Should Austin dining be graded on a curve?
I rarely respond to comments about my restaurant reviews. Restaurants can become such important parts of our lives that publicly expressed assessments can seem like personal attacks. Usually nothing good can come from that, but occasionally one gets me thinking. Such was the case on my review of the Eastside's Al Fico, below which a reader wrote, "I'm confused we are reviewing Austin restaurants, not ones in Manhattan right? I doubt diners in Austin are craving trotters just yet. While someday I hope we are a world class dining city, it might be too soon to evaluate places here with that standard."
I would argue that pig's feet have plenty of precedence in Texan cuisine, pickled or cooked into menudo, but I guess that really was just an example. More to the point: Should I be grading Austin on a curve?
There was a time that was probably necessary. Even when I moved here – a little over 11 years ago – there was little in the way of fine dining. Few chefs were thinking in terms of farm-to-table, even fewer were trying to dazzle with technique. Food, by and large, looked like food back then. There were, of course, odd squiggles of coulis, but the delicate compositions of a place like Counter 3. Five. VII. would have seemed alien.
Now artful plating is the norm in upscale restaurants. Our food scene has spawned national celebrities and umpteen articles and a cottage industry of folks working behind the scenes. And, of course, Austin chefs are regularly nominated for James Beard awards. Sometimes our hometown heroes even win.
But, of course, Tyson Cole, Paul Qui, and Aaron Franklin all won the Southwest category. The big award still mostly goes to chefs working in restaurants in Manhattan. And there are plenty of signs that we are not as sophisticated as we think. The latest was this week's announcement that Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart's Scandinavian daydream Gardner would be reconfiguring to the more accessible concept Chicon. That was after a series of moves, from adding a burger to the menu to getting rid of the initially controversial "bites," that were no doubt made to make the restaurant more "Austin."
So I can't fault that commenter for the implication that Austin is not a world-class dining city. They are inarguably right. I also can't fault restaurateurs for making business decisions that keep them from going broke. But we still have to have a standard if we want to get there.
There are now more serious chefs calling Austin home than any point in our history. Some of them have worked or staged at the best restaurants in the world. As a scene, we are a little behind in innovation, but as impatient as I can be at the pitfalls to progress, I ultimately have faith that there's still fire left in our scene. But grading on a curve does disservice to that. We need to know we can always do better, that we can compete on the national stage.
Being honest about where we stand to the world's standard is the first step toward being great, instead of merely settling with being hot.