First-time restaurant owners thrilled and thrived with their maiden ventures in 2012, while seasoned restaurateurs added to their portfolios of successful establishments.
Standout newcomers included inventive Asian cuisine in an unexpected northwest location, comforting small plates downtown, traditional Italian uptown, classic Mexican in the Rainey Street District and, south of the river, some of the best food in the city.
Below I take a look at the five most exciting restaurant openings of the year and peek at 10 places we’ll be tasting in 2013.
1807 S. First St. 215-9778, lenoirrestaurant.com
My Newcomer of the Year charms, challenges and enchants. Chef-owners Todd Duplechan and wife Jessica Maher’s restaurant features an ethereal yet rustic design and a small but varied menu that delivers “hot weather cuisine,” with flavors ranging from Northern Africa to Southeast Asia but all tied to Texas and the Gulf Coast. The mostly European wine list, curated by Mark Sayer of Trio at the Four Seasons, is intriguing despite its limited size, and the knowledgeable servers at this intimate restaurant can help guide you through thoughtful pairings with your fixed-course meal. Favorite dish at Lenoir this year: a flaky, poha-encrusted flounder bathed in a coconut milk-enriched green curry.
2. Spin Modern Thai
14005 N. U.S. 183, Suite 1000. 258-1365, SpinModernThai.com
After my first dish at this nondescript strip-mall restaurant in Northwest Austin I knew the chefs had serious chops that belied the humble nature of the restaurant’s location. A little questioning revealed two men with impressive pedigrees: Uchiko veteran Thai Changthong and chef-partner Ek Timrerk, who worked at Uchi and helped found the popular East Side King trailers. The service is not always as solid as the food, but, oh, the food … creative and flavorful twists on classic Thai dishes. Favorite dish at Spin this year: large hunks of pan-seared duck breast served in a hot cauldron of bubbling red pineapple curry, brightly earthy with lemon grass.
3. Swift’s Attic
315 Congress Ave., Suite 200. 482-8842, SwiftsAttic.com
Curtains made of old doorknobs, a birdcage fit for a falcon, damask prints, exposed 100 year-old brick walls … Swift’s exemplifies shabby chic. The scene jumps like a club on weekend nights at the restaurant helmed by chef Matt Clouser, who is supported by veteran chef Zach Northcutt and pastry wiz Callie Speer. The team delivers an upscale take on bar food with items such as tempura fried squash blossoms, juicy pork cheeks and crispy duck wings. Favorite dish at Swift’s this year: Not ashamed to admit it’s the “Bowling Alley Burger.” Served only at lunch, the fat, coarse-ground patty comes topped with the salty tang of melted fontina cheese and the sweetness of caramelized onions.
4. El Naranjo
85 Rainey St. 512.474-2776, ElNaranjo-Restaurant.com
The long wait for El Naranjo to make the transition from food truck to brick-and-mortar restaurant paid off when the elegant bungalow opened in May. Mexican chef Iliana de la Vega and husband Erenesto Torrealba’s restaurant serves as the culinary calm amidst the chaos of Rainey Street. El Naranjo is home to some of the best moles in town. A mole special from Puebla earlier this year had a depth and complexity unlike any I’ve had in Austin, with chocolate taking a backseat to earthy flavors of toasted sesame seeds, raisins, cloves and a quartet of peppers (ancho, mulato, pasilla and chipotle). At the other end of the spectrum is the electric vuelve a la vida seafood cocktail that is spiked with fierce bits of jalapeño. Favorite dish at El Naranjo this year: A brilliant tangerine-colored tomato-and-almond sauce draped over a dark green chile poblano relleno de picadillo Oaxaqueño stuffed with braised pork and flecked with raisins and tart capers.
5. Olive & June
3411 Glenview Ave. 467-9898, oliveandjune-austin.com
Chef Shawn Cirkiel added a new member to his restaurant family earlier this year with the multi-tiered modern treehouse near the medical center. The hip restaurant that looks like it could be nestled in the Hollywood Hills provided some awkward customer service experiences early on, but the kitchen has a handle on the sprawling menu. My favorite part of the menu is the antipasti and small plates sections that offer the chance to taste an array of flavors, from the humble poached farm egg and polenta with mushrooms to the light involtini of paper-thin zucchini encircling smoky tomatoes and sweet raisins. Favorite dish at Olive & June this year: Simplicity rules the day with a big meaty triangle of herbed and oiled grilled swordfish served on a stick.
