Category Archives: FOOD & DRINK

MY TRAVEL GUIDE TO AUSTIN

Since mainlining episodes of The Millionaire Matchmaker over last month’s maternity leave, I often forget that I still have a brain. But I do! [Taps finger to temple]

Before binging on trashy TV, I produced a couple of pieces of work that I’m pretty proud of. Here’s the first one:

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I wrote a travel guide to Austin! It was released by a cute little publishing company called The HUNT Guides and required me to sample roughly 50 restaurants in two weeks, including places like Qui and Swift’s Attic. Life is just so hard sometimes.

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I was familiar with a lot of these businesses already, but did uncover some surprises along the way. Case in point: north Austin’s Tomodachi Sushi, which is not only beautiful, but peddles delicious specialty rolls with names such as Say My Name!!! and Who’s Ur Daddy?!? (basically, each roll gets three punctuation marks). The chef explained the sushi names to me this way: “we wanted to make them memorable.” Sir, you were successful.

We – and here I mean my buddy Amy and I – also got to sample Noble Sandwich Co., i.e., the Uchi of sandwiches. Everything, right down to the thin-sliced pickles, is made in-house and is so fresh and tasty you just can’t even believe you’re eating a sandwich. The humble sandwich! That most utilitarian of meals! It is made special here. Transformed into something beyond its quotidian status. So good, it inspires me to use words like “quotidian.”

Alas, there were several new restaurants in the works that weren’t quite open by the time I finished “research:” chavez, LaV, Odd Duck. What a shame, The HUNT Guides will just have to hire me again to write the next edition!

You can order the book here, and I believe it’s also being carried at local bookstores. I’ll update this post once I find out.

UPDATED 7/3/14: BookPeople‘s got it!

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I also wrote my first article for TheAtlantic.com, where I am now a health correspondent! It was a story on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust – even when they shouldn’t – and is something I’ve wanted to write about for years, ever since I heard about a little girl with Williams Syndrome on NPR. My piece explores what it’s like to hold down a job when you have Williams Syndrome (tough), and the steps individuals with the condition have to take to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of at work (many).

I’m now working on my second piece, which is about prison executioners, and in a scene suggestive of my new life I started research for it the other day with a baby on my lap. “Hello, may I please speak to Mr. Jail Warden?” [Baby cries in background] “Oh, he’s not there? Can you – oh hang on, just have to position my nipple…get the whole areola in her mouth…THERE!  Yes, I’ll leave a number. Hey, you still there? Hello?”

I officially return back to work today, which means I’ll be picking back up with my copywriting clients and continuing to report that piece. Ross and I are extremely lucky in that we both work from home, so we take shifts looking after Nico while the other one does their job. It’s been ok during our practice runs, but poor Ross, who lacks breasts, is faced with a screaming newborn from time to time. She likes to head bang his shirt, and is clearly thinking: “HEY!!!!! I’m TWEAKING!!!! Milk please!!!”

We’ve improved the situation with a breast pump however, which took me a few weeks to face down, but now enables me to hand milk to Ross and have him feed her. She likes to look up at him while nursing, and (encouragingly?) grab his chest hair, as if to say, “I knew you could do it.”

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THE WORST JOB EVER

Full disclosure: This post title is a sarcastic one.

Recently, I got contracted to write a travel guide about Austin via this publishing company, and while wary – my insider’s knowledge of Austin is truly a flimsy guise – these past couple of weeks writing/shooting it have been pretty (burp) darn enjoyable.

Since I’ve bragged about this assignment on just about every social media channel I am registered on, I figured it was time to have a proper blog post about it, too.

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As you can see, writing this guide involves a lot of eating. Which is convenient, because guess who’s eating for two? (PREGNANT LADY HUNGRY.)

I’m just kidding: as my friend Sissel recently pointed out, there’s a tiny organism in my stomach, not – unless my ultrasounds have been seriously erroneous – a full-grown man. So really you’re eating for 1.1, which isn’t nearly as cool as eating for two.

