It bothers chef Ned Elliott that I'm using the word ‘upscale' to describe his little place on 53rd Street with the flying pig on the front.
It doesn't matter that I'm naming Foreign & Domestic as Austin360's Newcomer of the Year in the ‘upscale' category. The word still bugs him.
‘We don't want to be pigeonholed as a "destination" restaurant,' he says.
He sounds even more worried about how his wife — co-owner and pastry chef Jodi Elliott — will react.
It doesn't sound like false modesty, despite the fact that the Elliotts have almost 20 years' experience between them working for Michelin-starred places like Per Se, Gramercy Tavern and Bouley in New York. I think they genuinely see Foreign & Domestic as a casual place that just happens to have venison-heart tartare with fried pig's ear on the appetizer menu, listed a few dishes below ‘whipped lardo' with (pucker up) balsamic jelly. Casual? Sure. You want fries with that?
Their restaurant is in that zone where the approach to food matters more than how much it costs or whether it's served on white linen. There's too much intellectual energy, flavor strategy and high technique to put Foreign & Domestic in the same casual category as even a clever burger place like Your Mom's. The same can be said for other in-between places in this ‘upscale' sampling: East Side Show Room, Braise, Mama Roux, Perla's or the newcomers La Sombra and Zandunga Mexican Bistro.
Foreign & Domestic feels like a new approach to food and food service. I don't always agree with it — that whipped pork fat tastes about as good as its sounds — but it works more often than it doesn't. And when it works, it makes you expect more from everybody else. That venison tartare tastes better than I could possibly describe. It's a luscious chemical reaction, like infatuation. It looks great, too.
I've found joy here in something as simple as slices of prized Tennessee ham and as complex as octopus and scallops with squid ink and chorizo. I've never tried Jodi Elliott's chocolate-covered bacon, but her coconut sundae with a lime tart at its core is pretty clever, a creamy union of sweet and tart.
Foreign & Domestic doesn't seem overpriced, not by upscale standards. Appetizers run from about $5 for popovers to $11 for foie gras and chicken-liver mousse. Main courses range from $13 for tofu to $23 for Wagyu flank steak.
‘Our average ticket per person is like $32,' Ned Elliott says. ‘People can come in and have a really good meal, have a first course, a second course, split a dessert and have a couple of drinks for under $40.'
The kitchen is built right into the dining room, the bank of seats along its edge close enough for fans to interfere like bleacher bums chasing a fly ball. There's nowhere to hide, at least when GQ magazine food writer Alan Richman sat there in October, visiting Foreign & Domestic on the recommendation of Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook, according to Ned Elliott's exhilarated Twitter feed from the night.
So what has the Newcomer of the Year learned about his new home since Foreign & Domestic opened in May?
‘When UT football had the first home game, you know, we were dead,' Ned Elliott says. ‘Talking with friends of mine — Paul Qui over at Uchi and Uchiko and Shawn Cirkiel (Parkside) and Zack Northcutt (Mulberry) — they're like, "Oh, fall and winter are awesome." Then they're like, "Oh yeah. There's 12 Saturday nights, or 10, that are dead because of UT football." '
The ides of Texas are upon you.
Foreign & Domestic. 306 E. 53rd St. 459-1010, www.foodanddrinkaustin.com.