Five more new places that made an impression …
Ramen Tatsu-Ya is a bona fide sensation, with folks lining up for an hour at times to enjoy the deep, fatty flavors of pork-based ramen tonkotsu. Speaking of ramen, there are several variations on the menu at Motoyasu Utsunomiya and Paul Qui’s new East Side King location at the Hole in the Wall. The group behind 24 Diner opened Easy Tiger, a bakery and beer garden serving homemade sausages and more than two dozen draft beers, on East Sixth Street. Eddie V’s and Z’Tejas founders Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso’s Salty Sow blends comfort and class with refined tavern fare. East Side Show Room co-owners Mickie Spencer and chef Sonya Coté headed further east to open the precious Hillside Farmacy, which serves quality sandwiches and salads at lunch and bistro fare in the evening.
Wait for it …
I’ve yet to dine for work at a handful of exciting restaurants, as I let the restaurants round into form. Early word has been generally strong and positive for each. Chef Parind Vora’s Restaurant Jezebel has risen from the ashes, with the new incarnation of the fine-dining restaurant located in the Cirrus Logic building on West Sixth Street. Vora also opened the more casual Bar Mirabeau concept in the adjoining space. Executive chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki put themselves on Austin’s dining map with La Condesa and are now tackling Thai at owners Jesse Herman and Delfo Trombetta’s Sway on South First Street. Larry McGuire’s empire got an addition with Clark’s Oyster Bar, a cozier cousin of Perla’s located on West Sixth Street.
A look at what’s to come …
The new year will see familiar faces expanding their reach and fresh faces joining the fray, including a few from out-of-town.
• Chef Andrew Curren (24 Diner, Easy Tiger) will bring casual French cuisine to Allandale with Arro, located in the old Austin Diner at 5408 Burnet Road. Joining Curren will be his wife and fellow Culinary Institute of America alumnus, pastry chef Mary Catherine Curren. Arro will be open seven nights a week and offer brunch on Saturday and Sundays, according to a representative.
• Spanish chef Daniel Olivella and his family live in Austin, though he owns two restaurants, B44 and Barlata, in San Francisco. He will open a tapas bar called Barlata next year in the southwest corner of the Post South Lamar apartment complex.
• After weathering some blowback from neighbors following the initial announcement of a restaurant coming to the Rosedale neighborhood, Épicerie Café & Grocery is preparing for a January opening at 2307 Hancock Drive. The restaurant, designed by Maija Kreishman of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, will offer affordable French/Louisiana-inspired cuisine, housemade charcuterie and specialty groceries.
• Maguire and his partners will reopen Jeffrey’s, the one-time gem of Austin’s fine-dining scene. Expect the restaurant to have a very decisive design concept with an old-school feel.
• Chef Allison Jenkins’ résumé includes time at the impressive Little Nell in Aspen. She comes to Austin to help open La V, a restaurant on East Seventh Street that will feature European-inspired cuisine. Reps for La V said the restaurant will also have a “killer wine selection” that is unlike anything Austin has seen.
• Rainey Street impresario Bridget Dunlap adds Austin restaurateur to her résumé with Mettle. The restaurant, expected to open in late January, will be helmed by former Olivia chef Andrew Francisco. Dunlap says to expect “chef-driven food with local ingredients” at the East Austin restaurant. Dunlap also plans to open a restaurant called Ophelia Blue at the end of the first quarter of 2013, though there are few details.
• “Top Chef” winner Paul Qui will open Qui, his flagship restaurant, in the spring at 1600 E. Sixth St. The restaurant, which reps say will be fun and have no boundaries, will be walk-in only with reservations for large parties. There also will be a separate 10-seat tasting room with no menu, allowing Qui to express his culinary creativity. Qui and company also will open a brick-and-mortar version of East Side King on South Lamar Boulevard.
• The families behind Lockhart barbecue titans Kreuz Market and Smitty’s will join forces to bring their smoked meats to Bee Cave. Given their histories, I expect some exceptional food coming out of Schmidt Family Barbecue.
• Searsucker is a restaurant not a haberdashery. “Top Chef” veteran Brian Malarkey just has predilection for naming his restaurants after fabric. He will open an Austin location of his San Diego restaurant in the space previously occupied by Maria, Maria. No word on who will serve as executive chef, but reps say diners should expect the cuisine to be “New American Classic with a focus on unpretentious, approachable dishes with some local Texas flair.”
• The food truck that originally brought acclaim to chef Bryce Gilmore returns in the late spring, reincarnated as a 120-person restaurant. The Barley Swine chef-owner and his partners will open Odd Duck on the ground floor of the Gibson Flats at 1219 S. Lamar Blvd. Gilmore will split his time between Odd Duck and Barley Swine, according to a release. Odd Duck will serve lunch, dinner and late-night and feature a full bar and large outdoor patio. And hopefully it will serve to make getting a seat at the exceptional Barley Swine just a tad easier.
As originally published, this story incorrectly spelled Larry McGuire's last name. The correct spelling is McGuire.