French Picnic Fare at Épicerie at the Contemporary
The menu at Laguna Gloria pairs delightfully with a stroll through the sculpture gardens
Reviewed by Jessi Devenyns, Fri., Aug. 9, 2019
During the summer, it can be difficult to persuade even weather-hardened Austinites to sit on a patio and enjoy a hearty plate of French fare, which is likely why, when Sarah McIntosh opened Épicerie at the Contemporary, she focused on classic picnic fare. At first glance, the condensed version of the beloved Rosedale bistro's menu was slightly disheartening, but the selections are curated to complement the outdoor ambience.
After enjoying 14 acres of uninterrupted lakefront around Laguna Gloria's sculpture gardens on a sweltering afternoon, I wandered to the front of the museum grounds, thankful the space's master revamp plan included installing a cafe where previously the only option was bringing a brown-bag snack. Cooling off on the amply shaded porch, I needed something more than ordinary to whet my appetite.
Épicerie is known for artful presentations – a great reputation to maintain on an art museum campus – so when the compostable to-go container was delivered in lieu of a lovely dish at this counter-service eatery, my hopes were nearly dashed. And then I opened that post-consumer recycled box.
The cured salmon bagel arrived open-faced with bright colors and textures, the halves begging to be tasted independently. Refreshing radishes and crisp cucumbers contrasted nicely with the sizable portion of cold-smoked salmon, raw red onions, floral capers, and dill fronds. But perhaps most importantly, because Épicerie serves Rosen's Bagels – where both sides, not just one, are coated with sesame seeds – the two halves are happily married, free to express themselves individually, but also wonderful when functioning as a sandwich.
The sweet potato farro salad, a deconstructed grain bowl that spotlights individual layers linked with dollops of sauce, is so artful it pained me to destroy the composition. A quick swirl of the fork combined plump golden raisins and crunchy peanuts, making the chewy farro and frisée curls appropriate choices. Billed as a salad, the hearty combination, especially with a delicately soft-boiled egg add-on, creates a substantial meal. My side of kids' mac & cheese (which, yes, prompted a raised eyebrow as I had no one under 10 in tow, but it's hard to resist a childhood favorite) was delicious, if expected, though the broccoli florets did break up the endlessly creamy texture. I wish I'd concocted this combo on college nights when I was reduced to Easy Mac.
I returned just for the avocado toast, and Épicerie's version of the dish that redefined millennials' obsession with breakfast turned out to be a work of art, with avocado as its medium. The toast itself was a golden chaise which absorbed a delicious dose of butter, and the creaminess of perfectly ripe avocado was amplified by burrata cheese. Things didn't get out of hand thanks to the frisée, pomegranate seeds, and quinoa granola that added some thoughtfully less caloric crunch. Épicerie also offers a list of baked goods from classic chocolate chip cookies to French-pastry staple bostock (an indulgent treat somewhere between French toast and an almond croissant, with a layer of citrusy frangipane). The cafe stocks a selection of local craft beers, sparkling water, a variety of French and Italian wines, and offers a standard list of espresso drinks.
In a place dedicated to taking enough time to appreciate the fine details, it seems Épicerie expects patrons to take their orders away. There was no compost or recycling bin in sight, only a garbage can, which ultimately reduces the whole point of environmentally friendly to-go containers. Dine-in is available – there is plenty of table space surrounding the cafe – but almost all of the passersby seemed to be rushing away to somewhere else on the grounds. That said, it's not hard to procure a spot if a lunchtime dash-and-go isn't your speed. Questions surrounding disposal methods aside, Épicerie's food is a welcome addition to an area where until now, visitors had to rely on snacks they packed at home. And really, we could all probably use some time to relish the nuances of dining alfresco, especially when someone else prepares the picnic.
Épicerie at the Contemporary, Laguna Gloria3809-A W. 35th