Dining North by Northwest
North by Northwest Restaurant & Brewery10010 N. Capital of Texas Hwy., 231-8157
Sun-Thu, 10am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm
I've never been much of a beer drinker, but since Texas liquor laws were changed in 1993 to allow the operation of brewpubs, I've enjoyed the casual ambiance and hearty bistro-style fare in several local operations. North by Northwest is Austin's biggest, newest brewpub, located in the burgeoning Arboretum/Gateway area. Founded by Davis Tucker, formerly of the Copper Tank Brewery off East Sixth Street, the new spot boasts a menu designed by consulting chefs Lisa and W. Emmett Fox and prepared by former Mezzaluna chef George Powell. Brewmaster Don Pitlick creates the specialty beers. With a great location and a qualified team on board, it's no wonder the first brewpub in what's being called "the Golden Triangle" area is doing such good business. North by Northwest is housed in a large natural stone building with a patio seating area in front and two wooden decks at the far end of the building. A busy bar area with tall stools and tiny tables is set against the backdrop of large, gleaming beer tanks visible behind wood and glass. The first small dining room with curved black booths opens into a much larger main room featuring a pizza bar in front of the semi-open kitchen and wood-fired oven. The big room is divided by a large stone fireplace and offers access to a clubby private space that appears to accommodate 15-20. The wooden decks wrap around the north end of the building with a view of the new Iron Cactus just next door. The main room is a pleasant space with comfortable tables and chairs. The metal, wood, and glass decor make for a high noise level which seems fairly standard in brewpubs.
On our first visit, some friends and I met at NXNW late one fall afternoon. When we arrived at 5pm, the bar and main dining area were sparsely populated, but by the time we departed about 6:30, an early dinner crowd of post-football game fans and young families had filled the room. With a total seating capacity of 300, lots of folks get fed here on busy nights. After considering the Mediterranean and Asian-influenced menu, we started with an appetizer of Skillet Fried Cornbread With Goat Cheese and Mushroom Sauce ($6.95) and a small Field Greens Salad ($3.50) with apples, toasted walnuts, and bleu cheese with an aged sherry vinaigrette. The thin, crisp triangles of golden cornbread were artfully positioned in a pool of savory portobello and cremini mushroom sauce surrounded by dabs of tangy goat cheese. I've never developed a taste for sweet cornbread but that was the only failing in the dish for me. The salad was very well received at our table. Even though it was listed as "small," all three of us enjoyed the flavor combination of assertive greens, tart apples, toasty walnuts, and a mild bleu cheese drawn together by the smooth sherry vinaigrette. The large version could make a filling meal, especially with the addition of optional chicken ($2.50), shrimp ($3.75), or smoked salmon ($4.50).
After the quality of our appetizers, we were surprised by the somewhat less successful entrees. The Half-Pound Angus Beef Burger ($8.95) with Huntsman cheese (described as a mixture of bleu and cheddar) was our best choice. The hearty burger features a thick beef patty cooked to order and arrives dressed with the works plus a side of colorful jicama-cabbage slaw and crispy garlic-dusted fries. It's an impressive burger, juicy and full of flavor, and should be served with a supply of napkins. The garlic fries are great. My dining companions were less enthusiastic about their dinner choices. The Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($14.95) was overcooked and paired with sides that lacked much pizazz. The Rotisserie Chicken Pizza ($7.95) arrived with a badly burned crust topped with bits of chicken, caramelized onions, rosemary, mozzarella, and bleu cheeses. It sounded better than it tasted, however, because the flavors of the topping combo just didn't meld.
While none of us sampled the beers, both the menu and the staff at NXNW can make suggestions about which of their house brews would complement the meal. My companions chose a Ravenswood Zinfandel ($6.25 by the glass) off the small, well-chosen list of wines available by the bottle and the glass. We took a chance on the drink special of the evening, a Frozen Cosmopolitan ($5.95), served in a frosty martini glass. Year-round Texas heat certainly demands plenty of frozen refreshment, but I'm not sure the flavors of a cosmopolitan lend themselves to the frozen treatment. It merely tasted like cold alcohol.
By the time of my return visit to NXNW this month, the brewpub's popularity had obviously grown. The parking lot was packed at 6:30, and the harried young men operating the valet service were hopping. The bar was packed with a chatty after-work crowd, but there were plenty of available tables in the dining room and we were seated promptly. Our appetizers this visit were Pan-Seared Crab and Shrimp Cakes ($8.95) and gigantic Beer Batter Onion Rings ($4.95). We shared the large plates lazy-Susan style around the table so we could all get a taste. (I don't have much trouble getting friends to accompany me on reviewing excursions even though I do sometimes tell them what to order!) The crab/shrimp cakes are wonderful, with plenty of seafood and the barest amount of filler to hold them together. They're served on either side of a mango and red bell pepper salad dressed in a sweet chili vinaigrette and topped with an enormous mountain of matchstick fries. The fries were reminiscent of canned shoestring potatoes without much salt, and the large, sweet salad mixture went pretty much untouched. We fought for every morsel of the crab cakes, but the bulk of the food on the plate somehow missed the flavor mark. The big platter of onion rings reminded me of the over-sized inner tubes we used to buy to take to the lake, but under their lacy, tempura-like beer batter, the onions were juicy and sweet, delightful with tasty house-made barbecue ketchup.
After my home run entree choice on my first visit, I was surprised to end up with the only entree strikeout of the second. The Grilled Duck Breast ($16.95) With Mushroom Marsala Sauce is served in slices around a huge serving of roasted garlic-parmesan polenta, grilled fennel, and other vegetables. The side dishes were very satisfying and complemented each other well, but the disappointing duck was badly overcooked, fatty, and tough. The star of that evening was the Rotisserie Chicken Half ($11.95) in a wonderfully mellow balsamic-roasted garlic sauce served with sweet potato mashers and braised greens. The chicken is moist and succulent, fall-off-the-bone tender. We'd order it again and again. Another successful choice was the rotisserie special of the day, a Beef Tri-Tip with double baked bleu cheese chive potatoes. The flavorful steak pieces were fine, but the potato was the revelation on this plate. Baked potatoes are hollowed out and the skins stuffed with a delicious mixture of potatoes, cheese, and herbs. The potato is then returned to the wood-fired oven to crisp a little before it arrives at the table. It was one of the best potato dishes I've tasted in recent memory.
Sated as we were by appetizers and entrees, we nonetheless forged on to dessert in the interest of this assignment. Out of curiosity, we ordered the Caramelized Cornbread Pudding ($5.00), having no idea what to expect. The dish is an imposing, golden rectangle more than three inches tall studded with golden raisins and napped with a caramel-bourbon sauce. Unfortunately, the cornbread was so dry that the only palatable bites were those that could be doused with the sauce, leaving the majority of the bread pudding uneaten. A more appealing choice, the Frozen Bittersweet Chocolate Pecan Terrine ($5), did not suffer a similar fate. The glistening wedges of dense chocolate mousse and their dried cherry sauce disappeared quickly.
The service at NXNW is friendly and attentive, especially so considering the number of people being served by the eager young staff. As I consider my impression of the dining experience there, overall it's very positive, with more hits than misses. I've found the dishes on the menu that appeal to me, and I won't hesitate to order them when I find myself hungry in that neighborhood. I recognize the degree of difficulty involved in preparing sophisticated food with subtle flavors for several hundred people at a time. And orchestrating the timing of grilled and oven-baked dishes so that each dish arrives perfectly cooked at every table is another tall order. The NXNW kitchen does many things very well, and I'd be willing to bet young chef George Powell can fine-tune the areas that need work.