, with about 35 labels. I print our list every week and that changes regularly.”

French-trained Executive Chef Rebecca Meeker, who honed her culinary skills at Chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in New York and Taiwan, along with Chef David Whalen, sample caviar weekly to find the very best. Like the champagne list, the caviar selection changes regularly to ensure Jeffrey’s always has the freshest possible high-end caviar. The restaurant typically carries one or two styles, such as Iranian osetra or royal osetra from Israel.

Jeffrey’s serves caviar in a traditional way, accompanied by blini, creme fraiche, chopped onions and chopped boiled eggs. As an alternative to the mother-of-pearl spoon, Rodil recommends “caviar bumps.”

“It is super trendy,” she says. “People eat caviar off the back of their hands. It makes a lot of sense, as long as your hands are clean and free of odor. After all, you know you’re own scent, and because of that, caviar is the only flavor you taste. Caviar is such a delicate thing, you don’t want any other flavors interfering.”

The perfect pick: To go with that royal osetra caviar bump, Rodil recommends a 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut.

“Cristal is a pinot noir-dominant blend,” she says. “It’s delicate, with the big richness to go with the intensity and the richness of the bubble of royal osetra. It is richness of bubbles paired with the richness of the bubbles. The 2006 vintage is big, lush, with great acidity. High-status caviar deserves to be served with high-status champagne. People think about Jeffry’s as a celebratory meal. It’s easy to indulge here.”

 

LaV Restaurant & Wine Bar

1501 E. Seventh St.

Champagne and Caviar at laV
Champagne and Caviar at laV

 

Elegance without pretense is the pervasive vibe at LaV. The atmosphere is imbued with subtle sophistication, from the art on the walls and the light fixtures to the intricate details of the dishes on the French Provençal-inspired menu. In this setting, champagne and caviar almost seem like a must.

With one of the city’s most expansive wine lists, overseen by Sommelier Rania Zayyat, it’s easy to find an exquisite bottle of champagne. LaV has more than 40 Champagnes available, with bottles starting at about $100 and increasing to the $975 1989 Krug Collection. The expansive list can be a bit overwhelming, but Zayyat, an advanced sommelier, helps guests easily navigate the waters.

Caviar at LaV is on the down-low. It isn’t printed on the menu and is only offered by the server.

“It’s for people in the know,” Zayyat says. “It’s contagious. When people hear about it or see people eating it, they want it.”

If you are one of the people in the know (and you are now), you’ll find Black River osetra from Uruguay available in a 1-ounce portion for $200. The organic and sustainably farmed sturgeon from the Rio Negro River is malossol style, meaning it’s cured with a little salt to preserve it and retain its natural flavor. The dark-gray medium-sized pearls are served with a touch of whimsy: LaV rolls out the tin with a mother-of-pearl spoon and the traditional accouterments, including creme fraiche, egg yolk, egg whites, shallots and chives, but instead of blini, it offers house-cut potato chips.

The perfect pick: Zayyat recommends picking champagne that isn’t too old or too rich.

“You’ll want carbonation and freshness,” she says. “Caviar is so delicate of a flavor, you don’t want to overpower it with something too old, oxidized or too rich. Blanc de blanc is a great accompaniment. It is more elegant with more acidity, lighter body and finesse that goes well with the saltiness and brings out the nutty, creamy flavor and sweeter finish of the osetra. Champagne is a perfect palate cleanser and it softens the brininess of caviar. The carbonation goes well with the popping of the beads on your tongue. Champagne goes great with fried food. The potato chips we’re doing are a perfect match. It’s very fun and playful.”

As an alternative, Zayyat says Russian vodka is classic. She recommends slightly chilled Beluga Noble Vodka as an amazing pairing.

Russian House

307 E. Fifth St.

Champagne and Caviar at Russian House
Champagne and Caviar at Russian House

 

This is a vodka den. The Russian-themed family restaurant, bedecked with Soviet-era flags and paraphernalia, has 101 flavors of infused vodka in a dizzying array of fruit, herbal, floral and dessert flavors, as well as unexpected flavors like bacon, cigar and a Stubb’s BBQ flavor, in decanters that line the wall behind the bar. Executive Chef Vladimir Gribkov’s signature infused vodka has 35 Russian herbs and spices, and tastes a bit like brandy.

Owned by husband-and-wife team Grivkov and Varda Salkey, Russian House is a celebration of Russian culture beyond just food and drink. Salkey, a member of the Russian Olympic basketball team, and Grivkov, a chef for more than 25 years in Europe and Russia, moved to the U.S. and saw an opportunity to open the first Russian restaurants in Austin. The menu features classics like cold beef tongue, borscht, golubtsy and family recipes that have been passed down through the generations.

The menu also includes a nice assortment of roe and caviar, chosen by Grivkov. It starts with treats like a boiled egg stuffed with red salmon caviar and progresses to Russian Siberian sturgeon baerii and, at the top of the heap, beluga supreme malossol for $220 for a 20-gram portion. This is the river variety and not the illegal wild beluga.

General Manager Roman Butvin escaped the cold winters of Moscow to move to Austin, and joined the team at Russian House shortly after it opened in 2012.

“Both red [salmon] caviar and black [sturgeon] caviar are popular in Russia,” he says. “The salmon caviar is more affordable, easier to find and has very fine roe. Black caviar is a bit more upscale. All of our black caviar is from the Caspian Sea.”

Russian House offers a traditional caviar service, with the caviar in a crystal bowl accompanied by a plate of baguettes, blintzes and blini, as well as Russian-style non-pasteurized butter, creme fraiche, capers and onions.

“In Russia, we eat it either with blini or a baguette with butter on top and caviar,” Butvin says. “We also serve boiled eggs with a mixture of cream cheese topped with red caviar. It’s a festive Russian appetizer.”

The perfect pick: Butvin suggests pairing caviar with vodka or champagne, but notes vodka is really the way to go.

“We have pairings [that] are with plain vodka and not-infused vodka,” he says. “It’s important to keep the flavor of the caviar prominent, and you don’t want to interfere with the flavor of the infused vodkas. We have set vodka-and-caviar pairings on the menu, with all of the bestvodkas included, like Stoli Elit, Double Cross, Russian Standard Platinum, and our most expensive vodka is also called Beluga.”

Russian House also offers a selection of champagne, including André Clouet, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial and vintage Dom Pérignon.

 

This story was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Austin Woman Magazine

What are you drinking? 

Paula Rester returns to Austin as wine director for La Corsha Hospitality Group

Paula Rester, sommelier at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group’s Italian concept Maialino and former Congress Austin sommelier, is moving back to Austin and will rejoin the La Corsha Hospitality Group team in a new position to begin on December 1, 2015.

Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group
Paula Rester, Wine Director position with La Corsha Hospitality Group

 

“I’m thrilled to be home in Austin and to be moving into this expanded role with my La Corsha family,” says Rester. “This last year in New York has been a whirl-wind of a ride, a crash course in all things food and wine with one of the best groups of people in the business today. As sommeliers, we always can’t wait to share what we’ve learned with our guests, and I’m no exception! It’s an honor to be trusted with the responsibility of curating the wine lists for some of the best restaurants in the city.”

Before decamping for the big city where she served as Maialino’s sommelier since September 2014, Rester did a couple stints at Congress, the jewel in the La Corsha crown. She helped open Congress in 2010 and held court as the captain and commis sommelier at Congress until January 2012 when she left to become the general manager at Vino Vino in Hyde Park. While ruling the wine roost, Vino Vino was named one of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Incidentally, Congress and the Lake Austin Spa Resort were the only other two places in Austin to also score that award. In October 2012 Rester returned to Congress and has put her stamp on the wine program as the wine director.

“It’s wonderful to have Paula back and I know she’ll be fantastic in her new role,” says Scott Walker, vice president of operations at La Corsha Hospitality Group. “We are growing very quickly as a company and to have Paula return to create, educate and maintain the various wine programs is a great benefit to the company, our employees and our guests.”

Rester has plenty of excellent fine dining experience and book learning to give her loads of somm street cred. She is a Level II Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Rester knows that every visit a guest makes to Congress Austin is potentially for a very important meal and one worthy of her full attention. She brings her education as an actor at the University of Texas and her experience as a nightclub jazz singer to work with her every evening. That combination makes for an incredibly interesting dining experience.

Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman
Photo taken of Rester in 1994 by Kevin Vobrik Adams for the Austin American Statesman

 

In her new role, Rester will oversee wine programs at Restaurant Congress, Bar Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen Downtown, Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, the new Second Bar + Kitchen Domain, and the soon-to-be renovated Green Pastures.

What are you drinking? 

laV and Vilma Mazaite to launch “Celebrate Burgundy” festival in Austin

Vilma Mazaite
Vilma Mazaite to launch new wine festival in Austin

Celebrated sommelier and director of wine at laV Restaurant and Wine Bar, Vilma Mazaite, is launching a new wine and food festival in Austin called “Celebrate Burgundy” in early 2017. A press release issued by laV’s PR agency, says, “The festival, designed to be a leading wine and food event focused on Burgundy wines and regional French food will be led by Vilma Mazaite.”

Mazaite has tons of wine cred having been named a “Best Sommelier of 2015” by Food and Wine Magazine earlier this year. Her expertise in French wine is well recognized and is on display in the massive wine list at the restaurant. She traveled to Burgundy in September to plan the festival with some of the region’s most notable wine producers.

To allow her time to plan and host the festival, Mazaite, will leave her role as director of wine and will serve laV as Executive Consultant.

In the press release laV’s General Manager, Jamie Wagner says, “We believe Austin is ready for a world class wine and food event and there is no one better to lead it than Vilma. We’re excited to start Celebrate Burgundy and look forward to working with others in the Austin food and wine community to make it a reality.”

The release added a comment from Mazaite saying, “I am very proud of what we’ve done at laV and am excited to be starting our next venture. I believe we can create a unique wine and food experience in Austin. We’ve  already begun securing participants from Burgundy and have been met with great enthusiasm from several producers.”

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Sneak peek at Barley Swine’s new location and big boozey additions

This December, Barley Swine will open a new location at 6555 Burnet Rd. The move from its South Lamar home, where it’s been for the past five years, not only gives the restaurant triple the size for up to 80 guests, but also the opportunity to add booze to its beverage program.

John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine
John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine

 

Until the new location opens, Barley Swine will keep a focus on beer and wine, but the move to Burnet brings an inventive cocktail menu under the direction of General Manager John Michael Williams. With a full bar at his disposal, Williams is concocting seasonally focused cocktails made with ingredients from local farms. He’ll use those fresh bits to create his own vinegars, shrubs, syrups, tonics, and sodas.

Williams has a strong food and beverage pedigree. After graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) with a concentration in wine and spirits, he completed the CIA advanced wine and beverage certification as well as the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level II sommelier certification. He has honed his skills at renowned gastronomic destinations like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.

“Our new cocktail program is part of the evolution of Barley Swine,” says Williams. “We’ll take a cue from the culinary direction from our executive chef and owner, Bryce Gilmore, to have a focus on making seasonal drinks with house-made ingredients. I’m working on recipes for our own velvet falernum syrup for Tiki drinks, a house-made vermouth, and 10 varieties of bitters. We’ll make cocktails that are fun and approachable.”

Robert Stevens will join the Barley Swine team as the new bar manager from Blackberry Farm. He’ll select the tight lineup of high-quality craft spirits for the 10-seat bar. You won’t see big-name booze brands like Grey Goose either. Stevens will use those spirits to make barrel-age cocktails like a mezcal Manhattan with house-made vermouth.

In addition to delectable drinks, Barley Swine is rolling out a completely new creation: edible cocktails. There will be a tasting menu of one bite amuse-bouche with alcohol: Imagine a Negroni as a fruit roll-up rather than a cocktail.

Luckily, Barley Swine won’t move away from its excellent selection of craft beers.

“Beer is always a huge focus for us, especially with our gastro pub tasting menu format, which allows for pairing of beers,” says Williams. “There are so many great breweries in Austin, which lets us pour lots of local beers. We’ll have 12 taps and several bottled and canned beers. Seventy percent of our total beer list will be local. We’ll have bombers from Adelbert’s Brewery and Jester King, and we’ll have Blue Owl and Strange Land on tap.”

The wine list is getting a boost too. Wine buyer, Kristy Sanchez, who has been at Barley Swine since the beginning, is excited to bring in more wines from small boutique vineyards and more natural and biodynamic wines. The wine list is constantly changing to offer selections that pair with Gilmore’s ever-evolving menu. Now the list will expand to include 40 wines by the bottle, split bottles options, and 14 white and 18 red wines by the glass.

Beer and wine at Barley Swine
Beer and wine at Barley Swine

“I’m excited about the versatility we’ll have with the wine list,” says Sanchez. “We’ll have more space to carry a full spectrum of wines to pair with the chef’s tasting menu and a la carte menu. We’ll have higher end bottles and affordable wines that are great at happy hour. We have some really hard to find wines like the Teutonic Wine Company Traubenwerkzeug Quarryview Vineyard pinot noir — there are only six bottles of it in Texas — and Boundary Breaks riesling from Finger Lakes region of New York.”

The new Barley Swine will still have happy hour every Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 6:30 pm with new a la carte items, hand-crafted cocktails, wine for $7, and $3 beers.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I was provided complimentary sips and nibbles at Barley Swine during this interview. 

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Williams and Sanchez of Barley Swine

Buenos Aries Café celebrates 10 years of delicious Argentine cuisine

Operating a restaurant is a tough business. In fact, according to Dun & Bradstreet reports, “restaurants have only a 20 percent chance of surviving two years. The business challenges are compounded in a tough market like Austin, where several new restaurants open each month driving a hunger for people to continually seek out the hottest new place.

It’s impressive when a restaurant survives. That’s exactly the case with Buenos Aires Café, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Ruca Malen Petit Verdot
Ruca Malen Petit Verdot

A Taste of Home

Engineer, Reina Morris, moved from her native Argentina to Austin more than a decade ago. After arriving, she met a delightful group of Argentines in Austin who frequently held pot luck dinners to share their favorite recipes. The experience led Morris to change her profession to became a pastry chef, and soon after she further pursued her Argentine culinary passion by opening the original Buenos Aires Café on South First Street.

“She didn’t speak English well and she missed home,” says her daughter and Paola MG Smith, co-owner of Buenos Aires Café – Este. “She wanted to bring the flavors of Argentina that she was missing to Austin.”

In 2005 it was, and still is, the only Argentine restaurant in town.

“Ten years ago the culinary scene was very different in Austin,” says Smith. “It was a gamble to open, even in the ’04 (as in 78704 zip code of South Austin). Now there are tons of great restaurants in South Austin. Now people are very adventurous.”

The restaurant has changed during the decade. It moved to larger digs on the east side with Buenos Aires Café – Este, located at 1201 East 6th St., closed the original South Austin location, and opened a second location in the Galleria in Bee Caves.

An important element in the longevity and success of Buenos Aires Café is its warm and inviting atmosphere. Mother and daughter team Morris and Smith draw people in with charm and hospitality. They are the kind of people who care more about their food and the dining experience than anything else. They always have a smile, a kind welcome and plenty of heart stirring stories.

Another significant component of their durability is that they continue to serve a core menu of Argentine classics while introducing new items to keep things fresh.

Amy Stowers and Paola MG Smith of Buenos Aires Cafe
Amy Stowers and Paola MG Smith of Buenos Aires Cafe

 

Speaking of fresh and new, Amy Stowers recently joined the team as the new general manager and head of the beverage program for Buenos Aires Cafe, Este. She has a deep background in the culinary business, start her career in family restaurant at a young age. She moved to Austin in 1999 and worked at Vin Bistro where she developed a palate for wine. She has honed her interest in wine by passing the Introductory Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

“I like simple cocktails with Argentine heritage and a touch of Austin,” says Stowers. “I do things like take New Age Rosé wine from Argentina and add a splash of Campari. It brings a hint of bitterness to balance the sweetness of the wine to make it pleasing to the palate.”

What to Eat and Drink

Stowers quickly learned her way around the Buenos Aires kitchen and bar, working with Smith, to pair cocktails and wine with traditional Argentine dishes. She has revamped the wine list combining a solid selection of 80 percent Argentine wines with fun and approachable wines from around the world.

