'Top Chef' alum turns out swell sandwiches
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., May 11, 2012
Bake Shop: Daily, 7am-2am;
Beer Garden: Daily, 11am-2am
Easy Tiger709 E. Sixth, 614-4972
Open daily: bakeshop, 7am-2am; beer garden, 11am-2am
Easy Tiger, a joint venture between baker David Norman and chef Andrew Curren, finally opened in January after many long months of anticipation and delay. While a split-level bakeshop and beer garden may seem an unlikely pairing, the interplay among handcrafted breads, house-cured meats, and a lovingly curated beer menu is surprisingly successful.
The carbohydrates are the stars of the show at the street level. There's nothing fancy or fussy, just simple, classic breads and pastries expertly made. Downtown dwellers and visitors would do well to pop over from the office, condo, or hotel for the Easy Start ($5), a grab-and-go breakfast including a cup of coffee and choice of pastry, including pain au chocolat, almond croissant, a spicy tiger claw, or my personal favorite, the fruit Danish. The cherry-lime filling on the day I sampled was tart yet subtle, pillowed by a velvety pastry whose equal I have yet to consume.
Patrons can also buy loaves of sourdough, miche, nine-grain batard, and rye, as well as small and large pretzels from the bakeshop to go; I have on more than one occasion gone out of my way to pick up a baguette ($2.50) or levain boule ($3.50) to take home for a special dinner, and am always impressed by the consistency of the product. Perhaps it's the enormous deck oven used to fire these exceptional loaves, but their consistently tender crumb and crackly crust are more likely the product of Norman's artisanal expertise.
Diners seeking something a bit more substantial to belly up to should wander downstairs to the beer garden, designed by Veronica Koltuniak, all dark posts and heavy wooden tables offset by cream walls and sleek, brushed stainless light fixtures; it's medieval mead hall meets upper-middle-class suburban den. Outside, diners can settle in at a patio picnic table and admire the rock walls and peaceful trickle of Waller Creek or play table tennis while waiting for dinner. In keeping with the masculine aesthetic, the menu is unfussy: There is meat and there is bread, with some excellent house-made mustard on the side.
Where Curren's ethos at 24 Diner is farm-to-table comfort food, at Easy Tiger, he gets to show off his facility with spicing and curing meats. And while the menu highlights the various sausages on offer, it's the sandwiches and house-cured meats that inspire raves. The roast beef sandwich ($8 half, $14 whole) features tender beef lightly dressed in a mixture of sour cream and horseradish that is not overpowering (in fact, they could dial up the horseradish a notch and not offend me). The smoked turkey ($7 half, $12 whole) is fine, although the smoke flavor is a bit strong and the combination of avocado and jalapeño aioli creates a mess that renders the sandwich impossible to eat without utensils. But the best sandwich I have had at Easy Tiger, hands down, is the house-cured pastrami, which can also be ordered on its own ($6 for half a pound, $8 half sandwich, $14 whole sandwich). The pastrami is juicy and perfectly spiced; topped with an unobtrusive slice of Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Easy Island dressing, the flavors explode with a satisfying squish supported by the rye bread, which has a nice bounce and just enough heft to carry the meat.
Of course, not everything is bread and roses at Easy Tiger. In other words, back to those sausages ($5 link, $7 with pretzel bun). The bad punster in your family might posit that they are the weakest link, but I will simply state that they could use a little work. The flavors are spot-on – the traditional Italian sausage is a lovely marriage of sweet fennel and pork, the country chicken a triumph of smoke and rosemary, and the merguez is topped with a droolworthy romesco. But their texture is somewhat watery, suggesting that they've encountered steam somewhere on the trip to the table, and the casing wants a bit more of a braise to provide some snap. The worst offender, though, is the vegetarian sausage, which borders on insulting: It looks like a piece of wood and is dry, gritty, and tastes like dirt.
On the whole, Easy Tiger is an exciting addition to the Austin food scene and could quite possibly anchor the redevelopment of the Waller Creek tunnel and the seedy intersection of I-35 and dirty Sixth. As long as people are willing to go out of their way for top-of-the-line breads and pastries, and to make the beer garden a destination for social gatherings centered on hand-crafted meats and excellent brews, this tiger's life span could well exceed expectations.