Consistency issues dog this new Rosedale cafe, but that doesn't mean we're not going back for more
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., April 19, 2013
Mon.-Thu., 10:30am-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 10:30am-10:30pm; Sun., 10:30am-3pm
Épicerie2307 Hancock, 371-6840
Mon.-Thu., 10:30am-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 10:30am-10:30pm; Sun., 10:30am-5pm
Few new eateries last year generated as much controversy as Rosedale's Épicerie. When nearby residents got wind of a restaurant being built at the intersection of North Loop and Hancock, the Rosedale listserv was ablaze with chatter. Residents complained when the city granted a site plan exemption, despite the restaurant's failure to provide adequate parking. They argued that the new restaurant would increase noise and traffic, and cause parking issues for residents along already vulnerable side streets. Chef/owner Sarah McIntosh countered that her concept was intended to be low impact. The idea was a French-style épicerie, which is more like a small grocery store with a deli and limited seating.
After months of stalled permits, the city finally allowed construction to move forward. The indefatigable Michael Hsu went to work converting the former hair salon into a light-infused, marble and tile storefront. Within days of opening, Épicerie was packed. Far from the promised tienda, grocery items are mainly limited to artisan cheeses and a few spendy chocolates. As neighborhood NIMBYs predicted, most business is generated from the kitchen. And business has indeed been brisk, not just from intrepid Austin foodies, but from the neighborhood itself. It turns out that Rosedale does want a new restaurant after all, even if the immediate neighbors don't like the traffic. Épicerie's success, in spite of the initial opposition, highlights just how starved the Rosedale and nearby neighborhoods are for affordable fine dining options.
Épicerie is first and foremost a restaurant. However, it shrugs the traditional full-service model for a more casual counter-service style. This is becoming increasingly common in new restaurants, and I confess, I don't love it. At Épicerie, for instance, lines are long and slow, and, once you order at the counter, finding a table is a bit like an Easter egg hunt: Grab it before someone else does. Only the most dedicated diners will want to brave the line twice to add that second glass of wine or a dessert after the meal. There's no going back for more, so choose wisely the first time.
For lunch or dinner, I highly recommend starting with the barley salad ($9.99). This elegant dish of vinaigrette-dressed barley tossed with smoked salmon, sectioned grapefruit, and kalamata olives set atop a thick smear of crème fraîche is inspired simplicity. Move on to the house-made merguez ($12.99), a grilled Moroccan beef and lamb sausage served with a feisty green olive and red pepper salad, crispy potato coins, and red pepper aioli. Finish off with a puckery lemon bar. If you stop there, you'll leave completely satisfied.
On the other hand, if you go for the steamed mussels ($11.99) with french fries, or the house-made pappardelle with butter and mushrooms ($12.99), you may be less enthused. My mussels were shriveled and overcooked, almost as if they had been cooked first, then reheated to order. The pappardelle was bland. The butter saucing was actually cold and the mushrooms accenting it were downright skimpy.
Which brings me to another issue with Épicerie: Food can be wildly inconsistent here. One day you might find yourself in ecstasy over a luscious bowl of shrimp and grits, the next you'll wonder if someone forgot to taste the dough for the cardboard flavored beignets. You may question why you've just paid $8 for a miserly plate of biscuits and gravy, but on your next visit you'll lick your fingers after devouring an upscale riff on a fried oyster po'boy ($11.95). I believe some of these consistency issues can be attributed to youth. To be sure, Sarah McIntosh knows her way around a kitchen stove, having worked at Olivia and with Thomas Keller at Ad Hoc. However, a successful restaurant needs more than good recipes. It also needs skilled management both inside and outside the kitchen. Épicerie is still working through this part of the equation. And I want them to figure it out. Épicerie is, after all, my new neighborhood restaurant.