“I like wines that have an old world sensibility in a new world style Argentine wine,” says Stowers. “Wines like the Las Nencias Reserve Blend, made with Bonarda, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah that are easy drinking with a nod to Bordeaux find a place on our list.”

For a perfect three course meal, Smith and Stowers recommend the following food and drink pairings.

Appetizers: PEI Mussels, Rosé and Pisco

Un Vagón and PEI Mussels
Un Vagón and PEI Mussels

 

Argentina is known for its beef, but with that long coastline, there is also a huge seafood culture. Chef Patrick prepares Prince Edward Island Mussels tossed in a green curry coconut milk with shallots, garlic, and diced Roma tomato. It’s a damn good dish served with grilled ciabatta bread.

Pair those succulent mussels with the New Age Rosé wine cocktail finished with a splash of Campari. The acidity of the wine sings with the shellfish.

If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, try the Un Vagón Hibiscus infused Pisco, made with Deep Eddy Vodka, fresh lemon, shaken served up in a martini, finished with a drizzle of local strawberry-lavender shrub and a candied lemon wheel. Smith explains the history of the Un Vagón name saying, “It is a slang term for the ‘it girl’ or the society lady. She is a woman who exudes style, grace and beauty.”

Second Course: Empanadas, Malbec and Gin

Malbec and Empanadas
Malbec and Empanadas

 

Buenos Aires Café creates seasonal empanadas weekly, and serves them individually, so they can be an appetizer or a main. Argentine cuisine incorporates international influences like cumin from Spain and the Arab countries. The Buenos Aires Café empanadas are oven baked Salta style (think flaky meat pie). There are five varieties to choose from:

  • Suave: mild ground beef, green onions, raisins, green olives, fresh herbs, traditional spices
  • Pollo: shredded roasted chicken, red bell peppers, green onions, fresh herbs
  • Atun: Genova tuna, onions, red bell peppers, tomatoes, black and green olives, oregano.
  • Verdura: spinach, ricotta, parmesan, onions
  • Semanal: spicy tomato braised beef, potato and cheese.

All empanadas are served with house-made chimichurri, which isn’t traditionally done in Argentina, but satisfies Austinites’ love for dipping.

Pair them with the Valle Las Nencias Reserve Blend, a big bold wine named for the violet flower that grow on the hillsides of Argentina. The earthy Malbec and juicy Bonarda in the wine are great with the Suave, Semanal and Atun empanadas.

Gran Gomero, Santiago and Empanadas
Gran Gomero, Santiago and Empanadas

 

An herbal and complex Gran Gomero cocktail makes an excellent pairing with any of the empanadas. The cocktail made with Waterloo Gin, Amaro Montenegro, fresh lime, sugar, blackberry cardamom shrub is served on the rocks with a lime twist. Oh so good, and easy drinking. It is named for the El Gran Gomero, a more than 200 year old tree in the central park of the Recoleta, neighborhood of Buenos Aires. When Smith was a child, her mother Reina would take her to the park to pick blueberries near the majestic tree. Similarly, Treaty Oak Distilling, makers of the Waterloo Gin, also ties its name to the historic Treaty Oak tree in Austin.

If you want a bolder cocktail, try the Santiago made with Makers Mark, Angostura bitters, lemon juice, sugar. Smith smiles when describing this cocktail, “This was my husband’s first drink. Now he loves cocktails. Amaros are big in Argentina and this cocktail is similar in style. It was created by Pichin Santiago, who was a famous bartender in Argentina in the 1940s. He had a lab to develop drinks, and wrote a book. Tragos Magicos de pichin el barman.

Third Course: Spinach Ensalada, Chicken Pâté and Petit Verdot

Chicken Pâté and Petit Verdot
Chicken Pâté and Petit Verdot

 

Light and refreshing, the salad made with a blend of organic baby spinach, feta cheese, organic Fuji apples and spicy house roasted pecans tossed in house made sweet and tangy balsamic vinaigrette is a lovely accompaniment to the rich chicken pâté. The house-made pâté is topped with a brandy glaze, served with sliced baguette, pickled cucumbers and red onions, capers, whole grain mustard, fig marmalade and served with pink Himalayan salt. A healthy layer of chicken fat seals in the luscious love underneath. It’s insane.

Try the Ruca Malen Petit Verdot with the pâté. The firm tannins play well with the fatty chicken and the plum and black cherry flavors in this velvety smooth wine give added zip to the fig marmalade.

 A delightful cocktail to pair with it is the Suavecito, made with house made Malbec syrup infused with cracked pepper, coriander and Aji Molido, along with Benedictine, Pierre Ferrand Ambre, stirred and served over large block ice, garnished with sage. This drink is smooth and sexy with the right spiciness to make the pâté sing. Suavecito is slang for a smooth talker, which you definitely will be after one of these.

Celebrate 10 years of Argentine cuisine and hospitality at Buenos Aires Café.

Disclosure, I was provided food and beverage samples at no charge during a media tasting.

What are you drinking?

Beer for lunch at Porter Ale House and Gastropub

Some days you just need a beer at lunch. When that mood hits, Porter Ale House and Gastropub has you covered. The south 1st Street bar and restaurant, which opened in January 2014 has gathered a lot of attention for its food and excellent beer selection. It recently started serving lunch, which makes it a fantastic destination for a beer lunch.

Porter Ale HouseStarted by owners Owners Joe Bixel, Neil Joiner and Trevor Lane, who met in the restaurant business serve upscale pub food, stellar  beers and solid cocktails in a bright, clean and modern bar. The fine dining experience and the quality of the food landed the Porter Ale House in the upcoming Bravo TV Series, “Best New Restaurant,” hosted by Top Chef judge, Tom Colicchio. They will compete against 15 other restaurants from around the country in the reality show.

Porter Ale House Sliders

If you want to get a taste of their cuisine before the TV series starts in January 2015, try it for lunch. Porter Ale House and Gastropub has 8 entrees all priced at 10.99 on the lunch menu. The signature Polish Pierogies and the delicious Porter Burger Sliders are can’t miss items. The Iceberg Slab may sound like a light salad, but this huge mound food is more than I could eat in one sitting.

Polish Pierogies at Porter Ale House

The food is great, but you can’t pass up the beer. The bar has 30 taps, 2 for wine, 3 for cocktails and 25 for a regularly rotating line up of craft beer. Trevor, a home brewer, selects the beers to have a wide variety of excellent and unique brews from places like Belgium, Oregon, California and of course Texas. The bar has cycled through 270 different beers in less than a year, but there are always a few regulars like Pauwel Kwak from Belgium, Staropramen from the Czech Republic and Real Ale Hans Pils from Blanco, TX. Check the Facebook page for the current beer list.

Porter Ale House is on allocation with its beer distributor, so it is able to snag hard to find beers that you won’t see at most other beer bars in Austin. Firestone DBA caught my eye. They also make beer cocktails, like the Peanut Butter Jelly, a  mix of Infamous Peanut Butter Stout and Lindeman’s Raspberry Lambic served with banana chips.

cucumber G&T at Porter Ale House

If you’re not a beer lover, try the Cucumber-lemongrass gin & tonic on tap made with Austin Reserve Gin. Its incredibly refreshing and goes great with the pierogies.

Whether you go for a beer, for lunch or beer for lunch, Porter Ale House and Gastropub is a great place to meet friends.

Jette Momant

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Breaking the Pint Ceiling

Women hold influential roles in Texas craft beer

 

This story was originally published in the October issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Photos by Rudy Arocha.

 

Beer_webflag_flattened

It’s a man’s world. At least that’s what they say about the beer industry. It’s simple: More men drink beer than women and more men brew beer than women. Big beer companies clearly recognize this and fill the airwaves with advertisements featuring attractive women, ads obviously aimed at titillating men.

The rise of craft brewing in the 1990s has significantly changed the game. Women are increasingly drinking the more flavorful brews. A recent survey by Consumer Edge found that 26 percent of women named beer as their favorite alcoholic beverage in September 2013, compared with only 24 percent in 2012. The old boys’ club has cracked the doors open a smidge, giving women like Kim Jordan and Lauren Salazar at New Belgium, and Tonya Cornett of Bend Brewing an opportunity to show what they can do in the breweries.

Not only are women entering the beer world as brewers, but also throughout the industry as distributors, beverage directors and bloggers. The Austin beer scene mirrors what’s going on in the rest of the country, with several women in prominent roles. The city has several women shaping the craft-beer industry in multiple ways.

