Ginny Bell of Ginny’s Austin will be sipping and sampling her way through the weekend, so check back for more! Also, follow along on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for realtime updates from the Fest!
Last night I kicked off this year’s Austin FOOD & WINE Festival by devouring bites from over 20 of the state’s best chefs at the Taste of Texas event. Catering for a crowd on a humid day is no easy task, but there were several chefs who delivered in spades.
My top pick of the night came from James Holmes of Olivia. I was over the moon with Holmes’s smoked oyster topped with crème fraiche, herbs, bacon and duck blood pearls. Smokey, sweet, savory, and so on: the flavors of the oyster combination were perfection — overall a stunning, unforgettable little number.
Fort Worth Chef Blaine Staniford of Grace restaurant drew inspiration from a humble can of tuna for his dish. Served in a tin can, his tuna conserva with olive oil poached vegetables and garlic aioli was outstanding.
I was particularly excited about visiting the station manned by Houston’s Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly. Having visited Underbelly on several occasions, expectations were high, and his wagyu meatball dressed in a grapefruit barbeque sauce and served with a cumin slaw delivered. Should you find yourself in Houston, I highly recommend making plans to visit Underbelly. Chef Shepherd’s expressive food tells the story of the diverse cultural ‘underbelly’ of Houston. Underbelly’s equally unique wine list is comprised solely of food friendly wines from family-owned and operated wineries.
Despite reminding myself this weekend is a marathon, not a sprint, I threw caution to the wind by quickly devouring the duo of desserts from Uchi/Philip Speer. The first, a banana pudding meets tres leches, was both innovative and nostalgic. Its counterpart, a sweet and savory little number of lemongrass, sweet pea and parsley, once again reiterated why Uchi continues to be Austin’s gold standard of dining.
Chef John Russ of San Antonio’s New Orleans-inspired restaurant Lukedelivered a crowd pleaser with his rendition of shrimp and grits. Meanwhile, Dallas based chef Tim Byres of Smoke restaurant served grilled oysters brimming in delicious salty goodness.
Described as a play on eggplant parmigiana, I didn’t quite get the symbolism with Spiaggia Chef Sarah Grueneberg‘s dish, but frankly it made no difference as it was both filling and delicious. Subtle and well executed, this ranked in my top five for the evening.
Next up was a visit to Jason Dady, chef/owner of several of San Antonio’s best restaurants, including Tre Trattoria and Bin 55. Dady took a risk by using molecular gastronomy to create a playful interpretation of Mexican street corn. The ‘corn’ flavored foam, served on top of a lime, was hands down the most inventive dish of the evening, and certainly enough to make avant-garde Chef Graham Elliot proud.
Though it felt as if I had devoured everything in sight, it was time to activate the dessert shelf for the Taste of Texas afterparty. Mellow Johnny’s bike and coffee shop turned into Willie Wonka’s candy wonderland for the Sips & Sweets event. The party was headlined by local star pastry chefs including TRACE pastry chef Janina O’Leary who gave us a preview of the deliciousness in store at tonight’s Sel et Grasevent. Positioned under a macaroon chandelier, O’Leary dished out puddings, cookies and chocolates galore.
Foreign & Domestic’s co-owner and pastry chef Jodi Elliott pulled double duty at both the Taste of Texas and Sips & Sweets events. Fresh off being named as FOOD & WINE magazine’s 2013 People’s Best New Pastry Chef, Jodi set the bar high with her with her cherry macaroon and vanilla cake.
The most ambitious display of the evening belonged to Congress pastry chef Erica Waksmunski who created a mini candy store stocked with tootsie rolls, pudding pops, fruit chews and mini macaroons.
With Bar Congress mixologist Jason Stevens manning the bar, the desserts weren’t limited to solely snacks. His coffee cocktail complete with a coconut whipped crème was excellent, though certainly not for the faint of heart.
Stuffed to the brim and with a big Saturday in store, it was time to put this food coma to bed. Overall, both the Taste of Texas and Sips & Sweets events proved the perfect precursor to the main event, while allowing both local and regional talent to shine among national peers.
Taste of Texas
Sips & Sweets