This story was originally published in the October issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Pick it up at your local newsstand.
A good soundtrack can really make a road trip more memorable. There is nothing like drumming on the steering wheel to a string of excellent songs to make the miles tick by that much faster. The same thing can be true a t a restaurant where the service, the atmosphere, the food and the drinks come together in an alchemy that leaves an indelible impression. That’s what the new French restaurant, Arro, is striving for.
“When people come to Arro, we want them to feel like they are at a dinner party in our backyard,” Andrew Curren says. “When people come to our house, they know the food is going to be delicious without being pretentious. The way we do that at Arro is with a great team that pays attention to detail and brings a high level of hospitality.”
The Arro family is made up of handpicked talent. Staff comes not only from the other two ELM restaurants, 24 Diner and Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden, but also from the pool of top food and wine pros in Austin. The general manager and director of operations have been with the Currens since the early days of 24 Diner. The sous chef attended culinary school with the Currens. Acclaimed Cheesemonger John Antonelli of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop runs the cheese program. Master Sommelier Craig Collins oversees the beverage program, and recently crowned Texas’ Best Sommelier, Scott Ota manages the floor. College roommates Curren and Collins have been dreaming about working together since they both fell in love with food and wine while studying in Italy in 2001. The bonds of friendship color the approach to building the staff.
“Our biggest asset is our people,” Curren says. “They pour their hearts in to making the experience at Arro feel like a dinner party. People want to be waited on and that’s what we love to do. Are we a wine restaurant because we have a Master Sommelier? No. Are we a foodie restaurant because we have a pastry chef? No. We are a hospitality restaurant.”
The next song that makes the playlist come together is the smart and thoughtful interior design, which gives Arro a relaxed yet refined atmosphere. Designer Veronica Koltuniak of VeroKoltis, who also designed 24 Diner and Easy Tiger, created a rustic, approachable and highly functional space using reclaimed objects liked cloth mailbags on the ceiling and a woven metallic wall.
The standout track in the mix is the food. The seed of the idea for Arro was sown 10 years ago when Andrew and Mary Catherine Curren met while studying classical French cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. Since then, the French approach with farm-to- table ingredients has been the basis for how they have created menus. They felt that relaxed, flavorful, approachable, bistro-style food is a natural fit for Austin, where people want good food without much fuss.
“We want to demystify French food as just heavy cream and butter and show that it can be fresh and approachable,” Andrew Curren says. “We use fresh, local ingredients that are delivered four to five times a day because people care about the freshness and where food comes from.”
“We touch every plate and make sure everything is right,” Mary Catherine Curren adds. “I’m proud to put out food that I think is gorgeous and I’m excited for customers to eat it. It’s fun to do this with my husband.”
The French influence is evident in all aspects of the menu, starting with a completely French wine list and through to classic French desserts. There are six cheeses served à la carte, with five one-ounce wedges for $4, and always a cheese on the bottom of the list that is a full six-ounce, cave-aged wheel of cheese served with house-made bread and crackers. Arro is the only restaurant in town that serves a full wheel, and brings in unique and special cheeses from small producers. It’s possible to make a meal of just bread, cheese and wine and feel completely content. If you make it past the cheese course, you may linger for a long time on the starter selections.
From light and healthy morsels like an herb salad and vegetable tart to lobster bisque and frog legs, there are 11 mouth-watering dishes to choose from. Don’t miss the bone marrow. It’s not a gooey, gelatinous ectoplasmic residue in the middle of a donut-shaped dog bone. Nope. Arro serves it in a hollowed-out canoe bone mixed with herbs and roasted to give it a crispy crust. The nutty flavor pairs well with the Guigal Crozes- Hermitage syrah wine.
Grab a plate of grilled baby octopus while it’s still on the menu. The smokiness and brine of the bitty swimmers is balanced with creamy white beans and sweet roasted carrots. Nibble off each leg, one at a time. It’s fantastic with a glass of Cinsault de la Sanglière 2011 Cuvée Spéciale rosé.
On to the main courses. The seafood stew is Arro’s version of bouillabaisse, with hefty hunks of grouper canoodling with clams and mussels in a broth with tomatoes, saffron and cayenne. The stew begs for a slab of fresh bread to sop it up. Its complex flavors love the crisp acidity and tangerine bite of Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Cuvée de Silex Vouvray by the glass.
What would a French meal be without sweetbreads? Arro serves medallions of these delicious thymus glands and pancreas treats alternating with medallions of lamb cooked medium rare on a bed of lentils. It’s divine. The Deux Montille Bourgogne Rouge pinot noir tickles the right spots to bring out the best in the delicate, rich and fatty sweetbreads coupled with the meaty lamb.
The Currens agree that no matter how good the main dinner items are, the hidden gems ar e the desserts. The cookie plate is easily overlooked, but it can be the best dessert to share. It has a little bit of everything, including fruit, chocolate and buttery goodness that goes perfect with French press coffee or a cordial.
Cordials? That’s right, It’s not just the sweets. Arro has a full cart of insanely tempting cordials—what, a choice of green or yellow Chartreuse?!?!— and a respectable list of dessert wines. There are some matches made in heaven, like the crème fraîche hazelnut panna cotta served with a petite glass of Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls. The port-like wine brings out the coffee notes in the chocolate that might be otherwise overlooked. The Baumard Quarts de Chaume dessert wine is delectable with the lemon goat-cheese tart. It’s so good, it didn’t matter that it wasn’t chocolate.
The service, the atmosphere and the delightful food and wine menu are drawing a crowd that is a cross section of Austin, with T-shirt-clad hipsters elbowed up to the bar next to gorgeous socialites decked out for a charity e vent alongside retirees out on a date. Any given night, you’re likely to see a who’s who of local luminaries , like Austin City Limits Producer Terry Lickona, or celebrated chefs like Paul Qui and Shawn Cirkiel. Recently, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, the New Zealand-based comedy duo known as Flight of the Conchords, spent the evening cracking jokes in the kitchen after performing in town with Dave Chappelle.
“We want to create fantastic restaurants that people can come to multiple times a w eek and not fuss about it,” Andrew Curren says. “We love to eat out. It’s by far our favorite thing to do after cooking. And we want to run restaurants that we would want to go to. We think we’ve done that.” The cohesive, family-like staff is orchestrating a fantastic playlist of hospitality, casual atmosphere, excellent food and a masterfully curated wine list to create a memorable dining experience.
Disclosure: Arro covered the cost of the meals for Beautiful Wife and me for this review. There was no expectation of a positive review based on the comp.