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Bon Appetit names three Austin restaurants among Top 50 list

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Update: Bon Appetit announced their Top 10 today and Jeffrey’s/Josephine House made the cut, coming in at #8. Andrew Knowlton wrote of the Clarksville establishments, “Details make the difference at the country’s most stylish pair of restaurants.” Also making the top 10 was The Pass & Provisions of Houston. Read excellent Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook’s review of The Pass here, and read all of Bon Appetit’s top 10 here.

The latest edition of the influential food publication Bon Appetit names its Top 50 contenders for best new restaurant in America. The restaurants range from coast to coast, with California leading the pack with seven nominations and Texas right behind with six. Austin landed three joints in contention on the list compiled by Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton. Knowlton puts Jeffrey’s and its neighboring Josephine House on the list, calling out the fried oysters (which I definitely dig) and Wes Andersonian sartorial scheme at Jeffrey’s and the carrot and quinoa salad at Josephine House.

At Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Knowlton gives props for their tonkotsu original and tonkotsu shoyu ramen. Sway won him over with their “sophisticated, Thai-inspired noodles, grilled meats and curries.” I have reviewed each of the three restaurants on the Top 50 list, with Sway coming out on top in terms of my overall rating. For my take on them, check out the links below. Other Texas restaurants making the list include The Pass and Provisions in Houston, FT33 in Dallas and Spoon Bar & Kitchen in Dallas. Read the full list here.

JEFFREY’S

Below are a few thoughts from my Jeffrey’s review. (For the whole review, click here to read on MyStatesman.com)

Restaurateur Larry McGuire and his partners have spent much of the past 10 years building a mini-empire in Austin by packaging stylized concepts that have become highly visible and popular components of the city’s growing restaurant culture and aesthetic.

They turned Mediterranean restaurant Mars on South Congress Avenue into Hamptons-esque seafood restaurant Perla’s, converted the scrappy Bouldin Creek Cafe on South First Street to precious French-accented Vietnamese spot Elizabeth Street Cafe, reimagined a dilapidated warehouse in the 2nd Street District as upmarket Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, built a jewel-box version of Perla’s in the plain space on West Sixth Street that formerly housed grab-and-go spot Portabla, and redeveloped a coffee shop on North Lamar Boulevard into Fresa’s, an ingredient-driven charcoal chicken stand.

McGuire’s latest creation marks arguably the young restaurateur’s most ambitious project to date. The native Austinite has transformed what was once the city’s most venerable and beloved fine dining restaurant into a clubby modern day steakhouse.

The centerpieces of the menu are a dozen dry-aged steaks from three ranches, including Texas’ Branch and Beeman family ranches. The prices will astound many guests. The average price for a steak is $63, with sides and sauces both costing extra. Those prices put Jeffrey’s on par with some of the most elite steakhouses in the country.

Dry-aging requires time and financial resources, and many steak connoisseurs will tell you it is the best meat you can get. The dry-aged beef should have more condensed and intense flavors, and the grass-fed beef from the Texas ranches will have a richer, beefier quality, for lack of a better word. I found mixed results with multiple steaks at Jeffrey’s.

A 13-ounce 35-day-aged Beeman ribeye ($65) on one visit was rich with fat from connective tissue and received a luscious boost from roasted marrow butter ($2). I know it is standard for some steakhouses to charge extra for a side of sauce, but when I’m paying $65 for steak, the extra $2 feels chintzy. We enjoyed a bottle of sangiovese from La Querciolina ($45) with that meal, a modest selection from an impressive wine list that features about 400 bottles, leaving Jeffrey’s with few peers in town.

On another visit we ordered a 16-ounce Branch bone-in strip ($65) that had solid seasoning of salt and pepper, but the grass-fed beef was tough and had little sear. The cognac au poivre sauce ($2) was rich without being dynamic and did little for the steak. And while I understand that with beef of this quality you want the steak to speak for itself, one meal featured an eight-ounce tenderloin filet ($50) that, while cooked to a ruby medium-rare, had zero added seasoning. Sides of macaroni and cheese with undercooked asparagus spears ($10) and roasted wild mushrooms ($10) felt like antiquated afterthoughts when served alongside the august beef.

At each meal at Jeffrey’s I wrestled with whom the restaurant was hoping to target. I was the youngest person in the restaurant at each visit, and while an adjacent table of regulars from the old Jeffrey’s raved about much of the experience, one well-heeled man at the table balked at the price of the steaks. The experience seemed to confuse the old idea of Jeffrey’s as a place to be with a new desire of it as a place to be seen. The deciding factors will likely come down to service and the execution of Jeffrey’s prized beef. If they make it a place where you feel welcome and can expect consistency, many will likely not think twice about the expense.

Jeffrey’s still seems to struggle between maintaining its old identity as a familiar and comfortable family friend (it was nice to see Ron Weiss greeting guests on one visit) with its new face(-lift) of elegance and opulence. Jeffrey’s may sit at the intersection of West Lynn and West 12th streets, but it really resides at the crossroads of what Austin has long been and what some imagine the city to be going forward.

RAMEN TATSU-YA

Below are a few thoughts from my Ramen Tatsu-Ya review. (For the whole review, click here to read for free on Austin360.com)

It’s 4:50 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the line has already started to form. The doors won’t open for another 10 minutes, but that short wait will pale in comparison to the amount of time some people will stand in line at peak hours for a complex and restorative bowl of noodles and soup.

