Where have you been eating lately? Have you had a great dish you’d recommend? What about that new place, how’s it? Or that place that’s been around awhile, is it still worth a visit?
Readers and friends often pose these questions to me (and likely each other). So, I'm introducing a new occasional feature called the Critic’s Notebook. These entries will let you know where I’ve been and what I’ve tried without going into the detail you’d expect from one of my restaurant reviews. Because sometimes we just need a taste.
It requires no small amount of confidence to open a sushi restaurant about a block from fine dining stalwart Uchi. But the Okamoto family aren’t exactly newcomers to the world of sushi. The Soto owners opened their original restaurant in Cedar Park in 2013 and expanded their reach to include this space in the Lamar Union mixed-use project in fall 2017.
Chef Andy Okamoto, whose resume includes time at Morimoto in Philadelphia, prefers to adorn his nigiri with components that complement, and at times mask, the flavors and textures of the fish. The harmonious flavors of shallots and basil hide beneath an ethereal chili ponzu foam that caps olive oil-slicked pieces of translucent nigiri ($7), and pickled wasabi and chives brighten the luxurious fattines of bluefin tuna ($9), which appears on the nigiri menu in three levels of fattiness.
About half of the menu is dedicated to nigiri bites, ranging from the minimalist aji with ginger and chives ($4) to the playful housemade potato chip that cradles lush salmon belly brightened with lemon aioli and given umami depth from truffles ($10). The rest of the menu is divided between cold and hot dishes (you can pass on the $16 Wagyu gyozas), along with rolls, of which the herbaceous and sweet hamachi maki apple ($13) was a standout.
While the prices may resemble its neighbor, Soto doesn’t hum with the same energy or precise service as Uchi, and the relatively spartan space may leave some diners a bit cold. (Soto. 1100 S. Lamar Blvd. Ste. 2115. 512-531-9142, sotorestaurant.com)
When you imagine an Irish pub, you may think of pints of Guinness, darts, Irish trad, Gaelic football on the television and lively evening craic. So, imagine my surprise when I popped into Darcy’s Donkey at opening on a recent weekend for a lovely brunch.
The pub took the place of the old Austin Java on restaurant row, and County Galway native and raconteur Neville Joyce has imbued the place with his welcoming Irish spirit and rapscallion charm. There’s the traditional Irish breakfast, of course, with your rashers, bangers and blood sausage, but I recommend at least one in your party give the Irish Eggs Benedict a go.
Thick tender slabs of housemade corned beef, perfumed and ringed with just the right amount of fat, sit on Irish soda bread beneath wobbly mounds of soft eggs draped with a vibrant, puckering Hollandaise sauce ($15). Looking for a cocktail? Pass on the mimosa and order one of several booze-fueled coffee drinks.
I’d already give consideration to Darcy’s as my new local, but it turns out it’s also a good bet for a change of pace at brunch. And, who knows, after taking in a match or two on the television, you can take a stroll down to the park. Or just have another pint and ask Joyce about his history with the Donkey Derby Championships back home.
Darcy’s Donkey serves brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, lunch on weekdays and dinner nightly. (Darcy’s Donkey. 1608 Barton Springs Road. 512-330-4256, darcysdonkey.com)