Nevertheless! Pregnant or no, duty calls. And though I’m in a professional place now where I’m seeking out more news writing, more issues work, assignments like this are admittedly super fun.

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Baby’s first Uchi!

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This is a REAL sandwich.

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Please don’t get diabetes, baby! But here, enjoy these garlic-smothered meatballs. 

Working on this guide has brought to mind two distinct things: Match.com, and Frank Bruni’s Born Round – one of my favorite food memoirs of all time.

I say Match.com because in many ways, trying all this food is a bit like I imagine speed-dating to be. Traditionally, I suppose it’s the food critic (don’t really think of myself that way, but you get the idea) who is the one with all the power. But, I still get incredibly intimidated each time I walk into, say, Jeffrey’s, and have to pretend I know what sous-vide is (thanks Wikipedia) when the chef is explaining his or her dish. “Mm hmm, right,” I say, looking down at said sous-wide dish, nodding in mock understanding. Like dating, it’s a situation where both of us are hoping to impress: one with actual ability, the other with faux knowledge.

So I’m not really a food expert. At all. But, I went through a phase where I voraciously read food memoirs – all of Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential of course, Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life – but one of my top reads was Frank Bruni’s Born Round. Frank Burni is an imposing journalist anyway, and got a post as The New York Times‘ restaurant critic after dedicating years of his life to covering the Catholic papacy and George W. Bush’s presidential bid for the paper. But, he also entered into the restaurant critic position – a dream job for just about anyone – with a degree of trepidation. And this is where I relate to him.

Bruni grew up with a weight problem, which later evolved into bulimia in college, then obesity as a journalist. And the moment he finally turns his health around, hiring a trainer, losing all the weight, and healing his compulsive eating…that, THAT is when he gets the call from the Times about the restaurant critic position.

So he must learn to not only wrangle his food demons, but to be a professional with his new job. At the Times, this means visiting a restaurant multiple times for multiple tastings. As someone who has a handful of food issues herself, I 100% get both the giddiness and simultaneous fear this must inspire.

To be honest with you, I’m grappling with the reality of having a changing body during pregnancy. Many pregnant women contend with this I suppose, but when I’m out doing all these tastings, I at once feel, “OH MY GOD I’m eating at Uchi and not paying for it!” mixed with, “fuck, fuck, fuck – I need to limit my bites here.”

Does this sound obnoxious? Probably. To get an opportunity like this, and then be a bit whiny about it. But like Frank Bruni, it’s a situation where the sheer, animal joy of your assignment hits frequent walls of self-conscious, self-imposed restraint. Like Bruni, it was college where I learned all the tricks for controlling weight, but it was never throwing up. More like a strict regimen of protein shakes and working out. I lost my period for a little while, and of course lots of pounds. Interestingly though, I don’t really look back on this as a dark time: as anyone with eating neuroses can tell you, exerting that kind of control is extremely gratifying.

Pregnancy, however, is a period that forces you to cede control, because like it or not: you gon’ grow. And when faced with the most delicious food in the city, that growth is augmented by enormous sensory pleasure. So I never refuse to try a dish – I mean, c’mon. But, I’m trying to get to a place where I regard each bite as somewhat magical. Not because I’m attempting to be preggorexic (a term I learned the other day) and survive off five bites daily, but to be a bit Buddhist about it, and to think about all the hands and effort that went into my perfect little bite, and now I get to eat it. I get to replace my faux knowledge with the real thing. I get to expose the tiny organism to braised octopus, roasted beets, and the occasional deep-fried peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich, and I get to not freak out about it.

And, slowly, I get to accept some change.

Photo locations: The Goodnight, Winflo Osteria, Arro, Swift’s Attic, Second Bar + Kitchen, Salty Sow, Uchi, Haymaker, Patrizi’s. 

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THE SOUND AND THE CURRY: AUSTIN FOOD + WINE FEST

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Hello, old sport!

