Cookbook Bar & Cafe
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
One of this year’s most surprising and delightful new restaurants is in a library. You heard me right: Cookbook Bar & Cafe sits on the first floor of downtown’s gleaming new central branch. And if the architecturally stunning space isn’t reason enough to check out the library’s new digs, Cookbook Cafe offers another great excuse to hustle over.
There’s a lot to love about Cookbook. First of all, it looks great. The restaurant is surrounded by soaring glass windows that frame downtown’s evolving cityscape: shiny new skyscrapers, beautifully landscaped Shoal Creek and dramatic works of public art. The airy interior, designed by VeroKolt in partnership with architect Lake Flato, offers table dining plus bar seating and communal tables. There’s also an expansive covered terrace that captures the gentle breezes off the creek.
Lining the cafe shelves are its namesake cookbooks, hundreds of them, donated by beloved Austin food wirter Virginia B.Wood, who bequeathed her treasured collection upon her recent death. Ranging from 1950s vintage editions to contemporary celebrity chef tomes, Wood’s collection has been lovingly displayed for diners to admire and peruse.
But Cookbook doesn’t just rest on its good looks and prime location: Its food is terrific. Led by chef Drew Curren of the Elm Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Italic, Irene’s), the kitchen turns out sophisticated flavors and presentations that belie its fast-casual counter service and modest price point. Every item on the menu has been inspired by the published recipes of revered chefs and cookbook authors.
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a full bar, Cookbook offers something for everyone. In the mornings, there are hearty choices like huevos rancheros driven by renowned NYC chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s book “Prune.” Or there’s PB&J French toast from the infamous “Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook,” plus grab-and-go treats like orange-scented rye muffins.
At lunch and dinner, starters include a refreshing salad of watercress, arugula, pears, walnuts, and Parmesan from Jamie Oliver’s “The Naked Chef Takes Off.” There’s also creamy fresh lemon ricotta topped with mushrooms, garlic, and shallots inspired by chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty More.” But the winner might be the addictively light and crispy artichoke fritters with lemon aioli by New Orleans chef Alon Shaya.
Sandwiches like the turkey Waldorf inspired by Emeril Lagasse and the shrimp BLT by Jonathan Waxman are elegant and satisfying. But the chicken potpie à la Thomas Keller is a comfort-food home run with its flaky crust and soulful fillings. Even side dishes are given careful thought like the grilled potato salad with bacon from San Francisco’s beloved Tartine. Kids get hungry, too, and Cookbook’s child-friendly offerings have pedigrees from superstar chefs like Alain Ducasse’s chicken-and-vegetable kebabs. And don’t forget dessert. Pastry chef Mary Catherine Curren gives a loving nod to the late Anthony Bourdain with a “Les Halles Cookbook”-inspired chocolate-hazelnut tart.
Did I mention there’s a full bar in the library at Cookbook? (Where was this when I was in college?!) Not only are there very nice wine and beer lists, there are also sophisticated cocktails that are both delicious and clever, like the raspberry-steeped Adventures of Huckleberry Gin, the chilled mocha Murder on the Orient Espresso, and my personal favorite, Tequila Mockingbird, with jalapeño-infused tequila, watermelon, and lime.
Sophisticated food doesn’t need to be stuffy, and Cookbook is the kind of place where you can nibble over your laptop or luxuriate over a dinner date. It’s also one of the few new restaurants where you can have a conversion without shouting over an earsplitting din. Oh, there’s still great energy and a cool urban vibe, but it is a library after all.