Barley Swine is still the type of small, homey restaurant where you sit elbow-to-elbow with people you may never have met and yet quickly befriend, where there is no bad choice to be made in what to order (except for not ordering MORE!), and the waitstaff--specifically Clara--knows where to be unobstrusive and where to intervene with suggestions, conversation, or commentary.*So which dish had me licking my plate this time? That would be the Fried Crab Risotto, on a soft scrambled egg sauce with morels and lightly pickled summer squash. The crispy fried outer layer of this sea-fusion arancini surrounded huge chunks of fresh-tasting crab unencumbered with filler. A light citrus note paired surprisingly well with the woody meatiness of the morel mushrooms, while the egg sauce was the buttery deliciousness that is the reason people poach eggs. And that (obviously) is why I needed to lick the plate. Of course, the meal didn't stop there. Next up? Duck Fat Poached Scallops with a shisito pepper broth, topped with Romaine in sesame dressing and a few well-placed duck cracklins'. The scallops were set into in a delicious cilantro puree that made for one fabulously bright bite with textural play when eaten together with the lettuce and cracklins. The only way this could have been better was if the whole edge of the plate was filled with the itty bitty cracklin' bites of amazing that somehow made me wonder if I shouldn't take up eating pork rinds.*
*I swear, our silverware would seem to magically disappear and reappear...but then right when you needed her, Clara was there discussing the potential of a pop-up lightbox to enhance my food photography.
And yes, in the six months since I first dined at the now illustrious and well-known Barley Swine , a few things have changed: the menu has been through two reincarnations, and Chef Bryce Gilmore was honored as one of Food + Wine's 10 Best New Chefs of 2011. Needless to say, this guy is good.
*And I mean that in a bizarrely flattering way. I swear. Next in the lineup was a selection of the specials board. According to our fabulous waitress, some critic of some sort (vague much?) had eaten the Grilled Corned Beef Tongue and said it tasted like a hot dog. So Chef Bryce decided rather than get mad, he'd get creative.
You want a hot dog? I'll give you a hot dog!
This insanely reinvented take on a typical hot dog had the grilled corned beef tongue set not in a bun, but on brioche puree,* topped not with pickles, but pickled okra. Instead of french fries, there were tender bites of baby potato. YUM!
*Yes, that's right. A puree made from bread. Buttery bread. So it was like butter. Melted. Oh my goll, y'all.... The last plate--and third dip in the ocean--brought Red Fish with refried beans and a tomato-bread salad. And watermelon foam. Lots of watermelon foam. Perfectly cooked fish that simply melted away and fresh tomatoes paired with small chunks of bread, adding further textural intrigue. It was when I made a comment along the lines of "Foam! I feel like I'm on Top Chef," that the crazy REALLY started happening. Overhearing my comment, Mr. Manager came over and told me that after we left, they were holding our table for the finalists and judges of Top Chef (!), which is currently filming here in Austin. Of course I freaked out. Of course. I was not too freaked out for dessert, however. I channeled my nervous energy into eating Smoked Pecan Fudge with toasted marshmallows, cococa nibs, and salted caramel ice cream. As our waitress described it, it was a deconstructed s'more on a plate. [There must have been liquid smoke in the fudge. It literally as like being around a campfire.] And the only real way to end this post is to tell y'all that as the bill was being paid, Mr. Manager told me that TOM AND GAIL WERE ON THEIR WAY!!!! So I waited outside of the restaurant for 30 minutes just to watch Tom and Gail walk in and sit down, after which I texted about 25 random people in my phone....most of whom really didn't care. But I did. Tom and Gail!
I like to think I warmed up the seats for them.