With its wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, Bryce Gilmore’s Odd Duck glows like a pristine jewel on South Lamar’s recently constructed Gibson Flats development. The sleek lines of the building represent the face of an evolving Austin, but the restaurant’s soul belies the modernity spouting around it.
Odd Duck may use contemporary techniques in preparing some of its dishes (how many in Lockhart have cooked a brisket sous vide?), but it specializes in rustic flavors and ingredients piqued with the acid of Gilmore’s trademark pickling.
Austin native Gilmore first opened Odd Duck as a trailer in 2009 just feet from the front door of his new restaurant. In the years since, he’s opened Barley Swine, one of the city’s best restaurants, just down the street and earned two James Beard nominations for best chef in the Southwest. That’s quite a trek from a 150-square-foot mobile kitchen parked on a gravel lot.
Odd Duck may be Austin’s hot new thing, but its warmth feels more like an heirloom quilt than the hot lights of a fashion runway. The mismatched vintage service wear was actually curated by some of the staff’s grandmothers, and the centerpiece brick oven looks like the kind of Central Texas artifact that could still be standing in 100 years after everything around it has crumbled.
The massive space — the restaurant seats 110 and the horseshoe kitchen could hold a full basketball team of cooks — means the restaurant has the capacity to do things the trailer could never support. The post-oak fired grill dwarfs the one from the trailer, and instead of purchasing bread from the excellent Moonlight Bakery, Odd Duck staff bakes their own.
That means a meal that starts with a crunchy and chewy spent grain loaf ($5) that whispers notes of powdered sugared French toast; honeycombed English muffins sandwiching pork belly at lunch ($10); a buttery and flaky croissant that conceals goat and Gruyere cheeses, a coddled egg and creamed spinach ($11); and milky white bread served with a one-pound brisket slathered in sweet homemade sauce ($42).
Thanks in part to its name, many associate Barley Swine with exotic proteins and nose-to-tail dining. Gilmore has stunned with goat heart and pig trotter at Barley Swine, but his small farm-to-table restaurant just down the road from Odd Duck also makes some of the best vegetable dishes in town.
The commitment to flavorful dishes made with local produce and protein extends to Odd Duck, meaning many of the ingredients will be familiar to those who’ve eaten at Barley Swine and the former trailer. Fibrous nobs of charred broccoli arrived in a field pea hummus-smeared bowl dotted with the crackle and tingle of pickled and fried peas and the bitter pop of local greens.
Mole that has draped brisket at Barley Swine here cradled soft wedges of earthy beets ($7), surrounded by the salt and smoke of wilted greens and the crunch of fried hominy. Cultured cream and charred olives rounded out the dish with sour and tart notes.
Cream and crackle returned with salty spires of baked sweet potato ($6) served with yogurt and the ballpark flavor of peanuts. Pastoral and floral cilantro spouted from the bottom of the Field of Dreams dish. The presentation at Odd Duck doesn’t always have the same pristine beauty I’ve come to expect at Barley Swine, which makes sense given the more modest nature of the dishes, but carrots roasted in hay and finished on the grill ($9) looked downright macabre, the crumble of pistachio and citrus of goat cheese doing little to distract from a dish that looked pulled from a house fire.
In addition to Gilmore, who bounces between his two restaurants, the kitchen at Odd Duck is helmed by Sam Hellman-Mass, an original Barley Swine employee, and Mark Buley. The chefs are not afraid to make bold choices. Meaty chunks of mild raw cobia ($13) interspersed with fatty blocks of ruddy grilled bacon, intoxicating with a salty-sweet-sour blend of thickened soy sauce, fish caramel and slices of Texas grapefruit.
One dinner featured the best pasta dish I’ve had this year. Tender braised goat sat atop a swirl of wide homemade ribbons of papardelle ($14) made with black olives and garlic in the flour mixture. That olive flavor was heightened by a sauce of emulsified olive oil and citrus, the sage-laced dish covered by a light dusting of Parmesan cheese. It is the kind of dish that makes you want to grab for one of the mini-spatulas offered at Barley Swine and swipe every last drop of sauce from the bowl.
The menu lists just a few ingredients of each dish, but service staff will walk you through the menu, usually suggesting about three dishes per person. It can make for about a $75 dinner for two before you factor in one of the best micro-brews from around the state and country, wine from their globe-trotting list, or a specialty cocktail like the draft Moscow mule ($8) concocted with housemade ginger brew.
The cost proposition can be a little more difficult to swallow at lunch, unless you’re comfortable spending more than $20 in the middle of a weekday. Homemade pretzel sticks are a great start to lunch or dinner. The homemade cigars ($6) enveloped gooey Gruyere and ham and came with a jar of creamy mustard béchamel. Haute bar food at its best.
You might want to schedule a nap after lunch if you choose the campfire comfort of a great dish of pinto beans and coarse lamb sausage ($9), soured slightly with cream and brightened with a gang of sage, rosemary and thyme. Tangy and tender quail, glazed with an ancho-mustard sauce ($14), rested on a black bean puree, with pea tendrils and cilantro trading bitter and floral notes.
You’ll find pickled components on many of the dishes at Odd Duck, but even I, who could devour Gilmore’s famous pickle foam by the canister, pumped my brakes when confronted with a puckering dish of creamy boudin grits with cold pickled shrimp and fierce bits of pickled green olives.
You could get out of Odd Duck for less than $20 at lunch by going straight for the update on the pork belly slider that helped put the Odd Duck trailer on the map. But if you had what I had one lunch, you’d leave disappointed. An acrid char left by the grill’s flare encrusted the huge slabs of bacon that could not be saved by the cream and snap of green garlic mayo and cabbage slaw.
Gilmore’s father, Jack, owns the Jack Allen’s Kitchens in Oak Hill and Round Rock. The restaurant has T-shirts that read “Chicken Fried Anything,” and the younger Gilmore proved his adept hand in that area with one of lunch’s best offerings, a soft-boiled egg chicken-fried and still left runny and golden on the inside. The culinary magic trick was served with hot sauce and pickled mushrooms.
The family vibe of the restaurant continues along the back hallway, with childhood pictures of staff and one of the steel columns marked in pen indicating the height of the staff. The bathrooms are lined with vintage baking ware that the staff’s grandmothers may have used to make one of the classic desserts at Odd Duck, such as buttermilk pie (not rich enough for my taste) in a peanut butter cookie crust with honeycomb candies and sweet tea gel ($7), or a moist bread pudding with malted ice cream and beer caramel ($7).
The comparisons to Barley Swine will be inevitable and help contextualize the Odd Duck experience. But Odd Duck is a different breed of animal. It’s less precise, elegant and artful than Barley Swine, while still featuring many of the same ingredients and flavor profiles. In essence it is thoughtful peasant food (but not at peasant prices) that speaks to the land and culture from which it comes.
I expect more chefs and restaurants in Austin to follow Gilmore’s lead in creating familiar and comforting regional dishes that showcase local ingredients. As one chef told me recently, it may seem trendy now, but that’s the only way our grandparents knew how to cook.