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Hestia, new live fire restaurant from Emmer & Rye, is Austin's most ambitious restaurant

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Ash oil grounds the sharp, oceanic flavors of mackerel. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Do you care that the luxurious jiggle of uni perched on a sweet piece of cornbread came from South America? Or that the tamari glazing was made in house? Did you know that you can get blueberries in Texas and that the ones sourced for your dessert came from a farm north of Houston? Do you appreciate the sotol in your crab dip more because your chef foraged it locally? Are you up for a garrulous service experience?

How you answer these questions may go a long way in determining how you feel about your experience at Hestia, the live fire restaurant that opened in December on the ground floor of the Third + Shoal tower overlooking Shoal Creek.

The handsome, more muscular sibling of Emmer & Rye is one of the most ambitious, exciting and delicious restaurants to open in Austin in the past couple of years. It also can sometimes be one of the more confounding, though your mileage may vary. The chefs have taken on the roles of primary servers and food runners at the restaurant, and your meal will start with an explication of the large menu that begins with small bites and ladders up to entrees, with stops at crudos and small plates along the way.

Let this serve as a warning for those who recoil at the prefatory, “Let me tell you how our menu works” line. You’re gonna learn some stuff. But these extended ground rules can be instructive in enhancing your appreciation of the meal and helpful in ordering. For instance, how many “snacks” should a table for two order? The answer, probably about four each, but I have trouble stopping at four because every one I’ve eaten (and I’ve probably had them all) has been fantastic. Averaging about $5 each, they’re the kind of two-bite revelations that could make for a fantastic tasting menu on their own. If you went to a dinner party and these were being served as canapés, the event would be the yardstick by which you measured all future dinner parties.

We’re talking scallop mousse encased in a tempura shell and dusted with malt vinegar powder ($5); grilled guanciale glistening with an Iberico glaze ($4); shrimp and smoked egg yolk tacos wrapped in a crunchy wave of aubergine colored cabbage ($4); a delicate koji tart filled with bay laurel cream and crowned with a chestnut mushroom ($3); sourdough toast set beneath a layer of beef belly lardo radiant in a raisiny Pedro Ximénez wine reduction sauce ($4).

Your kinda-but-not-really-your server who first greets you can walk you through an extensive and reasonably priced wine list that favors the Old World or let you know whether the gently bittersweet mezcal-based Oaxacan Prayer cocktail wrapped in the vanilla embrace of Licor 43 ($15) makes more sense for you than the booziness of a wintry Lion’s Tail ($13), but the staff member generally defers food descriptions to the chef-servers. I encountered a familiar face who had put in several years at Emmer & Rye as a server before coming over to Hestia, and I almost felt bad about her constrained duties. While she obviously held a command of the dinner menu, she was mostly relegated to talking about drinks and playing the role of gregarious hostess, but in someone else’s house. I was able to ascertain a few favorites before the chef assigned our table returned, but it felt a shame that she was not able to flex her full service muscles, especially given how clearly passionate she was about the food.

You’ll find chefs presenting food at small chef’s counters and some tasting-menu-only restaurants, but the chef-as-server format is extremely rare in America. I imagine that chef-partner Kevin Fink took the idea from the world-famous Noma in Copenhagen, where he worked before coming to Austin. And he may have poached the idea for the furtive silverware drawer inside Hestia’s tables from Relæ, another Scandinavian standout.

The dedication to local sourcing and fermentation at Noma also inspired Fink, as evidenced by the larder closet at Emmer & Rye. The mission continues at Hestia, where like at its sibling, you may catch some recordings of “The Splendid Table” over the bathroom speakers, while the sounds of Aphex Twin, Bjork or Radiohead fill the dining room. And just how local do they like to keep it at the restaurant named after the Greek goddess of the hearth? A chef explained to us that he had recently gone on a foraging expedition for sotol, a cousin of agave, that is roasted to give earthiness to a smoked butter that serves as a dip for sweet little blue crab claws. Three come in a $5 order. You could eat 30.

