Odd Duck

1201 S Lamar Blvd. Austin, TX 78704 • (512) 433-6514 oddduckaustin.com

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I was in town for SXSW and had heard that Austin had some serious culinary game, so after doing copious amounts of recon before our travels, I came upon one recurring must, the Odd Duck. Over and over people said it was hands down the hottest, bestest place in townest. And being the little instigator that I am, I just had to waltz on over there packing chips on both shoulders.

Inside the duck, the décor is very casual, with not much to it, yet just enough cues to make it feel somewhat cool and contemporary, although I can’t honestly say why I felt this way. I just sensed it. Maybe it was our server, who started off with a chip or two on his shoulders as well, wanting to prove to the Yankee scum before him that Austin has skillz. Well, sadly he won, because these small plates packed some big flavor.

Starting things off, we enjoyed the goat brie with jam, a white balsamic syrup and multi grain crackers. It is bone simple and bone delicious. It can also be found on the dessert menu, depending on how you roll with the fromage.

After the strong start, however, it was followed up by two of the weakest dishes of the night, the sweet potato and the pig face buns. The pig face was rapped inside a Parker house roll sitting in a pool of mustard and it wound up tasting a lot like a pastrami sandwich from a kosher deli. Good, but not at the level of anything else we had. And while the sweet potato was also fine, with its green chile, nacho spice and fried skins, I’m really not gonna get into it, because we have bigger and better dishes to get to.

At the tippy top, an Ultimate two times over, was the jerk spiced pork belly, served over a cheddar rice cake and complemented with the genius addition of fresh strawberries, giving it a pop of sweetness to accent the heat, along with a little moisture to quench the fire. It was ire mon!

Another fantastic dish was the duck fat fried rice (duck had to be on the menu somewhere, right?) loaded with goodies like a soft egg that oozed all through the rice, Brussels sprouts, chile and ez cheese, which I am so conflicted about I can’t even tell you, but it was so good that when I later die from it, I need to go back and re-read this review to remind myself that it was worth it.

Keeping the interesting coming, the braised goat with masa (tortilla dough) , queso fresco, peanut pipian (a sauce typically found in Mexican food) and lime mayo was such a genius blend of Middle Eastern and Mexican flavors.

Now, after such artistry and inventiveness, I had to double down on dessert going with the sensational cream filled donut brightened with orange, sweetened with honey, dusted with pistachio and bested by no one. Yes, Doughnut Plant and Peter Pan, you just got served!

But as good as that donut was, the second dessert was every diet’s worst nightmare. A pear butter cake made with bran, pecans and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. It was moist and dense and packed with so much yumminess, it was as if every pecan in the state of Texas were summoned into this little, round disc of delicious.

Easily the best meal I had in Austin and a very Texas-big four knives.

4 teeth

Russ & Daughters Cafe

127 Orchard St. New York, NY 10002(212) 475-4881russanddaughterscafe.com

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The kosher deli is like the tiger of restaurants, loved, but rapidly nearing extinction. As cited by the documentary Deli Man (an obscure Netflix gem), kosher delis in New York alone, have gone from over 1500 in number back in 1931, to today’s very depressing stat of just 21 establishments left. So, call it my Jewish guilt or moral obligation, but I felt the need to help turn the tides by turning my kids onto the glory that I lovingly call “Jew Food.” A cuisine unlike any other, that I have adored since childhood. But sadly, like many other bad Jews (apparently), I haven’t been back in years. Which is a shame, because there’s really no good reason. It’s not like going to Synagogue or anything. It’s actually quite enjoyable. And downright sinful.

Well, also turning the tides is a modern-day twist on the kosher deli, paying faithful homage to its diner roots, while also feeling contemporary somehow at the same time. That’s Russ and Daughters, a beacon of hope for the “chosen” cuisine.

Speaking of chosen things, our first choice was the Pastrami Russ, a small but crazy good sandwich made with their unique salmon pastrami, cucumber, coleslaw and deli mustard all on a cigar-sized pretzel roll, served next to a mountain of homemade waffle potato chips and a half sour pickle that also rocks. Mad mazels on this one.

But as good as the Pastrami Russ was, the Latkas stole the show. Easily the best I’ve ever had, done up at least a half inch thick with a hard, crusty outer layer and moist, fuffy innards. It’s Ultimate Latka perfection. Also, we had ‘em both ways, the new fangled crème fraiche and salmon roe way, as well as the ole tried and true apple sauce way. Both are good, but the kid in me still leans toward the classic A-sauce.