What it Takes to Run a Brewery 

88-amycartwright

If it weren’t for a man, Amy Cartwright, president of Independence Brewing Co., probably wouldn’t be in the beer business. Sure, she got to know craft beer while working at Bitter End Brew Pub during college, and developed a taste for it while living in Portland, Ore. and visiting Germany, but it was the influence of Rob Cartwright that set the wheels in motion. Cartwright met her now husband, Rob, when he was brewing beer at the Copper Tank Brewing Co. She was keeping a busy schedule in communications and website development, but the two bonded over a shared passion for home-brewing.

“Early in our relationship, Rob and I had this old, nasty couch in the garage next to a kegerator and a dart board,” Cartwright reminisces. “It wasn’t a man cave, but more like a cheap man’s garage lounge. I would sit on that couch and drink Rob’s home-brew pale ale and think about starting our own brewery. That pale ale convinced me that we could start a brewery. One day I said, ‘You know, Rob, we could do this.’ Back then, the only craft breweries in the state were Live Oak, Real Ale and St. Arnold.”

The two started scheming to start a new brewery in 2001, and by 2004, Cartwright had left her corporate job and had Independence Brewing up and running. She took the lead, running the business right from the beginning.

“When we first started, I quickly realized that the amount of work it takes to fine tune the beer recipe, to get better and make a unique style,” Cartwright says. “At the same time, I had to figure out the regulatory work with the feds, states and health department while also learning everything it takes to run a small business, like payroll tax. In the beginning, I did everything from sales and customer service, to delivering the beer and answering phones, to marketing and creating the website.”

Even though Cartwright was the first woman to run a craft brewery in Austin, it didn’t occur to her that she was a female trailblazer. She was just dealing in the moment and working to stay afloat on a shoestring budget. The first three years, the Cartwrights were in survival mode, sleeping on a futon in the back office and working nonstop. She was focused on the daunting obstacle of breaking into the good-ol’-boy system of mass-produced beers that dominated the taps at most bars.

It was difficult to convince people to replace Budweiser, Miller or Coors with Independence, to be poured alongside Shiner, Real Ale or Live Oak. She realized she was a pioneer for women in the beer industry when The Ginger Man invited her to host a Women’s Beer Night, along with Diane Conner from Real Ale. It dawned on her that it was a rarity to have a woman host an event like this.

cartwright quote

“Normally, that wouldn’t be appealing because I don’t like being called out on the gender thing,” Cartwright says. “It goes against the grain of what we are doing every day. We just are part of the field like anyone else. But a patio full of women would show up, and it actually is really fun.”

The next time gender became a prominent issue at work was when she was pregnant with their first child. She was used to being a jack-of-all-trades, including the delivery driver. That had to change with a child on the way, and she hired her first driver. That was just the beginning of the changes.

“When I got pregnant, we were at a transformative time with the brewery. To grow, we needed new fermenters, new tanks, a new van and new driver. We had to make a decision on doing that or just making beer. We chose to sign on a distributor in 2010,” she says. “It was a relief because I was bearing so much of the business myself. That’s not sustainable when doubling growth. It was an important lesson for me in business to find the right people to divest myself of some of the responsibility.”

While transferring a big part of the business to others was scary for Cartwright, she knew it was the right thing to do. Having a newborn was momentous for her and somehow made the business feel a little less important in comparison. It turns out that a shift in priorities was essential not only in the next phase of growth for the brewery, but also for the next phase of the Cartwrights’ lives. The couple chose to have a second child right away. The extra help at the brewery gave them that freedom. That extra help became incredibly necessary when their daughter, Bonnie, was diagnosed with leukemia at 8 months of age.

“It was a big shock,” Cartwright says. “We had to change everything to focus on the important things. I had to hand over responsibilities, cultivate our team and put the right people in place. We named the brewery Independence because we were going out on our own. Now we have to rely on others to help run the business and have faith in them to do what they are good at doing. Now we have to rely on doctors who have our child’s life in their hands.”

Bonnie is now 2 years old and has been undergoing chemo longer than she’s been alive. She is scheduled to complete her treatment in January 2015.

“I’m learning to rely on other people more and engage people more,” Cartwright says. “Making the choice to prioritize family over business while finding ways to still run and grow a business has been great for me. I don’t think choosing to spend time with family is just something a woman would do. That’s something anyone would do.”

While dealing with harrowing personal issues, Cartwright’s tenacity, hard work and drive to stick with the brewery’s mission have led to success. The business has undergone a major expansion, with the Cartwrights adding gleaming new equipment and significantly increased the amount of beer Independence brews every day. Independence Brewing has come a long way since the early days.

Independence 10th anniversary

Bringing Science to Brewing

Bree Clark Hops & Grain

Armed with a master’s degree in biochemistry and experience as a high school chemistry teacher, Bree Clark joined the team at Hops & Grain Brewery as a lab technician to ensure consistency and quality of its beers. Hops & Grain puts a premium on quality control and safety. It’s Clark’s job to get that right.

“In graduate school, I used yeast as a model organism for human cells to study cancer,” Clark says. “My goal was to do cancer research, but I chose teaching high-school chemistry. I got bored during the summer break and wandered into the brewery to volunteer. Before school started again, I had a full-time job at Hops & Grain.”

Clark converted the former tasting room into a new lab that she built to her specifications. She chose the equipment. She determined the tests to run. While most large craft breweries have this type of facility, it is a rarity for craft breweries in Central Texas. Clark speculates that Real Ale may be the only other brewery with a full-sized lab with a full-time employee dedicated to testing.

When the brewery started, it relied on Josh Hare, Hops & Grain’s owner and brewer, for his “super taster” abilities to be the cornerstone of quality control. It’s not possible to count on his sensory receptors alone to ensure the beer is good as the brewery grows. The company has tripled production in the past year in an attempt to keep up with demand from thirsty Austinites. The brewery is at capacity and looking to expand in a new building.

“It’s easier to fix problems early when a brewery is small, but it’s essential to have the right methods in place to maintain consistency and high quality as the operation gets larger,” Clark says. “We’re not concerned about messing up the recipe or having unsanitary conditions as we grow or add a new facility because I’m here to monitor it.”

Clark started a sensory education program for employees, with a weekly tasting panel to test their ability to taste flaws in the beer. They also examine beer stored for various ages in varying conditions versus fresh beer to understand how time and temperature affect the flavor. This allows the team to educate distributors and retailers on the best ways to store and sell the beer. As one of the only beer lab technicians in Texas, Clark is in demand as an expert in the field. She relishes the opportunity to demonstrate how women can be successful in the male-dominated fields of science and beer.

Clark quote

“Craft beer is on the rise in general and particularly with women,” Clark says. “We have a lot of women who visit and our customers see me walk through the employee door and want to hear about what I do. It’s a great way to show that beer is friendly to women.”

Even though the field has traditionally been male dominated, Clark doesn’t feel that men discount her abilities. She chalks it up to a welcoming community among brewers with a collaborative approach to helping each other. She is active in the Pink Boots Society, a national networking and educational group dedicated to advancing women’s careers in the brewing industry. Clark has hosted monthly meetings at Hops & Grain and is inspired to see women’s dedication to continuing education in every phase of the industry.

Clark is having fun working with new beers. Hops & Grain just finished brewing an imperial stout and is aging it in Angel’s Envy whiskey barrels. At that point, she gives up all control to the gods of the barrel to influence the final flavor. She is also excited about releasing the new Porter Culture this fall, which is the brewery’s fourth beer released in cans.

Elegant Food and Beer Pairings at the Award-Winning Barley Swine

Billy Timms Barley Swine

In wine, the hand of God is foremost. But in brewing, it’s the hand of man that is clearly visible, and that, to me, is one of its greatest fascinations.”

Barley Swine’s general manager and beer and wine director, Christina “Billy” Timms, spouts off that quote from Randy Mosher with a grin. She simply couldn’t contain her excitement to talk about beer.

Barley Swine recently landed a spot on the Wine Enthusiast 100 Best Wine Restaurants 2014, but it’s also well known for its stellar beer list. The restaurant specializes in carrying a variety of large-format bottles for sharing beers. In total, it has about 50 types of beer on the menu.