(Bear with me, Reader. I haven’t even seen Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby yet, but as you can see, my inner English major is rearing its dorky head. Just like how people dress up as hobbits for Lord of the Rings screenings, what would you think of me going to see Great Gatsby dressed as Daisy Buchanan and speaking only in 1920s slang? I’m only halfway kidding about this.)

Courtesy of the very generous Simi Wines, Megan and I went to the Austin Food + Wine Fest a few weekends ago. Now, I’ll be honest with you. I have a hard time writing about stuff like this. Whenever I’m supposed to interview a chef or something, it’s like I figuratively curl up in their lap and say “tell me a story!” And then I write about their story, and that’s that.

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Much more difficult, I find, to describe just the food itself in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. “This taco is meaty!” “This cake is sweet!” No joke, that is how I would write about all food, were it not for my trusty thesaurus.

Which is why I always loved Josh Ozersky when he and I were doing that food show last year. Remember that? He was always so descriptive with food, narrating each bite with a historian’s sensibility, and he could tell you for example which New York hamburgers’ meat patties were served exactly flush with their buns, and which were not. That, my friends, is some serious attention to detail.

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Anyway, it’s also hard to write about Austin Food + Wine Fest because, let’s face it — it’s people eating and drinking all day. As I overheard one attendee say, “this seems like an event the Real Housewives would go to.” So true! And like a Real Housewife, it’s all too easy to get tipsy and not remember any of the specific, delicious samples that you tried, lost in a haze of Pinot Grigio. So let’s hold lacquered hands, and try to piece things together.

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Exhibit A: Sampling champagne slushees.

Early on at the fest, we ran into my Citygram editor Chris Perez, there on the left. He was there with My Well Fed Life blogger and freelance food writer Veronica Meewes, who possesses an amazing tattoo.

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Banksy!

So we joined forces, Megan, Chris, Veronica and I, and behaved like one does at these things:

“DID YOU SEE THAT PORK SLIDER WALK BY? I must have that pork slider.”

“No – the beet taco! Turn away from the slider! Get in this line with me and let’s eat a beet taco!!”

“F-k the beet taco, I’m eating this jalapeno-infused chocolate drizzled with a balsamic white wine reduction.”

“Wha?? Where did that come from?”

“Too late, let’s wash everything down with 18 wine samples.”

“Good idea.”

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I’m serious, Reader – this is how people, people like myself, talk at these things. It’s overwhelming. But incredibly tasty.

Take, for example – the beet taco! Doesn’t that sound…odd? It was, in fact, our favorite sample of the day. Another surprise? It came from Hickory Street! I had no idea they were foodie-ish.

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We swung by Simi’s booth, and chatted a bit with Chef Kolin Vazzoler, who has a terribly exciting last name. Don’t you get excited when you see double z’s? I do.

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Kolin served us a fried chicken skin — a chip-like substance — topped with mushroom puree and dried cherry. He also handed us glasses of pinot noir to pair it with, prompting Megan and I to pretend like we were very knowledgeable oenophiles. “An excellent choice!” we cried. And we weren’t lying. It was excellent.

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Now, given the choice between salty and sweet, I’ll take the former any day. I don’t have a sweet tooth; I’m like a horse with a salt lick. Which is why I breezed straight past all the cake balls/tiny pies/cookies on sticks/champagne slushees/etc. and made a beeline for anything covered in salami or cheese.

As you can see, I was successful:

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Salami courtesy San Francisco-based Columbus, who I had to look up on the Internet because I was too busy stuffing my face to write their name down.

But for me, the main delight of the Austin Food + Wine Fest were wine demos by bad boy sommelier Mark Oldman, who got busted in Austin last year for jaywalking:

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A warrant for Mark’s arrest, proudly displayed on his demo table.

Oh, I wish I had a good picture, or better yet a video Reader, of Mark Oldman! I went to his AF+W demo last year too, and it basically consists of every person drinking five glasses of wine each while Mark tells jokes and makes champagne bottles explode with a sword. He does educate you, too, pointing out various wine regions and why the price points of some wines are more or less than others, but I go because he is so damn entertaining, the anti-snob of the wine world. If he comes back next year – provided he isn’t in jail – you’ll love him.

