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11 for 2011: Top moments in Austin's restaurant scene

Addie Broyles,Matthew Odam
abroyles@statesman.com
Haddingtons saw a lot of personnel changes, both in the kitchen and behind the bar, over the course of 2011.

The Austin food and restaurant scene continued its ambitious growth in the record-setting and crop-wilting heat of 2011, as a historic establishment (Jeffrey's) changed hands; one of the city's culinary wizards (Tyson Cole) received national recognition; a familiar face (John Mueller) made a welcome return to town; and a reality-show staple ("Top Chef") shined its spotlight on the Lone Star State amid grumblings of pay-for-play.

Below we take a look at 11 of the biggest stories from past year in the world of food and drink in Austin.

Wheels up

Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue), Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine), Mike Rypka (Torchy's) and Drew Gressett (Hat Creek Burgers) have created enviable blueprints for going from trailer eatery to successful bricks-and-mortar restaurant. This year saw a handful of other culinary operations make the commitment to settle down (several on Burnet Road), and I imagine they would be thrilled to have even half the success as their four predecessors.

After beating the odds by serving fresh, delicious sushi from a trailer, husband and wife team Také and Kayo Asazu opened Japanese restaurant Kome at 4917 Airport Blvd. in October. Jaynie Buckingham quit her job as a nurse a couple of years ago to focus on her passion for making pies. She opened her little pink Cutie Pies trailer on South Congress Avenue in 2009 and in April of this year opened a store location at 7329 Burnet Road.

Dan Parrott built on the success of his mobile Old School BBQ operation and opened two restaurants in four months, the Old School Grill (6301 W Parmer Ln.) and Old School Bar & Grill (401 E. 6th St.), which take a broader culinary approach than the barbecue and burgers.

After having his trailer stolen (and found) at the end of last year, Lucky J's Chicken & Waffles owner Jason Ulmas planted roots at 5035 Burnet Road. Up the road, Jeremiah Allen converted his popular hot dog trailer on South First Street into Man Bites Dog (5222 Burnet Road), which opened in the spring.

Having built a loyal following among the Rainey Street nightlife crowd, Cazamance, which calls on the flavors of Western Africa for its menu, opened a brick-and-mortar location at 1102 E. Cesar Chavez St. Unlike the trailer, which serves food seven days a week, the restaurant is open Wednesdays through Fridays only. The owners of Moroccan food trailer The Flying Carpet hope to have their restaurant at 504 W. Oltorf St. open soon.

- M.O.

The new downtown

The downtown dining scene received a significant infusion of flavor and sophistication with the arrival of two excellent restaurants in December 2010. Chef David Bull's Congress, a fine dining restaurant complemented by the more casual Bar Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen, received the first and only 5-star review during former Statesman restaurant critic Mike Sutter's tenure. Located inside the W Hotel, Trace reframes what one should expect from a hotel restaurant, focusing on seasonal and local ingredients, a mission that includes the employ of full-time forager, Valerie Broussard.

- M.O.

Still smokin'

Aaron Franklin helped raise Austin's profile in the barbecue world last year, and the return of his former boss to town should help continue to bring eyes and stomachs to the capital. A member of one of Central Texas' barbecue dynasties, Taylor's John Mueller returned this year to remind everyone that Austin had great barbecue prior to this decade. Mueller ran his joint on Manor Road from 2001 to 2006 and has planted his flag in the form of a trailer on South First Street that he plans to grow into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

- M.O.

Hot, hot heat

The record-breaking temperatures and lack of rain were all most of us could talk about for most of the year, and the effects of the drought are still hitting farmers, ranchers, grocery stores and restaurants. As hay prices more than quadrupled, cattle ranchers either sold, shipped or slaughtered more animals this year than in any other year, which will likely lead to higher beef prices nationwide. Some farmers had to cut short their community-supported agriculture programs, while others had to stop or decrease the number of deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores. The Texas AgriLife Extension Service has estimated the state's agricultural losses to be more than $5.2 billion, a figure so staggering that it makes complaints about Stage 2 water restrictions - which prevent restaurant servers from bringing water to customers unless they ask for it - seem unbelievably petty.

- A.B

Changing hands, closing doors

Jeffrey's Restaurant and Bar, one of Austin's most celebrated and longest-running restaurants, was sold to Larry McGuire and his Austin hospitality group, which manages Lamberts Downtown Barbecue and Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar. The Clarksville restaurant, which was founded in 1975 and has been known as a hangout for presidents, celebrities and Austinites alike, had gone through a number of chef changes in the past few years, most recently with the departure of executive chef Deegan McClung to New York City. Co-founders Ron and Peggy Weiss, as well as original operating partner Jeffrey Weinberger, retained small equity stakes.

At Sixth and Rio Grande streets, two restaurants on the opposite ends of the culinary spectrum - the upscale French Aquarelle and the 24-hour Katz's Deli - closed. After three decades keeping Austin weird, Marc Katz moved back to New York City, while Aquarelle owner Teresa Wilson is reformatting her space to reopen as Chonita's. In Northwest Austin, Michael Vilim sold his restaurant, Mirabelle, to Brian O'Neill, who is reviving the place and has changed the name to Bistrot Mirabelle.

- A.B.

