Sunday, April 09, 2006

And Of Course There Was Food

There you are, a modest lunchtime repast for two at Smitty's in Lockhart, Texas. Actually, for some reason, I wasn't feeling too good that day, and wasn't able to do my share, but what I did manage was superb. The deal with Smitty's, for those who don't know the saga, is that for years Kreuz Market in Lockhart was in the hands of the Schmidt family, and when the last Schmidt to own it died, he left the building to his daughter and the business to his son. Trouble was, the two siblings hated each other, and the business was evicted from the building. The son took the fire, which had been burning for over 100 years, up the road to a new building he'd built and the daughter renamed the business Smitty's, which had been her father's nickname, and started a new barbeque dynasty. The happy upshot of this is, if you don't have any favorites in the dispute, Lockhart now has two of the best barbeque joints in Texas. The pork chop, in particular, was moist and luscious, the ribs had some sort of sweetish glaze applied very subtly, and the brisket was...well, I'm afraid it was pretty tough that day.

Yes, this was a pretty good trip for eating, although the only two places besides Lockhart I dined in were Austin and Paris. Let's do Austin first.

A lot of the people I had dinner with at SXSW were in a hurry to catch an 8pm show somewhere, and I discovered that Hoover's Cooking could get us in and out quickly, although it filled up later in the evenings. (And what's up with Hoover's website being down? doesn't seem to work, although you might try it if you're reading this later). The thing that's so great about Hoover's is that it's what Threadgill's used to be. The fact that it was Eddie Wilson at Threadgill's who first recommended I check Hoover's out says volumes. Hoover Alexander was going to retire when his son talked him into opening this place, and not only is it the most reliable chicken-fried steak in town, it also has creditable barbeque. Further, the blackboard specials can be amazing: I had a crawfish etouffee there that was ridiculously good. Their hamburger is now probably the best in town, and the breakfasts they serve on weekends are also first-rate: the garlic cheese grits I had there were very memorable indeed.

Location also dictated that Polvo's also became the default Mexican restaurant, although I also still swear by Curra's, especially for breakfast. (Unfortunately, the one meal I had at a former favorite, Botanita's, way down on S. First, was a disappointment, with poorly-prepared food and indifferent service). And I made a nice discovery on someone's recommendation of Azul Tequila, hidden away next door to a Target in South Austin, although I found the mariachis distracting. I'd have liked to have more time to research some of the newer Mexican places, but time and money dictated otherwise.

There's been a huge surge in Austin's South Asian population since I left, and I figured that had to mean at least a couple of good new Indian restaurants. First one I found was Bombay Bistro, recently raved about in the Austin Chronicle. It was a decidedly mixed experience: excellent samosa/pakora plate for appetizer, and a great tilapia curry with whole charred chiles in it. Unfortunately, the waitstaff doesn't seem to speak English, and they gave me the wrong side-dish and couldn't understand why I didn't want it. The lighting is low, mostly, I suspect to deflect attention from the fact that the place is pretty beat-up. And I suspect it was my meal here which left me feeling not so hot the next day.

Much better was Madras Pavilion, a south Indian vegetarian place. I've had better -- in London -- but this is a place I'd frequent if I lived in Austin these days. I had a thali, a meal with a bunch of small dishes, and every single one of them was superb. Next time, I'll start hitting the menu in detail.

I didn't eat many lunches, but after I had to move out of the hotel and was staying with friends on the East Side, I discovered Gene's, a "Cajun" restaurant in the neighborhood. It's Creole, not Cajun, of course, but that's a quibble; the oyster po-boy I had there was just like the one I had in New Orleans, and again, this is a place I'd like to go back to and check out in detail, especially the fried chicken.

And the truly great lunch I had, with an old friend who's going to have her wedding rehearsal dinner there, was at Tâm Deli, where we feasted on jicama summer rolls (a masterpiece!), banh mi sandwiches, and noodles stuffed with pork. I definitely overate, and now I'm wondering why, with all the Vietnamese places now opening in Berlin, someone doesn't open a joint like this. Are you listening? Berlin needs banh mi!

I think that just about sums up the Austin experience (except for my traditional lunch of phô at a place whose name I can't remember, with a friend who lives near it). I'm hoping to get back there later this year to take care of some business, and now I've got some new favorites to explore.


I left from and returned to Paris, which is problematical in terms of food because it's easy to spend way too much, and yet you just know at any given time that there's something in the vicinity that rocks. Added to this was the fact that the reason I was there at the start of the trip was to see Carl Stone perform at the Maison de Radio France at their Présences Electroniques series, and that's in a weird corner of the city. I wound up PriceLine-ing a hotel across from the Paris Expo, by the Porte de Versailles, which didn't help, yet the red Michelin book pointed me to Le Murier, 42 rue Olivier de Serres, Paris 15, and I decided to check it out. A great coarse terrine to start, very subtly flavored with some kind of eau-de-vie, followed by pork roasted with honey and "spices," which drove me nuts as I tried to figure out just what they were. Excellent cheese selection, mediocre wine, and the whole thing set me back 32 Euros.

On the way back, I stupidly booked myself an extra day. This wound up allowing me to take a walk through Paris just as the students were preparing their demonstration against the new labor law, so that everywhere I went there were either cops getting into position or students painting their signs, so that wasn't too bad. I'd PriceLined another hotel, this one incompetently run, over in Clichy, another neighborhood I knew nothing about, but at least it was close to the Gare du Nord, from which I had to leave.

This time I didn't have my red Michelin, but on a hunch, I signed up for Via Michelin, their online service. I typed in the address of the hotel and in seconds it came back with a bunch of restaurants, in order of their proximity. Amazing. So I selected one and went there. Le Bistrot de Théo, 90, rue des Dames, Paris 17 was just what the doctor ordered, although you'd do well to get there early: at 8:30 I was practically the only customer, but it was jumping two hours later when I left. I started with Blutwurst mid Himmel und Erde, only this was called boudin noir with a nice puff of mashed potatoes with apples, fried just enough to keep it in one piece, laid on a bed of salad. I thought it was a bit underseasoned, but maybe that's my German experience coming out. The main course, though, was extraordinary: a piece of venison with a berry chutney subtly enlivened with curry powder, and, in a separate bowl, little cubes of fried potatoes which were redolent of garlic and parsley. I've got to learn how to do this; previous experiments haven't been too satisfactory. Again, the cheese course was superb, and the only down note came when I handed my Bank of America debit card to the guy and his face fell. My French hadn't quite come back, and I was jet-lagged, so he'd helped me with a touch of English. He must have thought I was British, and was disappointed that he'd been kind to an American. But that's where our stock is these days, and now I know I'll have to wait a while to go back there.

Michelin also sent me to another place the next night, which I wouldn't recommend because of the perfunctory service and the fact that foreigners get stuck in the back room while the regulars get better treatment up front. The meal started with a jambon persillé which finally made me see what this dish is supposed to be, and the main course was sort of a pot au feu using beef and red wine that was very well done. But I suspect this sort of stone traditional fare isn't too hard to find in Paris (even at the low price), and I'll go somewhere else next time I'm looking for it.

Anyway, it felt good to get back here and start cooking for myself -- if nothing else, it's a whole lot cheaper -- although I look forward to the day I can just go to the supermarket and get the kind of ingredients with which I can make stuff like this. I just hope it's sooner that later.

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