And while we’re on the topic of classics, the Classic Board with Nova, tomatoes, capers, red onions, cream cheese and an everything bagel was also very good. Not quite as inventive as some of the other twists, but as solid as you’ll find anywhere else in the city, Essa included. Granted the Nova is very lightly cured though, so nowhere near as salty as you might be used to.

Lox, eggs and onions were good, but not great. Partly due to the less salty lox, which is what makes this dish normally shine, ya know, cuz salt and eggs and all. That said, the rye bread that comes with it is another Ultimate. So flavorful and packed with texture. In fact, we loved it so much we walked up the street after breakfast to the Russ & Daughters store on Houston to buy a loaf. And my god is that thing dense. One loaf probably ways as much as a Mini Cooper.

We ended the meal on a duo of dishes from the “Sweet” column, the first being the Chocolate Babka French toast. Yes Challah, you just got trumped. Topped with fresh strawberries and sidled up next to a ramekin of sweet cream- no need for syrup on this thing. It’s richer than Daddy Warbucks.

Yet as wonderific as the Babka French Toast was, the kosher purist in me still found the Noodle Kugel to be the shiznet. It’s like muscle memory for your taste buds, bringing you back to that sweet noodle lovin’ fro your childhood that you just can’t deny. And wow did that sound way more child molesty than intended.

All in, Russ is tops in my book. Even if Gweneth Paltrow likes it too. From the incredibly fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juices to both Ultimates I mentioned above to their caviar cream cheese that needs to make its way from store to café (hint-hint Russ).

4 teeth

Contra

138 Orchard St. New York, NY 10002 • (212) 466-4633contranyc.com

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Well, Contra definitely lived up to its name, because it was the total opposite of what I was expecting. Unfortunately, I was expecting greatness the likes of Momofuku Ko. Or at least spots of brilliance the likes of The Musket Room. Well, no dice on either account.

The disappointments started early, first by making us wait over 30 minutes for our table, with a reservation. A duration I haven’t had to endure at restaurants far more popular and worthwhile. But while we waited, naturally I perused the menu to see what exciting dishes lied ahead, and that was the first sign of trouble. Not a single course sounded interesting. So much so that we were certain to pay the extra money for the bread, because at least that looked promising, by comparison to the plates passing us by. And it was. Definitely worth ordering. That said, don’t listen to your servers who will tell you that one order only serves two people. Sure, if that’s ALL they were eating for the night. For normal human beings one order will serve four people quite nicely.

Which brings me to my second gripe, the service. No one was technically rude in the normal sense, but the fact that I must’ve been bumped into by a dozen staff members throughout my dinner and didn’t receive a single apology or “excuse me” shows what kind of mettle they are made from. They did, however, show lots of concern as to why we weren’t finishing our courses- but perhaps those questions should’ve been redirected to the kitchen before serving such a pathetic string of losers.

It started with carrots and uni served over a bed of almond milk sauce and while it was interesting, it most certainly wasn’t amazing. And as tepid I may sound right now, this is actually one of the highlights of the meal.

Next up came the fluke. A relatively bland fish by all accounts, which usually allows chefs to wow you with their preparation of it. Well, no wows were to be found. The preparation was as bland as the fish, which wasn’t even cooked that well. For some of us it was overcooked, for others, undercooked, and no one had the Goldilocks version (just right).

Following the fluke came the biggest loser of the night, the chicken with “ham” and “chickpeas.” The reason the other two ingredients are in quotes is because they are nowhere to be found in this dish. Not by sight, nor taste. They say it is in the jus beneath the chicken, but if you buy that, I have a time machine toaster oven I’d like to sell you. On the plus side, I’d call this dish a win only for the fact that none of us wound up with salmonella poisoning, because the chicken was way pink.

After that came the two dessert courses, the first of which being strawberries and cream and to put it bluntly, you’d do better with a basket of strawberries and a tub of Cool Whip from Stop & Shop. Dead serious.

Fortunately, the last dish of the night showed some semblance of culinary skill but it was too little too late. And while I’d like to tell you about it, I don’t even recall what it was, because by that point I had lost so much interest I no longer cared. I just wanted to go home, call it a loss and lick my wounds, which by the way, were tastier than most of those courses. On the plus side, I hear Contra changes the menu often. Hopefully by tomorrow.