You can admire the magic of fermentation in a dish of grilled spaghetti squash laced with spicy pickled carrots and fermented strawberries that bring crunch to the meaty cubed gourd that sits in a habanero lactic brine ($13) in one of the restaurant’s most beautiful dishes. I enjoyed the details behind the dishes, and am rarely without at least one question, but as we engaged with our chef, I couldn’t help worrying that a dish he was responsible for might be burning in the cinematic open kitchen. Observing other tables, it seemed some people ate up the attention from the chefs and the detailed descriptions, while others looked nonplussed at the belaboring. Chefs have spent their careers training in kitchens far from the small talk and spotlight of the front of house, and guests shouldn’t be expected to completely govern such an interaction.

There is a dance going on between chef and customer that will probably require ongoing calibration and an adjustment period. I think it’s good to start from this place of abundance and scale back as needed. Dining out has become an expensive proposition over the past decade, and if one is going to spend $250 on dinner for two, having a sense of where your food comes from and from whom seems important. And that connection reflects the spirit behind cooking food for people. At its best, it is an act of hospitality and warmth, not anonymous service. Of course, if during your talk about the provenance of a chicken your table starts looking at the chef-server like they just got air dropped into a “Portlandia” sketch, it’s probably best to read the room and pull the cord.

That spaghetti squash dish I mentioned earlier comes from the small plates section of the menu, where you’ll also find a deceptively complex pile of winter greens sprinkled with coriander and cumin ash and a potato and fried halibut crumble ($12). It’s your new favorite salad. And if you liked the little crab claws, wait until you get ahold of the king crab legs and dunk the sweet meat in roasted kelp butter that’s so rich it could be dessert ($22).

The crudo section offers slightly more restrained takes on seafood dishes, like a bright mackerel and tangerine dish mellowed with avocado and balanced by ash oil ($16), and the kitchen brilliantly marries strawberries with heat in an ash sauce and habanero puree that color a plate of raw snapper ($16).

Despite the imposing size of the building, Hestia holds a fairly intimate space. Most of the seating in the dimly lit dining room is in comfortable booths, and if I got dropped into the restaurant unaware, I might venture that I was dining at a modern steakhouse that serves only all-natural, grass-fed beef.

The open kitchen glows like the fire that fuels it. While that fire shows up in more nuanced ways in the snacks and small plates, its assertiveness is undeniable on a seared 40-day dry-aged ribeye brightened with tarragon and lemongrass emulsion ($55). The heat caramelized a meaty Lion’s Mane mushroom marinated in beet juice and ash oil ($25), and set the lacquered prickly ash and tangerine glaze on a Red Ranger chicken that will have you rethinking your meat hierarchy ($28). The heat may have been a little too much for a tender brisket slicked with housemade hoisin; a gelatinous ribbon of fat could have used time to render more thoroughly ($32); and a pork shoulder spiced with coriander and cumin had me longing for the more delicate flavors from earlier in the menu.

By the time those entrees arrived at the table, the thorough cataloging had abated to the point that we almost felt unseen, proving the only thing worse than too much attention is no attention at all. But the meal ended with a hospitable flourish from executive chef-partner Tavel Bristol, who along with Fink, patrolled the floor most of the night, checking in on guests and delivering food. With his affable charm and natural ease, Bristol fits right in working the front of house. But his greatest talents are undeniably in the kitchen.

Bristol took us to Japan with the centuries old shaved ice and salted cream treat kakigori, the frozen volcano of ice dusted with matcha roasted white chocolate powder and hiding an orb of honey ice cream inside ($16). He got scientific with a deconstructed cheesecake, the aerated lemon foam encompassing a mound of roasted strawberries ($10); and he dropped us off back by the campfire with an elevated take on a s’more, a chocolate mousse, torched marshmallow and coconut ash and koji cream wobbly but composed on a Graham cracker crust ($12). The range cemented his status as the city’s best pastry chef. No questions asked.

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Hestia

607 W. Third St. 512-333-0737, hestiaaustin.com

Rating: 9 out of 10

Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday. 5:30 p.m.. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Snacks, $3-$12. Crudo and small plates, $12-$22. Entrees, $25-$55. Desserts, $10-$16.

Highlights: Scallop herb sandie, blue crab claws, uni and cornbread, mackerel, winter greens, Red Ranger chicken, dry-aged ribeye, s’more.

Expect to pay: $75 (price per person before drinks, tax and tip)

Notes: Valet parking available for $10 and garage parking, with two free hours with Hestia validation, at the Third + Shoal garage.

The Bottom Line: Hestia’s combination of admirable ambition, fantastic flavors and sometimes laborious service style make it a unique offering on the Austin dining landscape.

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