“I try to have a lot of different styles of beer so we have something to please everyone,” Timms says. “We have everything from easy-drinking German pilsner to artisan ales to yeasty Flemish sours. I love dropping a German ice bock beer for dessert. It is delicious, sweet and boozy with concentrated fig and raisin fruit notes.”

During the past few years, Timms has moved from head bartender and assistant manager to running the show. Along the way, her taste for beer has progressed from hankering for Red Stripe—the first six-pack she bought when she turned 21—to a love for the Real Ale Phoenix double IPA, which comes out every summer near her birthday. She’s become a student of beer, with an insatiable thirst for learning more.

“I dove in pretty hard after going to my first beer dinner at Barley Swine with Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver,” Timms says. “We were doing ghost beer pairing. You know, the beers they brew but don’t sell. I loved tasting the interesting tinkerings Oliver made.”

That set her on a path to take and pass the Cicerone Certified Beer Server exam as a part of the prominent certification program for beer professionals. She is still studying beer, doing a lot of tasting with friends and visiting breweries to learn in a relaxed setting. She’s eager to take the second-level Certified Cicerone beer exam soon.

“I fell in love with the history and what goes into making the beer,” Timms says. “It’s interesting to learn where styles come from and what parts of the world are bringing different yeasts and hops to the table. It’s a world community that tells a story.”

While studying beer, she learned that throughout history, women dominated the beer industry. In fact, in England in the 1700s,  about 80 percent of licensed brewers were women who were responsible for brewing for their houses. The move to mass-market beers made in factories transformed it into a male-dominated industry. The rise of craft brewing in the past two decades has brought many more women back to the industry.

Timms quote

“Both men and women are more excited about unique beers,” Timms says. “Lots of breweries are doing interesting things like whiskey-barrel aging, adding fruit and playing with what beer can be. The spectrum of what beer is is getting bigger and drawing in more people. We’re really fortunate to have great new breweries in town. And the established breweries, like Independence, are reinventing and doing cool stuff.”

Timms doesn’t see gender as a barrier in the beer industry.

“Craft beer is a very welcoming community and young women in this town are super involved in the craft scene in multiple ways,” she says. “The Central Market beer buyer is a woman. Amy Cartwright is doing great at Independence. There are women working at Jester King and enjoying beer. Gender doesn’t make much of a difference.”

The Woman Behind One of the Best Beer Gardens in the U.S.

Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden has piled up the accolades recently, including being listed among the Top 10 Best Beer Gardens by Food & Wine Magazine, and ranked one of the Great Beer Gardens with Bites by USA Today. The Sixth Street bakery and pub is recognized for its easygoing vibe, well-appointed selection of beers and its every-other-month beer-flight nights.

Yvonne Sharik, the general manager of Easy Tiger, continually updates the beer list with fresh seasonal brews while keeping a core list of go-to beers. She likes to have a mix of new and interesting beers for the adventurous drinkers and accessible beers like Avery White Rascal and Real Ale Firemans #4 to please the crowd.

“Whether they are beer lovers or not, we are determined to find a beer that people like,” Sharik says. “We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and beer is accessible.”

Sharik fell in love with craft beer when she discovered Boundary Bay IPA while living in Washington State.

“Craft beer is one of those communities where you can find common ground with anyone,” she says. “It is so dynamic and there are so many different styles that allow people to come together and geek out on beer. Austin has a growing craft community that is really fun and fresh. It is great to be a part of it.”

Bitching About Beer

Bitchbeer

With more women entering the beer industry and drinking beer, it makes sense that a team of women started a blog dedicated to beer. Bitch Beer took the beer-blogger world by storm in early 2012, with the intention of destroying the notion that women only drink watery, low-cal alternatives to beer. Caroline Wallace, one of the Bitch Beer founders, explains how it got started.

“The blog started for fun,” she says. “Several of us went to college together and were on newspaper staff. We were at a Thirsty Planet brewery tour and noticed that we were the only group of all women, but there were lots of groups of all men. We wondered why. We all love craft beer. Why not start a blog about beer? It was just a drunken idea, but we got passionate about it, went and bought the name and started Bitch Beer.”

Using a team approach, the blog is prolific and covers the culture and community of beer to make it more accessible to people, particularly for woman and people in their 20s. The team is made up of Wallace, Ari Auber, Jessica Deahl and Sarah Wood in Austin, along with Wendy Cawthon in Dallas and Shaun Martin and Kat McCullough in Seattle. The group treats the blog like a publication, with monthly editorial planning meetings held on Google hangouts. There is no lead editor for Bitch Beer. The blog follows a collaborative model, calling on contributors’ individual skills in writing, graphic design and photography, along with a shared passion for excellent beer.

“We all have a creative flair that comes together cohesively,” Wood says. “I’m really proud of it.”

The approach is working. Bitch Beer has picked up accolades and awards in its short life. The fresh approach even led to a book deal, with the ladies publishing Austin Beer: Capital City History on Tap in 2013.

“The book was a huge growing point for us,” Wallace says. “It forced us to own it. The book pushed us to hone in and be experts. We want to do that as journalists. The swagger has to be genuine. This thing is going to be out there forever, and we have to know it’s right.”

Even before the book was published, brewers were welcoming of the ladies. They greeted the Bitch Beer bloggers with excitement, not only because of their expertise, but because they realized the blog could introduce their beers to a younger female demographic. Bitch Beer champions women beer drinkers without pandering to them.

“We definitely write for women, but it’s not gender specific,” Wood explains. “We think our readership is probably 50/50 male and female. When you consider that more men are beer drinkers, that is a great thing. Where we differ from other female beer groups like Barleys Angels, Pink Boots Society or Women Enjoying Beer is that we are a news outlet rather than a drinking group.”

Bitch Beer celebrates the community spirit and drive for excellence that the founders see among craft brewers. They are particularly thrilled to see so many women shaping the beer culture and significantly contributing to the industry in Central Texas. The ladies easily rattle off several examples, including Amy Cartwright at Independence Brewing, Diane Rogness at Rogness Brewing Company and Christine Celis at Celis Brewery. Much has changed in the past two years since Bitch Beer was started. Craft beer is no longer marketed just to men or women. It’s marketed to people. Women are responding to the better quality and the bikini-free marketing by buying more beer.

Wallace puts it this way, “We might not be able to go to a taproom and not see a group of woman like the day we got the inspiration for the blog. However, you wouldn’t be writing this story if beer wasn’t still male dominated, but there is a change. Women and beer is not a novelty anymore.”Bitch Beer Must Try Beers

What are you drinking? 

The Best of Austin’s Steakhouses

Eddie V's PorterhouseThere is one huge reason why I’m not a vegetarian: steak. Oh, glorious steak. The mere smell of it sends me into a shark-like frenzy. Biting into that hot flesh is the closest I will come to being a vampire, giving myself over to that carnal lust. Fortunately, Austin is well stocked with prime steakhouses. There are at least a dozen places to get an amazing steak in the downtown area. ATX Man made the rounds to pick the best of Austin steakhouses

BEST NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: THE CAPITAL GRILLE

117 W. Fourth St.

Chef Brent Jager, Capital GrilleAustin’s newest steakhouse is also arguably its best. Everything you want in a steakhouse is here. The Capital Grille, located in the former Spaghetti Warehouse on Fourth Street, pays extraordinary attention to its dry-aged steaks, flies in fresh seafood daily, has a master sommelier selecting the wines for its wine list and a team dedicated to personal service. The Capital Grille started in Providence, R.I., in 1990 and now has 57 locations.

The long-awaited opening of the Austin restaurant happened in April 2014, after it was announced in 2012. Despite entering a crowded market—there are nine steakhouses in a six-block radius of the Grille—the owners chose to enter the Austin market because of the strong economy boom and the growth of the foodie community. So far, the Austin community has been receptive. The star of the menu is definitely steak.

“We source our beef locally and then dry-age the porterhouse and strip steaks for about 24 days in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room,” says Chef Brent Jaeger, a veteran of The Capital Grille chain.

“Dry-aging gives the steaks a nuttier, more intense flavor. We have a third-generation butcher on staff who cuts each steak by hand every day.”

Can’t-Miss Menu Items

Start with the signature appetizer, which is flash-fried calamari served with a trio of hot cherry peppers. The serving is ample for sharing.

