Best Food in Austin Dining Pick
Veggies are a plenty—but there is so much more to this refined, East Austin spot.
Walking into Gardner was a bit disorienting. It didn’t feel like Austin. Nor LA, NYC, or Miami. It felt like someplace I’d never been…maybe a place like Scandinavia or Japan where design is sparse, serene, cerebral. There were bare walls and floors, warmed by simple wood accents, glowing pendant orbs, and decorative fireplaces. Seating was thoughtfully laid out, with no communal tables in sight. Cool tunes floated in the background. The place was sleek yet soft. Modern yet timeless. Minimalist yet welcoming.
Glancing at the menu, I started to get my bearings: the food was decidedly farm-to-table and mostly vegetarian. I knew I was back in Austin. But when the food arrived, I was transported again. This was ambitious, creative food—not trickster stunt-cooking. And, it was all delicious. Gardner is the latest project from the folks at Contigo, the urban ranch restaurant near the Mueller development. And except for their shared dedication to top-quality food and service, the two restaurants couldn’t be more different. Whereas Contigo focuses on rustic meats, Gardner is all about sophisticated veggies. The menu spotlights seasonal produce, with some meat thrown in for good measure. There are lots of small tasting portions—and I suggest you taste a lot of them. Like the chicken skin: several pieces of perfectly crisped skin dotted with crème fraiche, Japanese spices, and a drizzle of honey. It was crunchy and creamy, salty and sweet, and totally yummy. Beets were equally delightful. Roasted cubes were topped with a thin layer of Turkish-spiced mayo, herbs and toasted pine nut brittle.
For entrees, our server encouraged us to try the gnudi and we were glad she did. Tossed with smoked mushrooms and wilted arugula, the plump, tender ricotta dumplings melted in our mouths (and my husband and I fought over the last one). The dry-aged beef was straightforward and delicious, accompanied by a sweet potato cooked three ways and brightened with tangy Asian black garlic. We didn’t make it to dessert, but options included a cheese plate and a tempting concoction of milk chocolate, pears, sunchokes and anise.
Like the ambiance, the drink selections were unexpected and lovely. For aperitifs, my husband was thrilled to find authentic French apple cider and devoured his glass of Manoir de Kinkiz Cidre Fouesnant from Brittany. And I thoroughly enjoyed my glass of Spanish Valdespino Manzanilla en Rama dry sherry. Next came tasty glasses of a Tuscan Cosimo Maria Masini Sangiovese and a Traminer from the Italian Alps, an aromatic white wine not yet on the menu recommended by our helpful server. There were also interesting beers, both domestic and imported, like a Flemish sour beer and a Texas smoked lager. Service was outstanding. From the hostess to the wait staff, they were knowledgeable, professional and polite. No one wanted to be our best friend, but they wanted us to have the best meal. As Gardner began to coax me into a blissful, mellow mood, it didn’t take long before I felt right at home.