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I suppose that’s the reason I go to Austin Food + Wine Fest, because the people are interesting. To have such singular focus, on a type of food, a type of wine, and work at it for years. Don’t get me wrong: I go for the samples, too. But when your taste buds inevitably exhaust, you start looking around at all the people making it, and wonder: What brought you here? What piqued your interest in salami / wine / tiny pies? Do you ever tire of it? Are you in it for the artistry of food? Is there an artistry of food? Or is it just a lizard-brain type of thing, a pleasure response rather than an intellectual one? Are you in it for the service? The way people close their eyes and get dreamy when they bite your food? Is it weird when people grab your samples and jam it in their mouths without saying thanks? Or are you over that? Is the real joy in slicing a sharpened knife through a slab of cured meat, feeling the slices fall cleanly away?

Maybe it’s all of these things.

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HOW’D YOU GET THAT COOL JOB? PASTRY CATERER, ANDREA DUTY

Hello Internet!

A while back, I got the idea to do an informal blog series on people with really cool jobs here in Austin (and possibly elsewhere) to figure out how they did that. It always blows my mind whenever I meet a professional dog walker / ice cream taste tester / tightrope walker etc., and after each encounter I think, oh my God you are so awesome. Then I realized, wait a minute. I know some of these people.

So I decided to open this series with pastry chef and caterer Andrea Duty, owner and operator of Bake Sale Austin. I met Andrea through my friend Camille a few months ago, and was so impressed that she literally made delicious sweets on her own, for a living. Not a hobby, an honest-to-God living!

The former pastry chef for FINO and Asti Trattoria here in town, Andrea made the leap to one-woman-operation a few years ago, and I figured she’d be an awesome person to start off this series. After all, who doesn’t fantasize about chucking all and baking glorious cakes all day? That’s exactly what Andrea does (plus just a wee bit more).

Below, she tells us how she did it.

1. Hi Andrea! How did you get your cool job?

Well, I made up my ideal position and hired myself as boss lady. But before that, I attended the French Culinary Institute where I delved deep into my passion of butchering animals, making stocks and scaling fish. Despite knowing all these fancy techniques, I somehow kept landing jobs as pastry assistant and eventually as pastry chef and surprised myself by somehow loving the sweet side of the kitchen just a touch more than the savory. I paid a few years dues in restaurants, but decided I wanted a job that allowed for a bit more variety than just churning out the same menu over and over. Dessert catering certainly fits the bill – allowing me create new menus on a weekly basis while maintaining super flexible hours to boot.

2. What does your typical day at work look like?

1. Put butter and eggs on the counter to warm to room temp.
2. Turn on oven.
3. Bake. Bake. Bake like mad.
4. Package and run a few deliveries.
5. If the order is for a wedding, I’ll set up a dessert buffet at the venue and double check everything with the planner on hand.
6. CLEAN THE KITCHEN.
7. Answer emails and do menu planning for upcoming weddings.
8. Read loads of food blogs and flip though cookbooks.
9. Eat a cookie.

3. When you’re self-employed, I find that it’s sometimes hard to track progress — folks with corporate jobs have raises/promotions to vie for, but it’s different for us freelance folk. How do you stay motivated, and make yourself feel like you’re taking meaningful steps forward?

My main form of motivation comes from those around me. I’m always looking at what other amazing bakers/chefs/business owners are doing and, I have to say, it always makes me feel like I’m lagging behind somehow. They say that comparison is the thief of joy, but I think that in my case comparison is the spur that kicks me in gear.