The bone-in, Kona-crusted, dry-aged sirloin is on the must-try list. This hand-cut strip steak has a crispy crust courtesy of a rub that includes Kona coffee for delightful bitterness, dried mustard for spicy savoriness and sugar for a hint of sweetness. It is served with caramelized shallot butter drizzled over the top, which picks up the sweetness of the sugar and brings out the flavors of the herbs. It’s unbelievably juicy and firm, yet yielding to the knife. Pair it with a bottle of sumptuous cabernet-sauvignon- based wine like Château Bernadotte Haut-Médoc, which will marry well with the rich beef flavor.

For a contemporary twist on surf and turf, try the seared tenderloin with butterpoached lobster tails. North Atlantic lobster is poached in the butter sauce then stacked on two impossibly tender petite filet-mignon cuts. The whole luscious stack is drizzled with butter sauce and fresh herbs. Bite into both the lobster and tenderloin at the same time. It is bliss. It will go particularly well with a spicy red wine like Delas Freres Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The lobster mac ’n’ cheese is a perfect accompaniment to any steak. Packed with huge chunks of lobster and smothered with mascarpone, Havarti, Grana Padano and white cheddar cheeses, and topped with a crispy dusting of pan-roasted breadcrumbs, this could be a meal all by itself.

Finish dinner with a decadent coconut cream pie layered with whipped and coconut creams in a substantial, cakey vanilla crust and garnished with a crispy macaroon. Like all of the desserts here, it is made in house to order, from scratch.

Wine lovers will rejoice in selecting one of 350 bottles from throughout the world, housed in a lovely glass-enclosed wine cellar. If you’re serious about your wine, private wine lockers are available with the purchase of 12 bottles from the list. Wine members get priority seating and are invited to a special wine dinner every quarter. The gracious dining room has soft lighting and dark wood paneling, giving it a classic steakhouse feel.

Even though The Capital Grille wasn’t born and raised in Austin, it has a bit of a hometown feel, with large portraits of prominent Texans, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Farrah Fawcett, on the walls. The elegant setting is a draw for date night, birthday celebrations, girls’ nights out and business meetings alike. It’s destined to become a new staple on the Austin steak circuit.

BEST TRIED AND TRUE: ALC STEAKS

1205 N. Lamar Blvd.

ALC SteaksThe only family-owned steakhouse in town, ALC Steaks—formerly known as Austin Land & Cattle Company—has been an Austin favorite for 21 years. The key to its success has been its casual, friendly atmosphere and excellent steaks. It may not be Austin’s flashiest steakhouse, but it certainly scores high marks for authenticity and charm. Situated just down the hill from the Capitol, ALC Steaks draws a crowd of families and prominent citizens.

“It’s a huge hangout for politicians when the Legislature is in session. It is a tradition,” says General Manager Scottie Mescall, who has been a fixture at the restaurant since it opened. “We keep things low-key, so a fair share of celebrities come in again and again. The X Games athletes came in droves, including gold-medal winner Chase Hawk, who has been coming since he was 12 years old.”

It’s that personal touch, longevity of the staff and familial atmosphere that keep locals and out-of-towners coming back. Guests are greeted by name and hugs are doled out with regularity. This is the kind of place where it’s easy to become a regular. Husband-and-wife team Christian and Theresa Mertens own ALC Steaks and have steered its evolution since it started serving steaks and family-style coleslaw and beans in 1993. The menu has evolved to add salads, several side dishes and plenty of vegetables.

Can’t-Miss Menu Items

Warm up your appetite with Asian-style prime beef sashimi, thinly sliced strips of raw steak served with fresh jalapeño, ponzu and Sriracha sauce, and crostini.

The Buffalo-style lamb chops are downright fun. This best-selling appetizer is big enough to make a meal. The tender cuts of lamb are cooked with hot sauce and served with a side of blue cheese.

Loosen your belt and order the 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye. It, along with all of the steaks, is wetaged and cut on premise. It’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. Round out the plate with white truffle bacon mac ’n’ cheese and a loaded potato, and you’re sure to leave happy.

BEST PORTERHOUSE: EDDIE V’S PRIME SEAFOOD

301 E. Fifth St.

Eddie V's 42 oz PorterhouseEddie V’s may be a prime seafood restaurant, but it’s also known for its Texas-sized porterhouse. This massive 42-ounce heritage-breed Angus is a step above prime in quality and is only available at the downtown location. It’s wet-aged and handcut, and the porterhouse quality stands on its own without a lot of seasoning or special toppings.

“We baste it with butter while it cooks and sprinkle it with salt and pepper, nothing else,” says Chef Chris Bauer. “It’s all about technique. We use a 1,400-degree broiler to get a nice charred crust outside and a tender, juicy center.”

Chef Bauer chose the 42-ounce size to add to the menu three years ago because the thick cut chars well but never overcooks. It is carved tableside, with the server slicing it off the bone and into strips. The porterhouse is presented on a cutting board with the juice spilling over the edge of the board. It’s enough to make a grown man drool. It has a sublime balance of crunchy, caramelized crust with a tender center. The filet side is so buttery it will make your knees buckle. The strip side is firm yet yielding, like an aerobics instructor. The ultimate pairing for this beast is truffled macaroni ’n’ cheese, made with baked gruyere, Parmesan truffle oil and black truffles sprinkled on top.

“During F1, these things fly off the grill,” says Chef Bauer. “It’s also a political powerhouse steak. The guys with the lapel pins buy a lot of these. This is a perfect steak for sharing, but some people eat it by themselves. One couple ordered both the porterhouse and a 22-ounce tomahawk bone-in rib-eye and ate them both. That’s almost four pounds of beef between two people!”

BEST PLACE TO MEET FOR DRINKS: FLEMING’S PRIME STEAKHOUSE & WINE BAR

320 E. Second St.

Melissa Lamb, Fleming's sommelierFleming’s Prime Steakhouse is an excellent place to have a killer meal, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as a fantastic place to meet friends for drinks. Not only do they have great drink specials, but they also have been recognized for an outstanding wine selection, receiving the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.

Every day of the week, Fleming’s has happy-hour deals at the bar that they call 5,6,7. That means they have five menus in every category—cocktails, wine and appetizers— for $6 until 7 p.m. You can pick up pan-crisped pork belly and an Old Fashioned cocktail for $12 total. The deal even includes a burger or two beers for $6. I can’t see a reason to leave the bar.

The bar is well-stocked. Fleming’s has more than 20 varieties of scotch, a solid whiskey and tequila selection and an admirable collection of cognac. The wine list is fat, with more than 100 types poured by the glass. For those who are daunted by the seemingly endless drink possibilities, the menus are available on iPads, which categorize drinks by type of cocktail. They even offer wine pairings for various dishes.

An added bonus is that it is easy for old eyes to read the menu in low light. If you don’t want to fiddle with a gadget to order the right kind of wine, you always can get a stellar recommendation from the talented and gorgeous sommelier, Melissa Lamb.

Nibbles to try at the bar include the tenderloin Carpaccio with creole mustard sauce. The generous portion of beef is tender and flavorful. The baked Brie is fantastic with an amber ale. Ooey, gooey hot cheese encased in puff pastry encrusted with candied walnut and cinnamon is like a holiday treat that you can enjoy anytime.

Despite being part of a larger group of restaurants, Fleming’s downtown has a bit of a mom-and-pop feel because many of the staff have been working there for a decade or more. Whether you stay at the bar or dig into a dry-aged prime rib-eye, you can expect friendly, attentive service from the tenured staff.

BEST NON-STEAK OPTION: PERRY’S STEAKHOUSE & GRILLE

114 W. Seventh St.

Perry's Pork ChopPerry’s is one of the city’s finest steakhouses, and worthy of a long visit. The Rat Pack would feel right at home in this stylish, classy den of meat. There is a lot to love about this place, starting with an elegant bar serving fantastic cocktails and the fantastic menu packed with classic dishes that harken back to the restaurant’s origin as a butcher shop that opened in 1979 in Houston.

