This is the best new restaurant in Austin in 2021 (so far)
We published my annual Austin360 Dining Guide last week, in which I named the best new restaurants in the city and surrounding area. The list included everything from a food court stall in a Korean grocery to an 8-seat omakase in Mueller.
I did not rank the restaurants, all of which opened between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and August of this year, but discerning readers probably noted that I did write that Birdie's in East Austin was the best new restaurant in the city.
Below is what I wrote about chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel's restaurant. To learn more about the rest of the Austin360 Top 20 Best New Restaurants (and food trucks and food court stalls) in Austin (and beyond), check out the 2021 Austin360 Dining Guide here.
Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel moved to Austin from New York City a couple of years ago and wisely took some time to imagine exactly what they wanted their first restaurant to be.
Veterans of Gramercy Tavern and United at the Whitney, among others, the married couple initially considered a fine dining restaurant. But their time dining and working in Austin changed their minds.
“We kind of fell in love with the casual way people ate here and interacted with restaurants,” Ezekiel told me.
“We wanted to open a place where we could drop in twice a week, a place where line cooks could go to, a place front-of-house people could go to, the kind of place a neighborhood could fall in love with,” Malechek-Ezekiel said.
What they opened was the best new restaurant in Austin. It’s the epitome of the kind of fine dining translated into a casual milieu that was popularized a decade ago, and they pull it off thanks to the confidence, grace and precision born of their fine dining backgrounds.
Chef Malechek-Ezekiel creates American cuisine that takes many of its cues from Italy and France, straight forward food executed flawlessly.
“Simple food you want to eat with wine,” in her words.
That means an unfussy and bright salad of arugula, sunflower seeds and lemony vinaigrette well suited for the citrus and minerality of a glass of Weingut Beurer’s Trocken Riesling. That same pour also goes nicely with silken fluke crudo punched with the sweet heat of peach and peppers and cooled by cucumber.
The wine is one of about 10 by the glass on Arjav Ezekiel's expansive list of low-intervention labels that come with great one-word menu descriptors. Try to corner him and he’ll geek out with you on wine with the enthusiasm of a guy talking about his favorite records, or just ask the person taking your order at the counter for a good bottle rec.
Yes, it’s a counter service restaurant. The owners say it helps them manage staff efficiently and pay them fairly. It also adds to the casual nature of the spot with the back patio that feels like a 2005 Brooklyn rooftop hang, complete with a soundtrack bouncing from Cat Power to hip-hop, but it also means no reservations, very possibly some awkward standing around waiting to put in your initial order and a bit of confusion about whom you should flag down for what.
The food, wine and friendliness at Birdie’s will make you forgive those speed bumps.
If there’s a better beef tartare in Austin than Malechek-Ezekiel’s mince dotted with shiitake mushrooms, pecans (brilliant touch) and Sonoran wheat puffs, I haven’t had it. Eat it with the leather and dark red fruit of the Refosco from Ronchi di Cialla, which also can stand up to the pungent wallop of cavatelli and anchovies.
Birdie’s takes the neighborhood restaurant idea to a transcendent level with its rigatoni amatriciana. No pasta dish I’ve eaten in Texas has transported me to the trattorias of my old Roman neighborhood of Trastevere the way this dish did. The firm bite of the homemade pasta, the shower of Pecorino, just the right amount of guanciale cut to just the right size and sizzled to just the right texture, and a sublimely simple tomato sauce. The perfect pasta dish.
Sometimes your new favorite neighborhood restaurant reminds you of an old favorite 6,000 miles away.