Cooking up honors …

After four nominations, Tyson Cole finally won a James Beard Award. The chef-owner of Austin's Uchi and Uchiko restaurants tied for Best Chef: Southwest in May with Saipin Chutima Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. Food & Wine magazine named Barley Swine’s Bryce Gilmore one of the country's top 10 chefs to watch.

- A.B.

`Top Chef: Texas'

The Emmy-winning reality television show that pits up-and-coming chefs against one another chose Texas as the destination for its ninth season, and trouble was stirred up even before the first episode aired. This July, while the crew and contestants were filming in one of the hottest summers on record, news broke that the state tourism office paid $400,000 to the "Top Chef" production company for a first-of-its-kind "integrated marketing agreement," which the production company later sued to try to keep secret. (The suit was dropped.) The show snubbed Houston after the city's convention and visitors' bureau offices refused to pay to be included, but San Antonio seemed to get quite a bit of exposure in exchange for the $200,000 they ponied up: The Alamo city ended up being the home city for the contestants, who then traveled to Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. Two Austin chefs, Paul Qui of Uchiko and 24 Diner's Andrew Curren, were among the 29 contestants, and Qui is still in the running to win this season.

- A.B.

Welcome food innovators

In recent years, the food presence at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference has far exceeded what kind of coffee you can grab between panels on software development. Each year, festival planners seem to include even more panels about food blogging, user-generated restaurant reviews, online cookbooks and more. Just a few months after many of the country's top online food folks were here for SXSW, they returned - along with hundreds of other top food professionals from around the world - for the International Association of Culinary Professionals' annual conference, which was in Austin for the first time. The conference's educational program read like a list of the year's biggest food trends: blog-to-book deals, molecular gastronomy, the vegetarian/carnivore middle ground called flexitarianism, the use of bitters in cocktails, community gardens and the sweeping local food movement.

- A.B.

Wine and food fest changes

In May, just a few weeks after the 26th annual Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, Food and Wine magazine and C3 Presents announced that they were taking over the festival to create the first Austin Food and Wine Festival, which will be April 27-29 at various locations around the city. The magazine, which has about 1 million subscribers, has been hosting the Aspen Food and Wine Classic in Colorado for almost 30 years, and it is involved with more than a dozen other events across the country, including food festivals in Florida's South Beach, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta.

- A.B.

Craft beer explosion

The local craft beer scene doubled in 2011 with the official opening of Jester King Craft Brewery, Circle Brewing Co., Austin Beerworks, Twisted X Brewing Co., and Hops and Grain Brewing Co. Austin brewing incumbents North by Northwest and Uncle Billy's and newbies Austin Beerworks took home awards from the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado in September, proving to the rest of the country that our rapidly expanding scene is not something to be ignored.

- Emma Janzen

Texas spirits soar

The Central Texas spirits scene also experienced unprecedented growth with the premiere of more than eight new categories of booze. A homegrown Single Malt whisky (Balcones), Scrub Oak smoked whisky (Balcones), bitters (Bad Dog Bar Craft), flavored vodka (Dripping Springs), sake (Texas Sake), and not one but two ciders (Argus and Austin Eastciders) and gins (Roxor and Waterloo) hit the market. Several other spirits producers with production offices within Austin city limits also released their flagship products ­- Tenneyson Absinthe, and Wahaka Mezcal both distill outside of the U.S., but their owners and most production work happen in Austin.

- E.J.

A movable feast

As diners have grown more concerned with the food on their plates, they have also come to know the people behind the scenes creating the food. The Austin restaurant scene saw quite a few changes in the kitchen at some big name restaurants. Owner Michel Polombo of Haddingtons saw a host of changes at his gastropub on West Sixth Street. Chef Zack Northcutt was replaced in the spring by James Corwell, who in turn bowed out in the fall, as CT Turgeon (formerly of Foreign & Domestic and Max's Wine Dive) took the reins. Polombo also saw Haddingtons' beverage director, Bill Norris, depart to head the beverage program for the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters.

David Bull's family of restaurants at Second Street and Congress Avenue experienced turnover in the kitchen and at the bar, as well, with Congress pastry chef Plinio Sandillo announcing his departure to Josh Watkins' Carillon. Bar Congress named Jason Stevens (formerly of the Tigress and Eastside Showroom) its new bar manager, taking the place of Adam Bryan. Sandra Bullock's Bess lost executive chef Camden Stuerzenberger, who was replaced by his former sous chef Janelle Reynolds. Reynolds left later in the year, and Bess Director of Culinary Operations Justin Raiford took over as executive chef.

Shane Stark left Paggi House and returned to Kenichi, which he helped found a decade ago, and Paggi House replaced him with Ben Huselton. Paul Petersen returned to Central Texas after several years cooking in other parts of the state to take over Vivo at Lake Creek.

Alma Alcocer-Thomas, whose long tenure in Austin kitchens includes time as chef at Jeffrey's and Fonda San Miguel and most recently Tacos y Tequila, joined Carlos Rivero's El Chile group of restaurants as the chef at newly opened El Alma on Barton Springs Road. Jason Tallent returned to Texas from San Francisco to join the 34th Street Café as its executive chef. Mars closed on South Congress in 2008, and its former chef Thomas Reeh is now just up the street at Snack Bar, where he was brought on to help revamp the South Congress restaurant's menu.

- Matthew Odam