You don’t have to be a high-flying politician to enjoy Perry’s. While a lot of lobbyist and legislators frequent Perry’s, walk-in guests are welcome. If you are coming for just one entrée, General Manager Jeff Halford recommends the famous Perry’s pork chop. This gorgeous chop is slow-roasted and smoked over pecan wood, and rubbed with barbecue spice and brown sugar. The rub gives it an amazing smoky, charred crust that protects the ultra-tender, succulent pork. The 32-ounce hunk of lusciousness is carved tableside into three portions: the eyelash, the tenderloin and the ribs.

Eat that flavorful eyelash first and work your way around the hot cast-iron plate to the loin, and then finish by gnawing the ribs off the bone. Get in there. Get that sweet, glistening fat all over your lips and fingers. Pair it with a Glenmo Ginger Blossom cocktail made with Gllenmorangie 10-year-old Scotch, lemon juice, honey water and fresh ginger, and you are good to go. Bring your appetite. This beast is enough for the stoutest man, or any man willing to share with a good friend. It’s a carnivore’s dream.

To avoid hearing Mom’s voice in your head, order some veggies to accompany the chop. You can’t miss the sweet Sriracha Brussels sprouts that are roasted with salt, pepper and a little caramelized Sriracha sauce. The smoky, crisp skins, spice and sweetness pair well with the pork.

Now that you’ve had your healthy stuff, treat yourself with the Nutty D’Angelo, vanilla ice cream crusted with pecans and flambéed tableside with brown sugar and brandy, and then drizzled in white chocolate and toasted almonds. It’s a spectacular show and flat-out delectable. Pair it with a lovely glass of Royal Tokaji Red Label Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos dessert wine.

BEST MUST-HAVE APPETIZERS: VINCE YOUNG STEAKHOUSE

301 San Jacinto Blvd.

Vince Young Steakhouse CrabcakeNamed for former University of Texas star quarterback Vince Young, this independent steakhouse deftly combines an upscale sports bar with fine dining. Steak is definitely a draw at Vince Young, but they have some of the best appetizers in town to nibble before the main course. Chef Philip Brown and his team make everything from scratch, from the ketchup to the bread to the desserts. That allows the kitchen to give special attention to the quality of ingredients when creating local twists on steakhouse favorites.

Vince Young Steakhouse makes a killer crab cake. Made with substantial hunks of crab and jalapeno aioli, this dish is mostly crab cake with none of that breadcrumb filler. Chef Brown gets the crab to hold together with a bare minimum of ingredients. Rather that tossing it into the deep fryer like some hockey-puck crab cake, this one is seared crispy on the outside, but moist and delicate inside. The aioli gives it a pleasant kick and delightful tanginess. It’s an ample enough portion to share with your date. Pair it with a glass or three of Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer.

This snazzy place is far from a tailgate saloon. However, if you want to conjure some of the playful feeling of a pre-game celebration, order the crispy quail. What could be better than deep-fried quail from Lockhart, Texas, served with bacon-infused tangerine marmalade and Sriracha sauce? The quail rests on a tarragon funnel cake for a sophisticated play on chicken and waffle. The juicy quail is mostly boneless, so pick it up and dig in. Enjoy it with a glass of slightly sweet and fizzy Mionetto Il Moscato.

If you’re still hungry after that, by all means, tuck into the unbelievably delicious 14-ounce prime dry-aged bone-in filet. It’s an experience.

OTHER NOTABLE STEAKHOUSES

III Forks Steakhouse, 111 Lavaca St.

The elegance of mahogany paneling and marble floors meets the ranch feel of antlers and longhorns. It feels expensive, and it is. With a selection of 10 USDA prime steaks and a selection of classic steakhouse sides, III Forks fits the bill for a Texas-style steak binge.

Bob’s Steak & Chop House, 301 Lavaca St.

This Dallas-based chain opened its doors across the street from the W Hotel in downtown Austin in the summer of 2012. While the wood paneling screams traditional, stuffy steakhouse, Bob’s is also studded with TVs for sports fans and has a rooftop deck perfect for enjoying an after-dinner drink by the light of the moon. Its prime steaks are all served with a signature huge carrot that would make Olaf from the movie Frozen blush.

Jeffrey’s, 1204 W. Lynn St.

While it’s not billed as a steakhouse, steak dominates the elegant menu at this beautifully refurbished fine-dining spot. Chef Rebecca Meeker serves prime steaks that are locally aged and cut. Choose rib-eye, strip or filet from three different ranches. Six cuts of Wagyu beef and five dry-aged cuts show this place means business about its meats. Prices range from $45 for an Akaushi “club-cut” New York strip, to $85 for a dry-aged bone-in tenderloin.

Ruth’s Chris Prime Steak House & Restaurant, 107 W. Sixth St.

This venerable restaurant group traces its roots to the 1960s, and is now the largest steakhouse chain in the U.S. The Austin Ruth’s Chris will celebrate its 30th anniversary next spring, and has hosted a long list of celebrities and hungry locals throughout the years. Ruth’s Chris set the standard for quality steaks in Austin, and has stayed true to its heritage with its USDA prime cuts served with Southern hospitality.

Steiner Ranch Steakhouse, 5424 Steiner Ranch Blvd.

Situated a stone’s throw from Lake Travis, this Texas-themed steakhouse is a long haul from downtown Austin. The menu of 10 steaks, punctuated by a 22-ounce cowboy rib-eye, makes it worth the drive.

Sullivan’s Steakhouse, 300 Colorado St.

This downtown steakhouse staple underwent massive renovations last year to give the space a more modern, elegant and less masculine look. The revamped menu adds more seafood and lighter items, but still retains a strong lineup of eight steaks that can be served with a variety of sauces or lump crab. The 26-ounce dry-aged long-bone rib-eye is certain to satisfy the biggest appetites.

Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crab House, 400 Colorado St.

The crab may be the draw, but the luscious selection of classic steak cuts will turn any carnivore’s gaze. After receiving extensive renovations that added a second floor with sweeping views of the city, Truluck’s is even more of a draw for steak lovers. The all-natural rib-eye always hits the spot.

Prime Cuts

Prime Cuts illustrations by Nora Iglesias.

This story was originally published in the Fall issue of Austin Man Magazine. Pick it up on newsstands. It looks gorgeous.

Disclosure: participating restaurants provided samples of food and beverage for review at now charge.

What are you drinking?

LaV: Simple and elegant French dining comes to East Austin

LaV_Vilma, Alison and Janina

This story was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Austin Women Magazine. It looks great in print, so grab it from your closest newsstand. 

One of the most hotly anticipated new restaurants of 2014, laV Restaurant & Wine Bar, has opened on E. Seventh Street, bringing a second upscale dining location to a neighborhood that is already accustomed to the fantastic cuisine of Qui, located a stone’s throw away.

laV is born of talent. Three women bring impressive restaurant pedigrees to this new chic restaurant. Managing partner Vilma Mazaite cut her culinary teeth at several top restaurants throughout the country, including Michael Mina’s Las Vegas restaurant, Corsa Cucina, Mario Batali’s Babbo and The Little Nell.

Executive Chef Allison Jenkins is a graduate of Culinary Institute of America and previously served as executive chef at the Ajax Tavern in Aspen. Executive Pastry Chef Janina O’Leary, a graduate of The French Culinary Institute with a Grand Diploma in Pastry Arts, joined laV from Trace at the W Austin. The creation of laV didn’t happen overnight. Mazaite shares the inspiration for laV.

“My business partner, Ralph Eads, was a regular guest of mine at The Little Nell in Aspen,” she says. “We decided to start a business with the original idea [being] to open a wine bar in East Austin. After many conversations, that concept developed in to a French bistro and then to laV.”

The result is a refined restaurant that is more gracious than a bistro yet more casual than fine dining, with a stellar wine program. Mazaite describes laV as warm and casual.

“We want it to be approachable, so we skipped the table cloths and fancy table settings,” she says. “We are not compromising fine-dining standards. We provide excellent service, but not in a stiff way. It is the kind of place where you can order a small plate along with a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux.”

LaV Dining Room Graceful Atmosphere

Simplicity and elegance rules the design inside and out. The converted brick warehouse has been refurbished to bring it new life without making it look out of place in the neighborhood. The architecture and design team of McAlpine Tankersley Architecture and McAlpine Booth & Ferrier Interiors created a space that is both grand and unassuming at the same time.

