Cafe Josie Changes It Up
New ownership at an old fave
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., April 26, 2013
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2pm;
Cafe Josie1200-B W. Sixth, 512/322-9226
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2pm; dinner: Mon.-Thu., 6-9:30pm, and Fri.-Sat., 6-10pm
Soon after opening in 1997, Cafe Josie became the place to go for adventurous tropical cuisine. Chef Charles Mayes, one of Austin's pioneers of world fusion cuisine, served a colorful, sun-drenched menu with an emphasis on char-grilled meats and seafood, which garnered the cozy Old West Austin eatery a loyal following for 15 happy years. Last fall, Mayes decided it was time to move on to other endeavors and pass the restaurant on to the capable hands of his general manager, Cody Taylor, who had been an integral part of Cafe Josie's success for the last seven years. The two had been talking about this possibility for a long while, and, for Taylor, the timing was right.
To make the transition possible, Taylor partnered with longtime friend Brandon Fuller, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Austin whose résumé includes the kitchens of renowned restaurants like Olive & June, Wink, parkside, and Uchi. When Taylor came calling, Fuller embraced the prospect of running his own kitchen and developing his own signature menu. Thus, a new vision for the future of Cafe Josie was set into motion. The mango and bougainvillea walls were replaced by a palette of greens and neutrals, and the firecracker menu has given way to a more restrained – yet by no means boring – style. The walls are decked with colorful, seasonally changing images of Boggy Creek and Springdale Farms by local photographer Whitney Martin. The atmosphere is relaxed and elegant without pretension.
Among the many challenges of a restaurant transition – especially one as established and beloved as this one – is the menu. Taylor patiently explains to die-hard regulars why their favorite jerk pork with mango salsa and habanero aioli is no longer available and coaxes them into trying something new. Although he's met with some resistance, he is managing to win them over with his familiar, smiling face and impeccable customer service. Taylor has expanded the wine program with handpicked selections in all price ranges, including some unexpected selections by the glass. He spends considerable time educating his eager young staff, so that every one of them can make the right suggestions upon request.
I have shared a few meals with friends at Cafe Josie recently, and so far everything we've tasted from the evolving menu has been well-executed, interesting, beautifully presented, and delicious. Fuller's seasonally driven menu can be best described as modern American, with ingredients, influences, and techniques from around the globe. A lovely appetizer of delicate crab crepes ($12) dressed with a bright carrot ginger coulis and a crunchy cucumber salad is the perfect example. Fuller's creativity shines in dishes like the masa crusted cauliflower ($7), perfectly fried and crispy, topped with a sweet-and-sour mélange of Dijon rum drizzle, golden raisins, and candied pecans that contrasts nicely with the earthy crucifer. Juxtaposing flavors and textures, the grilled octopus appetizer ($13) uses smoked tomato aioli and chorizo gastrique to compliment the smokiness of the nicely charred octopus, and adds crispy potatoes and a fresh parsley salad for contrast.
"I know that the local, farm-to-table mantra is being used a lot," says Taylor, "but we are sourcing most of our menu locally and, by most, I mean 90 percent of our produce is coming from the local farms. I think that we will keep our most popular items longer than other items, but at this point, the menu is very dynamic." An example of a "keeper" is the pulled pork tacos ($13), served at lunch in corn tortillas topped with a mix of chicories, crunchy dried corn kernels, and a drizzle of chorizo gastrique and tomato aioli. This dish could use a hint of something pickled and spicy to complement the slight sweetness of the pork sauce, for my taste, but a side of the best sweet potato fries I've ever had kinda took my mind off that. And speaking of seasonal: A velvety-perfect cream of celeriac with compressed celery and fresh celery leaves was a revealing study of one of the world's most misunderstood vegetables.
Main dishes are portioned to follow a starter, or can serve as large sharing plates. A dish after my own heart, the balsamic-glazed Windy Hill goat ribs ($25) is finger-licking good for sure, artfully accompanied by bleu cheese potato salad, baby celery, and shaved radishes. The shrimp & grits ($14), served at lunch, is almost an homage to Charles Mayes' cuisine: plump and juicy sautéed Gulf shrimp served atop creamy grits, dotted with diced chile poblano, surrounded by a warm pool of garlic tomato broth. It is filling, flavorful, and fantastic. Dessert is not an afterthought at Cafe Josie. A pear poached in Perucchi vermouth ($7) with brown butter ice cream and hazelnut tuile was a delicious holdout from the fleeting winter menu, while the ridiculously luxurious foie crème ($12) with housemade strawberry jam and salted almond crumble is likely to withstand the seasonal menu changes.
Taylor and Fuller have many plans, including expanded outdoor dining and a weekend brunch. But for the time being they are taking it a day at a time, doing what they love. I see a bright future for Cafe Josie, and I am sure Charles Mayes is pleased with the new restaurant that still bears his daughter's name.