Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
The cozy atmosphere and satisfying cuisine at Whisk will transport you to the sun-splashed Mediterranean
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Jan. 16, 2009
Whisk Handcrafted Cuisine4238 Bee Caves Rd., 329-6405
Plenty of people have noticed that the Texas Hill Country bears a striking resemblance to the Provence region of France, and now the area is dotted with vineyards, olive groves, and lavender fields that serve to heighten the similarities. The newest Provençal enhancement in the hills just west of Downtown Austin is Whisk Handcrafted Cuisine. Former Memphis restaurateur Linda Waller has converted a country limestone cottage into a cozy and inviting take-out shop with an open kitchen redolent of the foods of Provence and the Mediterranean. The front room has a community table surrounded by tall chairs and a rustic limestone bar (stained with Merlot) with stools that offer the perfect vantage point for observing cooking demonstrations or just chatting with the cooks while enjoying a casual meal. Colorful Staub pots filled with soulful soups and stews sit atop an induction cooktop, waiting to be savored. Waller has staffed her enterprise with two accomplished Austin cooks – Gail Calder, former owner of Two Women Cooking and Austin Kitchens, and Jacob Zavala, most recently executive chef at the former Oakville Grocery in the Domain. This talented trio turns out a regular menu of sandwiches, hot soups, and entrées to eat in or take out, and they keep a refrigerated case and a freezer stocked with entrées and side dishes for reheating at home.
Some of the menu items are constant, while others change with the seasons. Although she's a relative newcomer to Austin, Waller is working to cultivate relationships with area farmers and meat producers so that she can feature their products in her menu items. For example, the toothsome coq au vin ($15 for a half chicken simmered in wine with vegetables) comes from Dewberry Farms.
I first visited Whisk soon after Waller announced her opening and made a second stop there last week, both with delicious results. On our first visit, we enjoyed hearty sandwiches for lunch, and I snagged some of the coq au vin with sides of rice pilaf and haricot verts almondine for two very satisfying dinners on subsequent days. The excellent brown-sugar-and-coffee-crusted steak sandwich ($11) is a demibaguette dressed with soft Taleggio cheese, grilled portobello mushrooms, and piquant arugula. The equally impressive Nuske's Applewood Smoked Ham Sandwich ($11) sports creamy Camembert and Dijon mustard on pumpernickel. Whisk sandwiches are made on La Brea Bakery bread, a top-quality par-baked frozen bread line that is indistinguishable from the best homemade, and its demibaguettes also accompany the hearty stews. I'll grant that the sandwiches are pricey, but the portions are generous, and the ingredients and flavor combinations are first rate.
Some women friends joined me for a late lunch at Whisk last week, and we sat at the bar chatting with the cooks while sampling the soups du jour and then savoring our choices. The winners on this trip included a flat-bread sandwich made with African spice chicken ($9), shredded Dewberry Farms chicken meat in a brightly flavored green-olive sauce accompanied by fresh cilantro and sunflower sprouts – a uniquely light and refreshing presentation. I lapped up the tender, soul-satisfying beef daube ($9), as fine an example of the rustic French beef and vegetable stew as you're likely to find this side of the Atlantic. My overwhelming favorite, however, was Zavala's Catalan Carrot & Ginger Soup ($5 a cup, $10 a pint, $32 a quart), a luxurious savory blend of roasted carrots and spicy ginger thickened with bread in the Catalan style. Whisk regulars have discovered Zavala is an absolute wiz with soups, and his carrot creation is the main reason my "Best Bites" list for 2009 already has one entry. The Provençal pork tenderloin ($15) with truffle mashed potatoes and a tomato stuffed with goat cheese is waiting patiently in the fridge for dinner this weekend.
Now that her lunch and take-out business is up and running, Waller is adding chef's table and wine dinner events to the Whisk schedule. Guests can arrange to book the dining room for a custom dinner party or sign up for an event such as the one planned for the final Saturday of this month: The Mid-Winter Food & Wine Tasting features salad, soup, fish, poultry, meat, and dessert courses paired with wines for $79.95 per person. The cozy atmosphere and satisfying cuisine at Whisk can transport you to the sun-splashed Mediterranean. The trip will be worthwhile.
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