Comforting and inspiring, the interior is impressive. The soaring ceilings, the gorgeous light fixtures, large paintings of the French countryside and huge, bright windows give laV a grand feel. The fabric-covered seating and velvet drapery add to the grandeur while absorbing sounds to reduce the din to a murmur. Towering wine racks grace the walls as a constant reminder that a luscious bottle is always at the ready.

“The restaurant surprised all of us with how beautiful it is,” Mazaite says. “The architect and designers’ background is residential and this is their first restaurant that they have done. That comes through with laV. It feels like home.”

Guests are greeted with five distinct, cozy seating areas, starting with pergola-covered seating in the outdoor garden. Once inside, reservation-free seating in the tasting bar and adjacent bar and lounge lets guests pop in for a glass of wine or cocktail in a communal-seating setting to inspire conversations. The dining room and great table in the enclosed wine cellar offer more intimate seating available by reservation.

Guests can order from the full menu no matter which room they choose, but there is also a bar menu with delightful nibbles. From the bar menu, try the fennel-cured steelhead or the salt cod and chickpea fritters with a frothy glass of Val de Mer Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling rosé.

LaV Wine LoungeUnparalleled Wine List

Sometimes simple is really hard to pull off when elegance rules. (Case in point, laV has an impressive wine list of more than 1,200 labels and more than 7,000 bottles.) The restaurant managed to do both with this incredible wine list. That’s quite an accomplishment.

laV raised the bar for wine programs in Austin to have the largest selection of wines in town. To simplify the wine-selection process, laV has organized the list in to sections, starting with two groupings of moderately priced wines: Tour de France and Tour de Monde. The Tour de France section has 25 French labels categorized in sparkling, white and red that are chosen to be affordable and food-friendly. The Tour de Monde section is similar, but is made up of charming bottles from the U.S., Austria, Corsica, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

If you don’t have the time or desire to thumb through an encyclopedia of wine, you don’t need to go further than the first few pages of the list. Oh, but you should dig deeper. There are more than 20 wines by the glass. This spring, there are more than two dozen dry rosé wines, perfect to dissolve away the heat and stress of any day. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the most extensive collection of Burgundy wines in town.

Rania Zayyat, laV sommelierThese food-friendly wines made of either chardonnay or pinot noir make up the bulk of the menu. There are some droolworthy gems like three well-aged vintages of Domaine Leroy, “Clos de Vougeot,” Grand Cru and an extremely rare 1976 Jayer, Henri, “Les Meurgers,” Premier Cru. The Bordeaux section is enough to make a wine lover downright weepy, with selections from every one of the region’s first-growth châteaux. The list also features a strong lineup of California cabernets from venerable producers like Dominus, Caymus Vineyards, Opus One and Silver Oak.

While French wines dominate the list, there is also a solid selection of Italian, German and Austrian wines to suit a variety of tastes. Yes, there are many wines to make collectors giddy, but there are also more than 250 labels that sell for less than $100. It’s hard not to find a wine for any palate. The sheer breadth of the list—the Tour selections not withstanding—can be daunting. To simplify the selection process, laV has three talented sommeliers on staff. Mazaite is an advanced sommelier leading the wine program, and she has brought Sommelier Darren Scott from Mario Batali’s Babbo Ristorante in New York City and Sommelier Rania Zayyat from Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston.

“Our job is to break down that big, fat wine book and find wines that make sense for everyone,” Mazaite says. “We are here to make wine fun and approachable.”

French Fare with Mediterranean Flare

Basil Escargot laV“People rave about the décor of laV, which sets the expectation that the food has to be as good as the place is beautiful,” Mazaite says. “We have to deliver excellence every step of the way. That’s why we brought in an excellent chef. Allison and I worked side by side at Little Nell in Aspen. She is a soulful cook who likes to put her touch on traditional French dishes. She also pays a lot of attention to how food and wine go together hand in hand.”

From the house-made breads through the small plates and entrees to the desserts, laV presents solid French dishes that each have a surprising little twist. The presentation may seem straightforward and gorgeous, but there is always an extra touch, an unexpected ingredient that takes the simple and elegant to unassumingly complex and really interesting.

It would be easy to make a full meal out of the scrumptious hors d’oeuvre, grouped as appetizers and small plates on the menu. It’s hard to choose between appetizers like black bass crudo and the grilled spring asparagus wrapped in smoked prosciutto, but it’s impossible to pass up the chicken liver pâté. Particularly when the pâté is a flagship dish made from Chef Jenkins’ mom’s recipe using shallots reduced in an interesting way with a mix of bourbon, port, madeira and a healthy dose of butter.

A must-have small plate is the surf-and-turf pairing of diver scallops and veal sweetbreads served with a surprisingly vibrant leek spaetzle in a rich red-wine sauce. Our server gleefully told us, “People go nuts for this dish.” It’s fantastic with a glass of lush and mineraly Vincent Careme, Vouvray, from the Loire Valley.

For a truly French experience, don’t miss the escargot served in tomato butter. These little guys feasted on a diet of basil leaves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains before being shipped fresh to laV. Pair them with a crisp, refreshing, bubbly glass of Jean-Louis Trocard Sémillon Cremant de Bordeaux.

Grilled Lamb T-bone laVThe entrees present the next challenge in decision-making. For groups or couples, there is a 24-ounce bone-in strip steak to share or a wood-fired, oven-roasted chicken for two to tuck in to.

Standout dishes include the wood-oven bouillabaisse with squid, clams, blue prawn and rouille and the grilled lamb T-bones with warm spring farrow salad and fava-bean hummus. The lamb is cut thick and delicately tender. The surprisingly savory taste of pickled fiddleheads combined with the pesto gives it a Southern French feel with a big Mediterranean kiss. Any of the pinot noirs from the huge selection will pair well with the fresh herbs and slight gaminess of the lamb, but the Croatina Riserva, Osvaldo Verdi, “Buttafuoco,” Oltrepo Pavese is an affordable, fruity and fun choice with it.

Elements of the menu will change often to ensure seasonally appropriate ingredients are available. It’s a shame that dessert comes late in the meal because Chef O’Leary creates enticing sweets that shouldn’t be missed, no matter how deflated your appetite may be. And laV serves nine dessert wines by the glass and has a selection of more than 30 by the bottle. Maybe dessert and dessert wine should be an entire meal. The Meyer lemon cream served with mascarpone and maldon salt shortbread is as lovely as it is delicious. The rich nuttiness and sweet tartness are enhanced by a glass of Ratafia de Champagne “Solera” that has a sweet almond flavor.

Meyer Lemon Cream laVThe chef’s much-admired brioche doughnut holes are a crowd pleaser. Their cloud fluffy, buttery sweetness pairs incredibly well with the bold flavors of the Donkey & Goat “Wayward” late-harvest chardonnay. Yum! Hot nights call for a cool treat. The house-made salted caramel and pistachio ice cream fits the bill and is even better with a splash of La Spinetta Moscato d’Asti with a light fizz to excite the creaminess. laV serves Blue Bottle Coffee from Oakland and Tealeaves Tea from Vancouver for the perfect amount of caffeine to ease the digestion.

Simplicity and elegance are the driving principles in the design, the wine list and the menu. This makes for a unique and satisfying dining experience on Austin’s Eastside. There is always an extra touch, an unexpected ingredient that takes the simple and elegant to unassumingly complex and really interesting.

Austin Woman’s Red Wine Picks

Everyday Showstoppers

  • 2011 Zweigelt, Claus Preisinger, Burgenland, Austria, $49
  • 2012 Cousin Leduc, “Pur Breton,” Anjou Cabernet Franc, $56
  • 2010 Château La Croix de Moines, Bordeaux, $66
  • 2011 Croatina Riserva, Osvaldo Verdi, “Buttafuoco,” Oltrepo Pavese, Italy, $58

Collectors’ Dreams

  • 1947 half bottle Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Émilion, $3,998
  • 1961 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, “Grands-Echézeaux,” Grand Cru, $3,864
  • 1945 Château Latour, $20,500
  • 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild, $12,500

Where: 1501 E. Seventh St., across from the state cemetery

When: laV accepts reservations and walk-ins Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, beginning at 5 p.m. Brunch is served Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

How: Reservations can be made by email at reservations@lavaustin.com or by phone at 512.391.1888. Complimentary valet parking is available.

Photos of Vilma, Alison and Janina and the dining room by Buff Strickland. All other photos by me. 

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary dinner for this review. 

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