For the last four years, foodies in the know have been raving to one another about Cafe 909 in Marble Falls. The food is creative and fun, the service is attentive and professional, and the decor is cool and soothing. Even the background jazz vocals from chef/owner Mark Schmidt's iPod – with artists such as Blossom Dearie, Carmen McRae, and Billie Holiday – are a balm to enhance the experience.
Schmidt creates a menu for each season. He's currently on his spring menu, and to him, that means asparagus, English peas, morels, halibut, and lamb. It takes a confident chef to trust his ingredients, and Schmidt feels that as long as he's buying seasonally and fresh, he can.
His Spring Asparagus Soup, with lump crabmeat, white asparagus, roasted sweet peppers, and crème fraîche ($9), is a perfect example. If he just made a big pot of soup, the ingredients would meld and oxidation would kill the beautiful green color of the peas and asparagus. Instead, when the order comes in, they cook them and use an immersion blender. Then they garnish the soup with the crab, white asparagus, and sweet peppers and finish it off with a drizzle of crème fraîche. The color is pea-green, all flavors remain identifiable, and you can just taste spring.
Ditto for the Truffled Egg Salad on toasted pumpernickel with asparagus tips, shaved red onions, and herb aioli ($8). The salad is a hard-boiled egg mixed with aioli made from grape-seed oil and flavored with parsley, salt and pepper, truffle oil, and chopped truffles. That sits on a crispy piece of toasted pumpernickel with a few fresh asparagus tips, thin slices of red onion, and an extra dollop of aioli. This is not your normal picnic egg salad.
Schmidt spent a good deal of his youth in England. The colonial British came back from India with a taste for a peasant dish called khichdi. The Indian version was a breakfast dish with rice and lentils. The British would add fish and make a more substantial morning meal. As usual, when they came home, they made a botch of the name and called it kedgeree. Over the years, kedgeree has morphed into a dish with smoked fish and hard-boiled eggs, which is the version Schmidt had as a youngster. His version is Curried Prawn Kedgeree with smoked haddock, couscous, coriander, red onion, quail egg, cucumber raita, and toasted coconut ($12). He simply steams the prawns with curry and orange juice, then couscous takes the place of rice, and he adds coconut for texture and a hint of sweetness.
My wife grew up in a Mennonite family just a few miles from Amish country. She still raves about the wonderful meats. So she made up her mind about the entrée the second she read the description: pan-roasted free-range organic Amish chicken with creamed spinach, pan-roasted fingerlings, mushrooms, and Italian Acacia honey jus ($26). The chicken is from organic, free-range birds nurtured by the Eberly family in Stevens, Penn., and is not only juicy but actually tastes like chicken. The Acacia honey jus has just a kiss of sweetness. The other flavors come from reduced chicken and veal stocks and a hit of French butter.
I chose the Iron Seared Halibut with English peas, asparagus, favas, pea tendrils, morels, and French butter ($29). The halibut was perfect (Schmidt flies fresh seafood in every other day). It was simply dusted with kosher salt and white pepper, and seared. The vegetables and mushrooms were quick sautéed, and a little melted French butter was drizzled over all. Freshness embodied.
Shelly Schmidt runs the front of the house. She knows her wines, and she uses Mark's ever-changing menus as an opportunity to try little-known wines that match up with his food. For spring, that means lighter, leaner wines. We had a 2005 Verget Mâcon-Villages Grand Elevage ($53), a crispy, buttery Chardonnay from Burgundy that made magic with all five courses. She also recommended some other wines that would have been just as fascinating. The Simonnet-Febvre Crémant de Bourgogne ($6 per glass) is one of France's best bargains in sparkling wines and would have been a perfect match with the soup. For a red, she suggested the Domaine de Colette Morgon Le Charme de Colette ($43), a ripe Beaujolais ideal for the chicken.
Toward the end of the evening, Mark Schmidt went to each table to make sure everyone was happy and to answer any questions. I had a lot of them, and as I listened to his passion for flavor and hospitality, I was reminded again that Cafe 909 can compete on a national stage. If this very same restaurant were on Highway 29 in Napa – and I mean food, decor, and waitstaff – people would be trying to get reservations six months in advance.
Instead, the Marble Falls folks don't seem to realize what a treasure they have in their midst, which is the only reason you can generally get a reservation the same day you want to dine. Downtown Austin to downtown Marble Falls is 48 miles. The trip is worth every minute.
The summer menu comes out around the solstice on June 21. Look for lots of corn and tomatoes.
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