Walking into Cookbook, the counter-service cafe located in the new Central Library, is a bittersweet experience for me, as it's home to the extensive cookbook collection of my friend and mentor, Virginia B. Wood. After her passing, my friends and fellow Chronicle food writers spent hours sorting, packing, unpacking, and cataloging her enormous menagerie, from low-budget community cookbooks compiled by church ladies to glossy productions written by celebrity chefs. We sat in the dining room at Cookbook before it opened, plucking personalized notes from authors and recipes written in Virginia's script from between the book covers before handing them over to the restaurant's custody. It would be a little too woo-woo to say that Virginia's spirit is there, but certainly part of her legacy is, which is why this review is somewhat difficult to write.
Cookbook is the latest concept from the ELM Group, which also oversees casual West Sixth hangout Irene's, Downtown Italian joint Italic, 24 Diner, and the Fareground food hall. The premise is simple: The menu, seasonal in nature, is curated by chef Andrew Curren, informed by the cookbooks and chefs who inspired him. The space is open and welcoming, and folks can visit the shelves of cookbooks and take a few back to their table to peruse while they dine.
My first visit to Cookbook was for a weekday lunch. Due to the counter-service nature of the restaurant, my companion and I ordered everything at once, which saved us repeat visits to the counter for our desired courses. From the sides menu, we ordered the artichoke fritters: three golden, plump domes served atop a lemon aïoli. They were crispy and addictive, but not so much so that they will ruin one's appetite. For our mains, we decided to pit Thomas Keller's chicken pot pie (from Ad Hoc at Home) against the Atlanta Junior League's shrimp and grits (True Grits). The shrimp and grits won that head-to-head in a walk; despite a parsimonious portion of shrimp relative to the grits, the dish was a flavor bomb compared to the chicken pot pie, which featured undercooked carrots and precisely one chunk of chicken and was, in my friend's description, "criminally bland." However, a reprise of the shrimp and grits on a later visit lacked seasoning and was garnished, inexplicably, with halved cherry tomatoes, which speaks to a consistency issue in the kitchen.
I returned for dinner with my family on Saturday night during the final hour of service, and the staff outnumbered the guests. I only ate half of my Californian sandwich, as the hummus and veggie combination wanted seasoning. I did scrape the bowl of my side of macaroni and cheese clean, although I do prefer a creamier bechamel for my mac. I also very much enjoyed my cocktail, "the Apples and Grapes of Wrath": a spritzer of Austin Eastciders, sauvignon blanc, ginger simple syrup, and chunks of apple. Maybe not appropriate when it's 40 degrees outside, but delicious and refreshing nonetheless. The entire cocktail menu is approachable and appealing, with the drinks cleverly named in reference to classic novels like "Tequila Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Gin" and "Infinite Zest."
My teen son ordered the chicken croquetas from the "kid-friendly" portion of the menu, which is where the explanation that the menu items are "inspired" by cookbooks and recipes provides ample cover. There was very, very little chicken inside the fried torpedoes; rather, they were filled with bland, starchy mashed potatoes with microscopic bits of chicken flecked here and there. My son bravely ate a few bites in growing dismay, then gave up and turned his attention to his own dish of mac and cheese (and to stealing his sister's pretzels while she was absorbed in her grilled cheese sandwich). We looked up the recipe cited on the menu (in Chicken by Catherine Phipps) and there's not a potato in sight. I find this choice both perplexing and frustrating. It seems like if you're going to offer potato croquettes on your menu, call them potato croquettes. Alternatively, you could make sure that your chicken croquettes actually have chicken in them, especially when they are on a kids' menu.
From my perspective, pastry chef Mary Catherine Curren is the real MVP at Cookbook. Her Guayaquil chocolate torte is a scene-stealing bombshell; decadent and delicious, so rich that four people could comfortably split it. The apple tart, with a nicely balanced hazelnut brown sugar topping, contains a pleasantly tart apple filling and perfect firm-yet-flaky crust. That said, all three of the desserts on the menu as of this writing contain tree nuts, including the chocolate torte, so folks with both allergies and a sweet tooth will need to inquire into alternative options.
Cookbook's prime location in the breathtaking new Central Library Downtown is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's situated in what's arguably Austin's most compelling new tourist attraction, which should be and probably is an automatic draw during peak hours. On the other hand, it's just one of the dozens and dozens of Downtown dining options, which means that it needs to bring its A game to every meal in order to be sustainable. Cookbook is a beautiful space, with a loving tribute to both Virginia Wood and to the entire cookbook genre. If I found myself peckish while at the library, I might pop in to Cookbook for some of those fritters or to indulge in a dessert (and to visit Virginia's books), but I don't see myself making a special trip to dine there.
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