If I were to venture to define the epochs of Austin dining, I'd stake a marker at the point Paul Qui stepped out on his own after Uchiko. The generation that preceded him – Tyson Cole, David Bull, and even Aaron Franklin to some extent – brought a certain earnestness to their cooking (Cole learned Japanese as part of his training, for chrissakes), shaping a future where the current food culture could exist.
Qui inherited that world, and his sudden rocket to fame is the point where culinary Generation X gave way to the millennials. They didn't need to be taught farm-to-table, or umami, or sous vide, but they did demand that eating out was experiential. A meal was to be revisited and shared, discussed en masse; a meal was a badge of identity. After all, the word "foodie" was coined by New York critic Gael Greene just as the first millennials were being born.
Yes, this is a review and not a history, but when a dish like VOX Table's smoked hamachi pipette ($11) enters our culinary vernacular, it's worth noting how we got there. I don't deny that there is plenty to acclaim in the dish – there's brine and spice and cream and crunch – but I wish I didn't have to squeeze a plastic vinaigrette bladder through a fish cube to get there. I realize such presentation creates buzz in a crowded market, and I don't blame chef Joe Anguiano for including it on the menu – by all accounts, they are extremely popular – but novelty can quickly yield to gimmickry.
Thankfully, for now, Anguiano is toeing the line, and his cross-cultural menu only allows for one use of medical equipment. Broken up by category ("leaves + roots," "hooves," etc.), the small-plate menu sneaks in a few silly descriptors (Parmesan snow) and an edible pun or two (the tongue + cheek buns), but leaves most of the voice in the cooking. A lot of it has the feel of elevated bar food. Chickpea fritters and pork crackling: They are both pure bar food, the Jenga-stacked chickpea fritters ($9) given just a little punch with a quenelle of tomato marmalade, and the pork cracklings ($6) have squiggles of aïoli and a vinegary brava sauce. Their poutine ($10) adds pig head terrine to the potatoes, curds, and gravy.
Elsewhere, the menu is less down-home. VOX's skewered pintxo ($12) continues the home run of great Austin octopus dishes. Its simple tang is enriched with a pop of blistered cherry tomato. Tomatoes, this time oven-dried, reappear to subtly sweeten braised Akaushi oxtail ($15). The potato pillows underneath, not quite gnocchi, are tiny miracles. We were less fond of the king trumpet mushroom pappardella ($11), a dish that is not so much bad as unmemorable.
Here I will admit that lack of memory may have had something to do with Travis Tober's drink program. There's a low-ABV menu and plenty of beer and wine, but the house cocktails are what to order. The uber-Austin Danny Trejo ($11) is a see-what-sticks combo of grapefruit oleo saccharum (not to be confused with Expecto Patronum), smoked pineapple ginger shrub, Lillet Blanc, and tequila. Herb Is the Word ($10) is an analgesic of gin, yellow Chartreuse, and Cocchi Americano. We like the draught Irish Goodbye ($10) – a combo of orange zest-infused Tullamore Dew, cherry Heering, and Earl Grey – with executive pastry chef Allison Henschel's ode to late-stage capitalism, the Fool's Gold Brownie ($9). Its simple taste is bolstered by foie gras ice cream and caramel mousse. Henschel has several other enticing options, but we are magpies for gold dust.
The bar program is at its most playful in the a.m. hours. Even some of Austin's best restaurants phone it in when it is time for brunch. As long as there's bubbles, there's a Sunday Funday. VOX covers that territory with orange, grapefruit, peach, and Solerno ($5-8) sparkling cocktails, then raises the bar. Their Bloody Mary ($10, served with a Miller High Life pony) proves foam still has a little culinary utility left. Here it's concentrated celery, adding the slightly bitter green one never gets from limp stalks (we will forgive the hot sauce-filled pipette, if only because it's actually useful). Saturday Morning 'Toons ($11) has that element of playful nostalgia that mark our town's best pastry chefs. It's essentially a less-cloying milk punch sweetened with cereal milk and served with a small bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It's a much-needed side-poke to humorless mixology.
That frolic is just as apparent in the brunch dishes. Crab Benedict ($14), served on fluffy Yorkshire puddings, veers closest to pretension with the addition of "egg 63" – an egg slow-cooked in-shell at, you guessed it, 63 degrees – but the technique yielded a slightly less-runny egg that served the already lusty combination of hollandaise and butter-poached crab well. We are not entirely sure prosciutto chips were needed, although they certainly did not detract tastewise, even if the mangled-rabbit-ear presentation was a bit off-putting. The churro blini ($13) wasn't exactly a plating tour de force either, but the flavors were more cohesive. Lots of chefs suggest that you take a small dab of each component with each bite, but rarely do they achieve a parity that makes such fork-balancing necessary. Here, what is lacking from the Tasmanian ocean trout's restrained smoke is filled with sharp horseradish; the earthiness of the potato churro is lifted by capers.
Elsewhere, a fine starter of wood-fired oysters ($12) split the difference between oysters Kilpatrick and Rockefeller, adding a prickle of pancetta to an herbed crumb. Salsa verde pork hash ($13) is a heftier damper. It's somewhere near pozole verde with some Caribbean wanderlust, hearty but with a hummingbird liveliness. It's also an example of why it's sometimes good to pay attention to our town's tendency to put an egg on it.
It's a good thing that the food has so much pull. The dining doesn't so much encourage lingering as hibernation. Save for some large brush strokes mimicking river rocks, the space is a little like a gallery without the art. Using scant natural elements, the minimalism feels like a shiver. No wonder there is so much booze to warm things up.
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