Austin Fine Dining Isn’t Dead
Can a city obsessed with tacos, barbecue and beer also aspire to new culinary heights?
It was a rough start to 2016 for fine dining in Austin, with the New Year’s Eve closure of two of the city’s upscale restaurants, Congress and LaV. David Bull, the executive chef at Congress, says that after five years at the top, it made sense for the company behind it to focus on expanding its more casual sibling, Second Bar + Kitchen (where he is also executive chef and partner). That concept will soon have two more locations in town, one at the Domain and one at the airport. “We are continuing to grow and evolve as a company,” Bull says. “The closure of Congress was simply the next chapter in the evolutionary process.” At LaV, the owner said it was no longer “fiscally feasible” to stay open (its marquee chefs and wine director had already left months earlier).
But before the white tablecloths had even been folded into perfect corners one last time at Congress, or before someone from Restoration Hardware’s corporate office has the chance to scout LaV for their next showroom (furniture included!), the collective hand-wringing over the closures had already begun. ‘Shutter Week,’ as one blog christened it, sent a shudder of doubt through the city’s epicurean spine.
Fear not — Austin’s fine dining scene isn’t dying, it’s simply moving in a different direction. Fading are the influences of the French and Italian; instead the sirens will be Japanese (Paul Qui’s forthcoming Otoko and the omakase counter at Otto Phan’s Kyoten Sushiko), and a Texas take on “New Nordic” cuisine found in a new, bigger version of Bryce Gilmore’s Barley Swine on Burnet Road.
While diners eagerly await the opening of these new concepts, Austin already has a venue blending pristine ingredients and local influence, a place that should be regarded as the best dining experience in town, but is hardly ever talked about: The Tasting Room at Qui.
“Austin is a special place that creates its own definition of ‘fine dining.’ The rest of the country has been behind in recognizing the creative quality of the restaurants here.” – David Bull
That could be because it’s hardly ever open. While main dining room patrons at Qui are busily Instagramming their cheddar cheese ice cream sandwiches, there is a hidden magic happening in the kitchen behind them. Twice a week, two times a night, at a counter that seats just six, a team of chefs led by Jorge Hernandez are taking three-star Michelin ingredients (caviar, foie gras and truffles) and twisting them into unexpected combinations right in front of diners. The experience lasts several hours, and stands up to similar experiences at more well-known restaurants in Chicago, San Sebastian, Paris and Copenhagen, while still managing to make it an only-in-Austin experience. (Your final dessert might be a riff on pecan pie.) Yes, it comes with a cost ($120 per person, before tax and tip, occasionally less based on demand), but considering the level of execution, flavor and service, and the fact it’s in our own backyard, “fine dining” doesn’t get much more accessible for the price.
The Tasting Room at Qui, along with Barley Swine, Olamaie and newcomers like Otoko and Kyoten Sushiko,all represent a new wave for upscale dining in the city, one that’s focused more on adventure, experience and ingredients instead of formality, decadence and master sommeliers. The fertile ground for this fine dining movement in Austin has many founding farmers, but chief among them is Tyson Cole of Uchi and Uchiko. By setting a standard for small portions, with big, bold flavors, utilizing pristine ingredients, Cole helped Austin shake off a staid steakhouse history and embrace a forward-thinking style with Japanese roots. He was anointed one of the ‘Best New Chefs’ in the country by Food & Wine magazine in 2005. One of the only other Austinites to earn the honor at that point was Bull, then at The Driskill Grill, who had won the award two years before.
“I think we are blessed to live in a city that continues to support its own,” Bull says, “A city that continues to evolve and grow – Austin is a special place that creates its own definition of ‘fine dining.’ The rest of the country has been behind in recognizing the creative quality of the restaurants in Austin.”
This should be a source of immense pride, and even a little Texas swagger. Yet to most outsiders, perhaps even to locals, the Austin food scene is one of barbecue, beer and tacos. Tourists are flocking here to wait in line at Franklin Barbecue, not the Tasting Room at Qui. But if they wanted to see the best our city can do, they shouldn’t miss either one.
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2016