Back in August 2014, Seth Baas announced his plans to transform a lot on East Cesar Chavez into a restaurant. As the stately A-frame took shape with its clean lines and barn-chic design, it teased onlookers' imagination. But meanwhile Austin dining progressed to a point where buzzwords like "local" and "sustainable" alone are not enough to seduce patrons. Being able to satisfy the fickle pack in a crowded market was an order as tall as their soaring wood-beam gable and floor-to-ceiling windows. Pitchfork Pretty's striking architecture required an equally impressive menu to match.
Executive chef Max Snyder rose to the occasion and seems to have found his sweet spot. What they coined as "straight up Hill Country cuisine" understates the layers of whimsy, complexity, and attention to detail that the experience entails. For one, they take pride in making everything in-house, from habanero jelly to morning pastries and bagels. Grounded in down-home cooking, they highlight seasonal vegetables from their garden and regional techniques like pickling, brining, and open-fire grilling. To add intrigue, they also draw upon ingredients from various cultures (like miso, queso Oaxaca, and house-made sambal) and seamlessly weave them into their foundation.
What shows up on the dinner table is one imaginative, unexpected plate after another. (In contrast, the morning cafe service menu is more straightforward – more on that later.) Snacks and appetizers are where their creativity shines brightest. A translucent slow-poached quail egg, pickled in champagne vinegar, rests on a tiny nest. The one-biter amuses the bouche with acidic sharpness, mellowed out by the crispy leeks. Following the pickle theme, the unremarkable-sounding beer-pickled cucumbers & mushrooms delights as an attractive and surprisingly cohesive combination of crunchy cucumber, sliced pickles, charred shiitake and beech mushrooms, accented with serrano oil.
The smoky velouté-like gazpacho is another exemplary vegetable dish. Summer eggplant, charred on the open fire, creates a refreshing icy cold base for colorful garnishes like diced tomato, sweet peppers, avocado, and crunchy corn. Thumbs up. If the basics are the most difficult to perfect, then the tender buckwheat cornbread with crusty edges is a most humble winner. Slather the accompanying honey miso butter with puffed buckwheat on generously – it's the best part.
Naturally, some experimental plates are more successful than others. The yucca dumplings are on the dense side, which the grilled root vegetables and subtle radish brine were unable to support. While the elements needed something more to tie them together, I still enjoyed its parts. Likewise, the grilled blue crab was headed in the right direction. Melon cubes and cucumber ribbons seem to be the ideal companions to the generous portion of crab meat. I only wished that they chilled the crab and plate (both were warmed) to complement the chilled squashes' temperature.
Nodding to tradition, the family-style meat plates are approachable and plentiful. Half-chicken served two ways (fried or barbecued), and a variety of grilled meats (beef sausage, beef tongue, or beef rib) are served alongside all the fixin's. Well worth the splurge, the beef rib is a sizable slab of gorgeously marbled meat. A thin blackened crust wraps around the medium-rare cut that is stripped from the bone and sliced on a bias so there's no need to roll up the sleeves. It's lacquered with an umami-ful coffee-based barbecue sauce, complete with a side of warm yeasty rolls, pickles, and onions.
If you manage to save room for dessert, both classic and novel sweets are up for choosing. The zingy lemon ice box pie, smothered in a fluffy, marshmallowy topping, will tickle citrus lovers. The coconut crepe cake needed airiness, but they get bonus points for the ambitious plantain ice cream/pineapple/arbol chile combination.
In contrast to the buzzing nights, the morning light transforms the space into a laid-back hangout. In addition to the light-filled expanse with comfy booth seating, they offer many more reasons to linger here. For one, the Flat Track coffee, served hot or iced, is bottomless. Pair it with a tender scone that's studded with pecan bits. The flawlessly cured lox sandwiched between an excellent everything bagel is a standout. Meanwhile, for something different from everyday yogurt and granola, the Earth Bowl is a wholesome mix of toasted oats, coconut, and fruit in a delicious spiced sunflower seed milk. That morning, steak 'n eggs was the board special, foreshadowing brunch that's in development. A hearty slab of chuck roast is cooked sous vide until medium rare, then seared. It's served with a deeply rendered veal jus, herbs from the garden, and home fries for good measure. This is easily a new contender for the best breakfast on the Eastside.
From the adorable glassware to the warm and steady service, their attention to detail does not go unnoticed. Water glasses remained filled, plates were cleared swiftly, and each dish was described with enthusiasm. The long, gleaming bar serves up a list of thoughtful, balanced cocktails – necessary because the tall space seems to have difficulty staying cool despite the extra fans. The rising temperature gives another excuse to knock back a few cold ones. I recommend the Tut's Tomb Raider, a shaken rye sipper that's elevated with Amaro Nonino and subtle touches of licorice and coriander.
Throughout both morning and dinner services, the Pitchfork team maintains a balance of Southern comfort and stylishness. They manage to provoke diners' sense of adventure without veering too far from the familiar. Without a doubt, they execute the staples very well. More interestingly, they integrate ingredients first introduced by immigrants as accents rather than afterthoughts. I hope whatever comes next after New American cuisine will take notes from Pitchfork Pretty for the way they pay homage to what the region's land gifts us while unabashedly showcasing the richness that diversity brings.
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