2 teeth

Elizabeth on 37th

105 E 37th St. Savannah, GA 31401 • (912) 236-5547 • elizabethon37th.net

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Widely considered among the top three restaurants in Savannah it obviously became a ferocious obligation to dine here during my visit. And with hype at a steady boil, the odds were definitely not in Elizabeth’s favor as we entered the picturesque mansion.

When I say picturesque, I only mean this form the outside. Strongly. Just Google the restaurant and you are bound to see scores of exterior photos, but a meek sampling of interiors. This is with good cause. The interior is very run down and outdated. I know this is partly a purposeful homage to the historic Savannah structure, but there are droves of other historic icons all around the world that are older, and yet FAR more up-to-date. Take the Louvre in Paris for example. Esma Sultan in Istanbul. Or even the Poetter Hall right down the street in Savannah.

As a result, I found that the place fell shy of romantic, or even dressy. Service, however, was quite good. Attentive, knowledgeable and relatively good with recommendations.

As for the food, let’s start at the start, with a Prince Edward mussel amuse bouche, which definitely got things off on the right foot. This was followed by a pair of scallop oriented appetizers that we thankfully shared, because wifey’s was definitely the better of the two. Both were specials so if you don’t go soon, chances are you missed the boat, literally. The winner was a vidalia onion cream soup made with two types of the onion- the traditional Georgian ball of sweet goodness. And baby vidalia onions as well, which are a bit greener, yielding a touch of grassiness. It was awesome. As were the buttery chunks of scallop swimming amidst the onion pond, seasoned with a nice peppery kick.

With the other scallop app, it was a lone, perfectly seared mollusk perched atop a potato salad that sounds more underwhelming than it was, but still not up to the high standards set by the soup, thus it was the red-headded step child of the mollusk twins.

After that, the transgressions continued with another chef’s offering that would’ve probably done less damage to our perceptions had it remained in the kitchen. A salad sourced from the local garden with micro greens, herbs and clementines. Very pedestrian.

The Savannah Red Rice, while not as lackluster as the other misses, still didn’t make the grade by reputation. And when you’re a top restaurant in the South, one expects a pretty dazzling jambalaya. This was passable at best, mostly because it was very lacking in heat.

But then Elizabeth showed she was “woman, hear me roar,” serving up the best pork chop I’ve ever had. Cooked to grillmaster standards with a crisp char on the outside, tender and moist on the inner, and served up with one of the best slaws I’ve ever had, along with a five cheese mac that brought a creamy decadence to every bite. And when all three of those were on your fork at once, it was like a holy trinity of porky delectableness. You simply must get this. If you don’t, quite frankly you should be arrested.

And speaking of misdemeanors, the worst miss of the night came on the heels of such a soaring high. The Savannah Cream Cake is soooo over explained and complicated that it tricks itself into thinking it’s something more than it tastes like, which is angel food cake with strawberries. If I could have only one do-over it would be this. And I’d probably use it to get a second order of that friggin’ chop!

So, while the soup and the chop were definitely dishes for the books, the misses were one too many to go five knives and the decor inside was too dated to go four. So guess that leaves us with…

3 teeth

 

Graffiti

224 E 10th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 677-0695 • graffitinyc.com

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Apart from the inflated rating, I like Graffiti. More “Modern Indian Tapas” than “New American Cuisine” though. It’s tiny inside and spilling over with eclectic keepsakes crammed onto just about every square inch of wall space, which some might find quaint and others claustrophobic. Basically what you’d expect from the East Village.

The staff is friendly, even though they kicked us out for lingering after dinner. Not cool, but with such a tiny dining room and communal tables, I guess it’s to be expected.

As for the food and drink, I enjoyed the lychee martinis, but they were far from “amazing,” per other reviews. Granted, they did go well with the food and I ended up having two, so maybe they were amazing?

For dinner, we stuck to the Yelp consensus and ordered the mango paneer, which was good, the hummus pizza, which was just eh, the pork buns, which were also good, but beware of pits in the chutney, you could break a tooth- seriously.  And the far and away stand out of the night, which seems to get mixed reviews strangely enough, was the duck portobello. So nice we ordered it twice.

Dessert was the biggest disappointment though. The warm strawberries with almonds and pepper ice cream was SO underwhelming. I have no idea why people rave about it. It’s like they’ve never had strawberries with ice cream before? And as for the chocolate hazelnut dessert, it was equally blah.

So long story short, glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go back. Especially with such uncomfortable seating. If you have a bad back like I do, be warned!

3 teeth