Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review: Birdie's
A neighborhood restaurant, for some
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., May 6, 2022
It's easy to miss Birdie's if you don't know what you're looking for. Situated at the corner of 12th and Harvey streets, the gray-and-white building with "Grace Fellowship Baptist Church" in blue painted letters on the window facing 12th Street blends in with the landscape. If you were to drive by at 6pm on a Friday or Saturday evening, you'd wonder what was going on upon seeing the dozens of people standing outside, milling about and drinking wine.
That nondescript building houses one of Austin's most popular restaurants, opened in July 2021 by chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and her husband, Arjav, both of whom have deep roots in the restaurant industry both here in Austin and in New York City. Equal parts thoughtful wine bar and cafe, Birdie's offers a minimalist Continent-inspired American food menu that changes subtly on a regular basis alongside a deep and diverse wine list.
The first-come, first-served counter-service model is the reason behind the lines outside. Diners who have to wait to place their order inside have the opportunity to order from a limited selection of by-the-glass wines and a modest selection of beers and ciders. On my first visit, it was cool enough outside to justify a glass of red wine while I waited for my friends to arrive, so I selected the 2020 Presqu'ile Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County, California. While I generally like a juicier pinot noir, this one balanced earth and tannins nicely with red fruit.
Because we arrived early (I was waiting outside when the doors opened at 4:30pm), we were able to order and be seated with minimal waiting. At the counter, the cashier explains the menu after asking about any allergies or special diets, answers any questions, and recommends how many plates to order based on your party size. This transaction can take several minutes. This is where you also order your beverages, including glasses and bottles of wine. One of my companions ordered a bottle of G.D. Vajra Dolcetto, which was handed to her in a plastic Birdie's-branded tote bag for ease in carrying the bottle to table. (This was not a freebie; if guests don't finish their bottles on premises and don't want to carry it out with their bare hands, the bags are available for $18.)
The menu is divided into shareable smaller snacks and midsize small plates, and two entrée-sized larger plates. We ordered liberally from the menu, selecting the olives, anchovy toast, and panisse from the snacks menu. The olives were plump and firm, with a strong oregano flavor; we would have preferred more chili. The anchovy toast was presented in four petite squares slathered with butter and topped with the powerfully umami tiny fish; the butter helped keep the anchovy from overwhelming the palate, but I only needed a few bites to achieve satisfaction. The panisse, long rectangular chickpea fritters, were crisp on the outside with a creamy center and topped generously with pecorino Romano and served with wee slices of lemon, which lent a lovely acidity and brightness to the mellow bites.
From the small plates menu, we chose leeks with trout roe and the cavatelli with turnip greens and lemon. The tender leeks were served on a bed of creamy sauce and bore a very pleasant smoky flavor that added dimension to an often overlooked vegetable. The hands-down favorite of the night was the cavatelli pasta, which was light, buttery, and creamy. My companions swooned at how closely the dish hewed to its European origins. We did wonder why it was served on a flat plate rather than in a bowl to keep the heat from dissipating, but this was a minor quibble, as we disappeared every last noodle in record time.
We completed the main part of the meal with the minute steak, a modest portion (about 4 ounces) of steak served with a mustardy hollandaise and a few stalks of broccoli rabe. I can't say that I'd recommend this dish. It wasn't bad, per se, but the steak was a little tough and just didn't quite live up to the high bar set by the pasta.
For dessert, we split the Heilala vanilla soft-serve ice cream and the warm chocolate chip cookie. The ice cream, drizzled with Agrumato (olive oil crushed with citrus), was like a grownup Creamsicle and we couldn't get enough. It paired beautifully with the lightly salted cookie, which was large enough to satisfy the three of us. We left full and happy, especially since there was a long line out the door when we left.
I returned to Birdie's a few weeks later with my spouse, early enough on a weeknight to avoid waiting in a discouragingly long line. This time, I ordered a glass of the sparkling Meinklang Frizzante Rosé "Prosa," from Austria. This is an organic pinot noir rosé that is only very lightly fizzy and berry-forward.
Because it was just the two of us and the menu hadn't changed much since my previous visit, we ordered in a more targeted fashion, starting with the broccoli with pickled peppers and tonnato, plus the strawberry and ricotta toast. The crisp, blanched broccoli was indeed a snack-sized portion, served in a small pool of tonnato, the popular Italian condiment made from tuna, anchovies, lemon juice, olive oil, and mayonnaise or aioli. The strawberry and ricotta toast was delightful, almost like a savory strawberry shortcake, topped with black pepper honey and tarragon.
Next came the simple salad, which was a heap of leaves and herbs, lightly dressed with a white balsamic vinaigrette and dotted with tiny squares of brunoise white onion. It's a good thing it was large, because it kept us occupied during the long wait for the next course, the campanelle pasta with garlic, tomato, and basil, which was exceptional. The components combined into a margherita-style sauce that was utterly irresistible; I wanted some bread to sop up every last ounce of it. It was one of my favorite dishes across my visits to Birdie's.
After another excruciatingly long wait during which we questioned our memory of actually ordering it, we finally received our last course, the rockfish with pea shoots, radish, and mustard. The fish, two smallish pieces served among a jungle of pea shoots and four curls of shaved French radish, was tasty, but by the time we received it, we were so ready to leave that it hardly registered.
We were so anxious to leave because Birdie's is simply not a comfortable place to hang out for a long time, from the backless wooden cubes upon which to sit in the backyard dining area to the too-loud music. I'm not interested in hollering over Glen Campbell or the Velvet Underground over dinner, regardless of how much I enjoy their music. (I did not have the opportunity to dine indoors, which is probably more conducive to hanging out.) While dining outdoors when it's 115 degrees sounds horrifying, the newly constructed patio enclosure will likely provide some respite from Austin's unforgiving summer. The service was competent and generally attentive, with servers dropping off food, refilling water glasses, and taking orders for wine and dessert, but not particularly warm or friendly.
I worry about accessibility at Birdie's. I noticed that there aren't any places to sit out front for those who have to wait their turn to order, which can be a while due to the bottleneck caused by the counter-service model. Those with mobility issues that preclude standing for a long time or navigating the landscaping rocks in the outdoor dining area may be out of luck.
I also wonder how accessible Birdie's is to Rosewood residents, with a median income of about $44,177, when the least expensive glass of wine is $15 and dinner for two (excluding drinks, but including tax, tip, and a 3% "health and wellness" fee) costs $100. According to a representative from the restaurant, about half of their guests are from the neighborhood at large, but the number of cars (some of them very expensive) parked on the nearby streets suggests that most of the guests when I visited weren't walking over for dinner. Every neighborhood should have a restaurant/bar/cafe that serves as a "local," a comfortable gathering place for nearby folks, but also welcomes people from across the city. When such a place has reasonably priced, delicious food and tastefully curated wines, everyone wins. While Birdie's comes close with its simple yet sophisticated menu, some folks may find that it misses the mark when it comes to comfort and some physical and economic barriers to entry.
Birdie's2944 E. 12th Ste. A