Welcome to Ramen Tatsu-Ya, ground zero for Austin’s nascent ramen craze.

You can find ramen in a few places around town. Kome serves a bowl at lunch, as does Musashino. Trailers Michi and East Side King at the Grackle once served ramen and will again soon in brick-and-mortar locations. But Ramen Tatsu-Ya appears to be the sole restaurant devoted primarily to the Japanese dish that has its origins in China. It’s the most popular, anyhow, with waits for one of the 38 seats in the North Austin restaurant sometimes stretching beyond an hour.

The specialty at Ramen Tatsu-Ya is the tonkotsu ramen, a soup-and-noodle dish with a stock made of boiled pork bones that originated in the Hakata region in southwest Japan. Ramen Tatsu-Ya receives shipments of fresh noodles weekly from Keisuke-san, a noodle-maker in Los Angeles who also supplies popular ramen houses in Los Angeles such as Diakokuya.

The tonkotsu at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, which can take up to 60 hours to cultivate, features thin noodles resembling vermicelli that are smaller than many people may expect from traditional ramen. But this style of noodle is traditional with tonkotsu, owners say, leading to a nice noodle-broth balance. A thicker noodle would make the pairing with such a rich sauce too heavy.

Tatsu-Ya offers several variations of ramen. The #1 tonkotsu original ($8.50) has a thick buttery stock and arrives like a circular artist’s palette: a tawny swirl of fatty pork belly, a tangy marinated beige egg with a viscous golden center, ebony slivers of firm wood ear mushroom and bright green bits of scallions pooled separately atop the soup.

SWAY

Below are a few thoughts from my Sway review. (For the whole review, click here to read on MyStatesman.com)

“Get the son-in-law.”

“You have to try the son-in-law.”

I often hear raves about the newest, hottest restaurant before I get to try it myself, as I usually give places time to round into form. But rarely has the excitement been articulated as specifically – in the form of one dish – as it was with Sway, the Thai restaurant helmed by La Condesa chef Rene Ortiz that opened last December.

Though the origin of the name is debatable, son-in-law generally refers to a dish with a soft-boiled egg that has been lightly breaded and then fried, the yolk heightened to a honey-like consistency. The golden orb is one of the main attractions of the son-in-law ($16) at Sway.

It also features pork shoulder, which on my first visit was overcooked to a tired state resembling jerky. But I ordered the same dish on a follow-up visit, because … “TRY THE SON-IN-LAW” kept ringing in my head. The second time, I got it.

And not just because the pork stood proud before falling all over itself in a pile of velvety shards. It was that sauce. The one that helped braise the pork to utter relaxation. Soy sauces and palm sugar laced with chili vinegar enchants with that irresistible alchemy of salt, sugar and fat (from the pork). It’s well known that the unholy trinity sings a siren song that tempts most palates, but finding the balance is the tricky part. And it’s part of what Sway does so well: concealing complexity beneath robust flavors.

Things build to a culinary crescendo with the curry dishes, such as a peanut curry ($17) with a confit chicken leg that almost dissolved in a restorative dish deep with chicken flavor. I could see chicken gelatin gliding across the surface of the sauce spiked with a pearled strip of green peppercorns and infused with granules of crushed peanuts. Jungle curry ($19) is an adventure in exploration, roast-like hunks of tri-tip beef shoulder stoic amidst the swinging heat, floral cool, earthy undertones and sweet embrace of a sauce packed with red chilies, holy basil, green Thai eggplant and coconut cream.

But not everything is a puzzle that calls for deconstruction. Simplicity also shines at Sway. Crispy shallots and a sweet and mildly spicy green nahm jim (a chili-based sauce) elevate immaculate teardrops of raw St. Simon oysters ($18/half dozen) with crunch and kick. Layers of freshness tangle in a tumble of firm green papaya salad ($9) piqued with tartness and acid from cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. The salad bursts with as much color as the vibrant lotus flower sign at the front of the South First Street restaurant, all the ingredients on proud display. And the massive, spiraling, meaty salt-and-pepper blue prawns, spotted like a puffer fish with fermented black bean and chili oil, were a testament to simple elegance. No, salt-and-pepper shrimp is not a traditional Thai dish, but matters of provenance are of little importance when enjoying such an exceptional dish.

Another thing setting Sway apart is executive pastry chef Laura Sawicki. Winner of last year’s Best New Pastry Chef from Food & Wine Magazine, the brilliant bespectacled chef has few peers in Austin. Having proven her excellence at La Condesa, Sawicki seems to be equally comfortable with Thai flavors as she is with Mexican flavors. As with the savory dishes, desserts blend ascendant flavors with more firmly rooted ones. The pleasant pucker of yuzu-cured cake ringed by rhubarb and macerated cherries finds aromatic balance with a tarragon gelato that at first confuses then delights. The lady has a way with ice cream, evidenced by the playful banana split dessert that features a trio of excellent ice creams — condensed milk, cashew caramel swirl and a double-taking inducing five-spice chocolate — surrounded by fudge-like black sesame brownie bites, coconut milk jam and saucy cherries.

It’s the kind of whimsical, nostalgia-fueled dish that makes you want to run and tell your friends about it.