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Austin Food & Wine Festival: Taste of Texas a strong start for festival

Matthew Odam

Late afternoon showers and ominous clouds on the eastern horizon did not dampen spirits at the Austin Food and Wine Festival’s Taste of Texas kick-off event that featured top chefs from Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.

A ring of food and drink booths circumscribed Republic Square Park with bars strategically placed on opposite sides of the park. The spacing allowed for a steady flow of traffic in the rehabilitated park that has benefited from the bright, handsome aesthetic of the neighboring federal courthouse. Once a raggedy lawn, the space is now optimal for hosting events like the one last night. Locals and out-of-towners mingled with visiting celebrity chefs like Graham Elliot of Chicago and the photo-snapping Andrew Zimmern.

Lines varied by time and vendor, but Austin’s Paul Qui of East Side King and the upcoming Qui and Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ seemed to have the longest lines of the night. Franklin delivered his now world-famous brisket in massive hunks that had a firm bark and crimson smoke ring. The meat came atop a Saltine adorned with the traditional pickles, onions and a slab of cheddar cheese. No sauce necessary. The brisket was a good approximation of the beef that has people lining up daily at the barbecue temple on East 11th Street.

Qui, who stood at the front of his booth handing out samples to a long line of eager customers, made what seemed like an odd choice with his upscale grilled cheeses. For a fest that featured chefs serving shrimp and bone marrow, the grilled cheese at first seemed like something of a lazy choice. But it was hard to argue with the excellent upscale version of a late night snack: a Hawaiian roll stuffed with gooey melted brie, crisp slices of green apple, funky kimchi and crackling seaweed. While you likely won’t find the grilled cheese on the new Qui menu (who knows, maybe you will) it did accomplish the idea of the ‘perfect bite’ that Qui chases, combining salty, sweet and tart elements at once.

My favorite dishes of the night came from Houston (Danny Trace at Brennan’s), San Antonio (Jason Dady) and Austin (Contigo and Olivia). Purveyors of excellent New Orleanian comfort, Brennan’s served up a sweet, savory and spicy friend shrimp with tasso and Crystal hot sauce. I was told the shrimp is a cover star in the latest Saveur magazine. Dady, who always seems to have a good time when he makes the trip up from San Antonio, featured a playful take on the Mexican street food elotes. I am usually a little circumspect when it comes to whimsy. If you’re gonna get cute, the dish needs to be good and Dady delivered. He served cotija cheese and corn pudding atop a half of lime: pick up the lime, squeeze it into your mouth and let the citrus ride the wave of corn pudding.

Olivia and Contigo scored in different ways, with Olivia’s James Holmes playing to a familiar strength and the ranch-style Contigo going a bit against type. Holmes served a smoked oyster topped with a rich bacon jam, a tangy housemade mustard tipsy on Pearl Snap beer, and topped with smooth creme fraiche and, maybe the night’s most imaginative touch, a “blood pearl,” a small teardrop composed of duck blood and blood orange. There’s a lot going on there, but all of the flavors blended into one sensuous bite.

Contigo makes one of the best takes on beef tongue in the city, but Friday night they surprised with their deft touch on a light dish. They offered a puffed rice chip topped with fresh shaved fennel from Austin’s Johnson Backyard Garden, pine nuts, and a complex, Thai-inspired vinaigrette of coconut water, ginger, fish sauce, kaffir lime juice and mint. The dish was light, refreshing and a smart and bold move on a night that featured so many heavy flavors.

Lines, even the long ones, seemed to move fairly smoothly, especially as the evening drew to a close and people started getting loose to San Diego rockers Delta Spirit. The band seemed a problematic choice when they started, their gritty rock drowning out the small talk around the park, but as the end of the evening approached it felt fitting and very Austin. The event started to feel like being at a VIP food tent smack-dab in the middle of Austin City Limits Festival. An excellent way to start what promised to be a filling and exhausting weekend.

After the two-and-a-half hour event at the park, festival organizers hosted a lively desserts and cocktail party at Mellow Johnny’s across the street. The event, featuring delicacies from Austin pastry chefs Jodi Elliot (Foreign & Domestic), Janina O’Leary (Trace) and Erica Wasmunski (Congress) and and a rye-and-coffee cocktail from Jason Stevens of Bar Congress, served as a thank you-and-welcome back to fest attendees from last year and festival talent.