4. What would you recommend to someone who wanted to become an awesome pastry chef caterer like you?

Work for as many restaurants, chefs, bakers, or caterers as you can stand before you go off on your own. In most cases, you will work for low pay or no pay, but it is the most invaluable experience you can get. Culinary school isn’t necessary, but this is. I wish I had done more internships before I opened my business as there is always so much to learn in the food world. I still knock on bakery doors every once in a while to work for free as a “stage” for a couple of days. Staging is one of the coolest little deals in the culinary world. Basically, you volunteer to work somewhere for free for a couple of days or for a long stint in exchange for whatever knowledge you can glean in someone else’s kitchen. It’s a fantastic way to see get new ideas and keep yourself primed.

5. If you weren’t running Bake Sale Austin, you’d be: 

Working 13 hour days in your friendly neighborhood restaurant.

Thank you for stopping by Austin Eavesdropper, Andrea! 

Have an idea for “How’d You Get That Cool Job?” Email me (Tolly) at austineavesdropper [a] gmail.

Images courtesy Bill SalansBake Sale Austin, Camille Styles, The Nichols, Paige Newton, and Hayden Spears.

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DOMO ARIGATO, MR. ROBOTO: LUCKY ROBOT REVIEW

Have you heard about Lucky Robot?

It opened on South Congress next to Amy’s, where Zen used to be. But before I, Megan, get into any more details, I have two words —pardon me. THREE words for you:

Japanese Street Pizza!

I can’t stop thinking about it. Known as Okonomyiaki, it’s shrimp and Krab topped with kewpie mayo, a savory tonkatsu sauce, pickled ginger, scallions, bonito and sesame. I don’t know twenty seven of those words I just typed, but my stomach is nodding its head in agreement with me: hot damn, it’s good. And not just tasty — spooky too. The topping, the “bonito” part, moves. On its own. Like it’s alive.

To me, it looked like seaweed undulating silently underwater. I took a video of it, so if you’re extra curious, come over and we can stare at my iPhone together. According to local lore (the owner), it has something to do with the heat and the fact that bonito is delicate and paper-thin.

Back to the location: Adam Weisberg, who founded the local Japanese restaurant chain Zen, decided that with this particular location, he wanted to expand on what patrons love about Zen and create an elevated menu and restaurant experience.

The Adam Weisberg.

For instance: iPads dot each table.

You can order your drinks and various dishes after taking a fingertip tour through the menu. Nutritional info, price, and photos of each plate appear on the screen.

If you like, you can even pay your bill this way. This does not, however, mean that you don’t deal with any wait staff—they still serve you at all times.

“The iPads are really here for you to have fun,” says Adam. “You can course your meal your meal to be as slow or as fast as you like. You can rate it, too.”

Other fun features:
–A swing seat is suspended from the ceiling.

–The wait staff dresses in Harajuku street style.

–The menu offers gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian items (with many under $10).
–And, sake. Sake Punch, to be exact. Pretty darn tasty.

This one is the Green Manalishi: Junmai sake, lemon & lime juice, agave nectar, cucumber, cilantro, mint, serrano, magic.

The Orient Express: Cucumber-infused sake, lime, lemongrass, cucumber, fever tree bitter lemon. These punches are, as you can see, served in ginormous 42oz carafes.

We also tried:

Yummy sashimi, adorned with crispy shallot, cilantro, ponzu, and lemongrass soy.

Crisped brussell sprouts tossed in lemongrass soy — be still my beating heart.

This makimoto roll is grilled hanger steak, avocado, carrot, topped with shrimp and plated with that delicious, savory tonkatsu from the Okonomiyaki pizza, as well as green onions and spicy sauce.

A pretty little sashimi plate, made up of seared albarcoare, avocado, cucumber, serrano, cilantro, habernero oil, ponzu, and lime juice.

It was a slow burn, those bites.

And finally, dessert, which looks elegant in this picture, but was quickly and decisively ravaged.

 Blue yuzu donatsu and Mexican vanilla bean ice cream.

I will definitely be going back. Very soon. Maybe with this dinner companion, i.e., the most adorable girl in the world.

Links: LuckyRobotRestaurant.com, Lucky’s Robot’s Facebook, and @luckyrobotATX.

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