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First Impressions: Foreign & Domestic Food & Drink and Newk's Express Cafe

Mike Sutter
The Tippah County Caviar, right, can hold its ground against an inspired sandwich like the Newk's Q.

Somewhere between the reporting of a new restaurant's opening and a full-contact review lies the land of First Impressions. We'll save the ratings for later, but these are places that show promise the minute they flip the sign to read, 'Yes, we're open.'

Foreign & Domestic Food & Drink

306 E. 53rd St. 459-1010, www.foodanddrinkaustin.com. Hours: Open 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closing times depend on business, anywhere from 9:30 to 11 p.m. Call ahead.

It's possible that the restaurant industry's love affair with the pig has jumped the shark.

If so, Foreign & Domestic Food & Drink seems more than happy to drive the boat. And I'm happy to ride along. The snacks have pig in them. There's pig in the salad. For dessert? Pig. Even the chicken dish has a little oink in it.

Chant it with me and my Viking pals: Ham! Ham! Ham! Ham!

Foreign & Domestic opened May 20, outfitting a former skateboard shop and homebrew store with a retro painting of a flying pig, then putting a stainless steel prep counter and hot line right in the dining room. The rest is blond wood high-backed banquettes, a stained-concrete floor, retro-mod boomerang chairs and pillows with fat floral prints.

Foreign & Domestic feels like a New York City diner run by people with a sense of style and training far beyond their small, studied space, right down to the teal-and-white paper cups for coffee and the built-in worry about finding a place to park (there are five spots on-site, eight across the street). The wine list is small and clever, with bottles starting at $20 and rising not much beyond the mid-$30s. Appetizers and small plates run $4-$11 and main courses go from $12 to $20.

Those well-trained people are Ned and Jodi Elliott, a married couple with Culinary Institute of America credentials. He's from Ohio and she's a San Antonio native, but their résumés run coast to coast, from Per Se, Gramercy Tavern and Bouley in New York City to Genoa and the Nines Hotel in Portland, Ore.

For the past year, they've been in Austin raising their 2-year-old daughter and getting Foreign & Domestic ready.

'I always thought (Austin) was such a wonderful city,' said Ned Elliott. 'It's very, very much like Portland. I think the food scene is right about where Portland was probably 10 years ago. The farms are really starting to ramp up to work with chefs.'

He's doing savory and she's doing pastry, but there's plenty of crossover. They collaborated on the spare, urban design of the place with Austin architect Madhu Phillips .

That winged hog on the front of the building came from artist Andrea Nelson, whom they found on Craigslist. Ned Elliott again: 'Originally, we were going to do a truck and call it Porkopolis. I'm from Cincinnati, and that's Cincinnati's nickname. And there's a bunch of places downtown that have flying pigs in Cincinnati. And I said, "Look, I want a flying pig." '

He got it, inside and out. From the 'Snacks and Nibbles' menu comes a plate of Allan Benton's storied ham ($9) from Tennessee, the toast of people who spin cotton candy from it or infuse bourbon with it. It's salty and sweet, the crayon-box color of 'ham.'

I'd rethink the salad with pig's ear, though. Among the spinach, candied pecans and blackberries, the paper-thin shards of pig's ear have a tooth-rattling crunch like dried pasta and not much flavor payoff.

There are flashes of subtlety at Foreign & Domestic, expressed in dishes like grilled octopus ($8) with chips of shattered garlic and a delicate (if possibly also shark-jumping) foam of almond milk. I got strong sense-memories of home from two knobbly brown popovers ($4 for two), crisp on the outside, hot air and fluff on the inside, and I mean that as a compliment. The popovers will be more important than your fork for appreciating corn ravioli ($13) in a brothy bowl with tarragon and ricotta.

A tender sous vide chicken ($17) features three ephemerally blond cuts with amber skin served with pork cracklings, green beans and a corn pudding as sweet and custardy as a dessert.

About dessert. Jodi Elliott has ideas. One of them is a coconut sundae ($6) with blackberries, coconut ice cream and little coconut macaroons, plus a bottom-of-the-bowl surprise: a lime tart. Nice. The Pig Licker promises chocolate-dipped bacon, bacon root beer and pork-rind churros .

We'll save that for the next time at the trough.

Newk's Express Cafe

9722 Great Hills Trail. 795-7507, www.newkscafe.com. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Ray-Scott Miller jokes about the country sound of his two-name first name. His cell number still has a Deep South area code. But he's come back to Austin, his hometown, to be the ambassador for Newk's Express Cafe, a Mississippi-based string of fast-casual restaurants that opened its first location here in May.

I won't win points with the elite food crowd for writing about a family-oriented destination for toasted sandwiches, big salads and pizzas. If you've been to Panera Bread, then you have a picture. But small-screen star Mary-Louise Parker swooned over Newk's sweet tea and chicken salad in Esquire magazine, and that's good enough for right now.

Newk's is entering a saturated market for family sandwich-and-salad places . They could use a little celebrity bump.

Fact is, I'd want to say something anyway, because Newk's is fast, it costs around $10 for dinner with a drink, it's good with kids ($3.25-$4.50 for the children's menu) and it throws a few inspired curveballs. One of those is a condiment center Miller calls 'the Roundtable,' with shredded Parmesan, packaged breadsticks, pickled peppers, capers, hot sauces, bread-and-butter pickles and roasted garlic gloves compelling enough to pop like Skittles.

Another curve is the white-barbecue chicken sandwich called 'Newk's Q,' slathered in tangy, mayonnaise-based sauce with bacon and Swiss on a toasted roll. The bread comes to the restaurant parbaked, Miller said, and the trip through the sandwich oven gives it a crunchy finish and a soft, pliant center. The $6.95 sandwich comes with a side, and that side should be Tippah County Caviar, a marinated Southern salad of black-eyed peas, pimiento and green bell pepper.

It's too early to pass hard judgment on the spicy shrimp pizza ($8.95 for a 10-inch pie), which was neither spicy nor shrimpy. And we liked the Newk's Favorite salad ($8.45) with sliced chicken, Gorgonzola, cranberries, pecans and more, but it's a boilerplate version of the meat-fruit-nut salad found at most any fast-casual place.

That sweet tea and chicken salad? The tea is dark and aromatic, and there's a good version made with Splenda. The chicken is dense and creamy ($6.75 as a salad, $7.25 on a sandwich), accented with grapes and pecans.

Mary-Louise Parker (another two-name first-namer) had that part right.