Restaurant Review: Food Artist at Work
Chef Bryce Gilmore parlays an Odd Duck into a step up
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., May 6, 2011
Mon., closed; Tue-Thu., 5pm-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-11pm; Sun., 5pm-10pm
Barley Swine2024 S. Lamar, 394-8150
Monday-Friday, 6-11pm; Saturday, 5pm-12mid
Barley Swine is small, so one can't help but compare its clean, cool interior to the cramped insides of the metal Odd Duck trailer where chef Bryce Gilmore began making his name. At Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, Gilmore achieved something really quite poetic: an existence where one person could cook the food he loves, sell it to people, develop a following, and more or less live as an artist, answerable only to himself and responsible only for himself ... culinarily, at least.
But Gilmore's vision, to serve the highest quality locally grown and raised food, prepared simply yet elegantly (and affordably), grew in popularity remarkably fast. Opened in December 2009, Odd Duck had three employees before long and still couldn't keep up with demand. Gilmore decided to go brick-and-mortar and opened Barley Swine a short year later in December 2010.
Since its opening, Barley Swine has been the hottest ticket in town. As I mentioned, the restaurant is small: The dining room has a mere 34 seats. "It's a step up ... but not that big of a step," quips Gilmore. To get as many people served as quickly as possible, the seating is communal; nevertheless, hourlong waits are common.
Gilmore hasn't strayed from the aesthetic that defined Odd Duck: exciting, impossibly fresh produce and meats directly from local farmers and ranchers, prepared in such a way as to showcase and skillfully combine their natural flavors. Gilmore's flavor combinations are universally thoughtful and sometimes so perfect as to be emotionally moving. This culinary brilliance has caused Gilmore to be named one of America's best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine for 2011.
"Winning that Editor's Choice Award, it was literally a dream come true for me. I used to actually daydream about winning it!" recalls Gilmore. "It's really a honor, and it's great press for our culinary scene, great press for Austin!" Austin chefs who have been recipients of this award in years past are an elite group indeed: David Bull, Will Packwood, and Tyson Cole.
In addition to space, gleaming new kitchen equipment, staff, table service, and air conditioning, Barley Swine has another added dimension: beer. Actually, beer and wine, but the emphasis is definitely on the beer. There are eight outstanding ales on tap and about two dozen bottled varieties. "Pork and beer are two of my very favorite things," laughs Gilmore, "So I named the place after them!"
Barley Swine serves small plates, and diners are cautioned that they will probably want at least three. On the menu, each dish is identified only by its ingredients, for instance, the fried brussels sprouts, lemon, and capers ($5). This dish has become nearly a signature since the restaurant's opening: Darkly caramelized farm-fresh sprouts without a trace of bitterness are drowned lovingly in lemon juice and capers. It's a dish that marries beautifully with a newly pulled ale; at my server's suggestion, I ordered the Real Ale Kraken ($10), brewed in Blanco, Texas. The flavors in both the dish and the ale are so prominent and compelling that the point is driven home: This is what food is supposed to taste like. It's ambrosial.
The scallops with white asparagus and shellfish butter ($14) is another exemplary dish, showcasing Central Texas' modest crop of spring asparagus. Seared scallops are placed on swirls of white asparagus puree and contrasting saffron-colored butter sauce and decorated with delicate roasted green asparagus spears. The dish of braised short rib, celery root, and trumpet mushroom ($16) features two boneless cuts of Longhorn short rib meat sitting in creamy celery root puree with fresh horseradish grated over the top, lavished with cubes of braised celery. Meltingly rich, the braising brings the already intense beef flavor of grass-fed Longhorn to a fever pitch, which is then soothed by the calm flavors of celery and mushroom.
Grilling over a wood fire is one of Gilmore's favorite methods, and he uses it at Barley Swine in unique ways, often grilling vegetables such as carrots and squash as well as foie gras and lamb. Grilled carrot salad with goat feta and browned almond butter ($7) features a dash of sweet carrot puree topped with soft grilled carrots, which are in turn topped with delicate spring greens, crumbled goat cheese, almond butter dressing, and chopped Marcona almonds.
Recently added to the staff is pastry chef Kyle McKinney, and the choice is an apt one. McKinney's desserts are likewise thoughtful and flavor-oriented; his almond cake with strawberry gelée and crème fraîche-pink peppercorn ice cream ($7) is a good example. Silky almond cakes are crisped in the oven, then topped with piles of tiny, fresh, local strawberries. Decorating the plate are molds of fresh strawberry jelly and a scoop of pale-pink and white ice cream. Utterly delightful, but no more so than the Hazlenut Chocolate Crunch with caramel pudding and honey-nut nougat ($7), an ultrarich, dark-chocolate wafer crunch.
If Gilmore's career continues to skyrocket, a larger, less intimate restaurant is in the cards eventually; be sure to make it in to Barley Swine while you have the opportunity – and early, on a weeknight, if you want to avoid a long, long wait!