p is for pitchfork pretty

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Having just seen an afternoon performance of Ann at the Zach, a fantastic play that was more political revival than performance, we stopped in on the Eastside’s Pitchfork Pretty for an early dinner. Self-described as “straight up Hill Country cuisine,” Pitchfork Pretty slings its soulful cooking in an artful cedar-and-glass abode that immediately feels comfortable when you cross the threshold.

Seth Baas worked at his dad’s Sonic in Houston before moving to the Bay Area, ultimately opening the acclaimed Blanca in San Diego. Family brought Seth back to Texas where he hatched plans to open Pitchfork Pretty, a locavorium named after his mother’s propensity to decorate antique farm equipment. Max Snyder, the talented executive chef, is a native Austinite who worked his way up from dishwasher while devouring cookbooks along the way (and to this day). Pitchfork describes itself as “servants to ingredients,” honoring seasonality but also fusing fresh garden fare with carefully selected imports.

We arrived at the front doors without reservations at approximately 5:01 pm, a mere minute after they opened for the evening. We chose to sit at the corner of the bar to enjoy the place, commotion, and coming meal, but tables were available if we desired more conventional seating. We started with the rum-month mixology, a Queenʼs Park Swizzle (Hamilton 86, mint, lime, angostura; $13) and a Mai Tai (Appelton 12 yr, Rhum JM, lime, dry curacao, pecan orgeat; $14). The drinks arrived in cute (vintage?) glasses and danced across our tongues with perfect balance and flourish.

The family-style pre-fixe tasting menu (eight courses [+ extras!] for $65 a head; all must partake) with a no-beef accommodation rang our dinner bells. We adore chef’s choice menus since we’ll eat things we would never order and get a menu overview. Even better (although challenging for your itinerate food blogger), the fixe included non-menu dishes.

First up were pickled quail eggs on fried leeks gorgeously served upon ceramic nests the color of blue corn (not on the menu). With their delicacy and beauty, it seemed a shame to eat them as shooters (as recommended), but shot them we did, a duet of texture and flavor. Bites of pimento cheese with spicy crab crackers sided with dainty pickled tomatoes followed the eggs, a flirty serving that left us yearning for more. Yet another appetizer was trout roe and soft, white cheese on a fritter (not on the menu), a crunchy, salty, and creamy tongue twister.

Moving into the main courses, the red snapper marinated in habanero oil with green tomato and verbena arrived, a jaw-droppingly dreamy dish plated on electric-green glass (see photo above). Although habanero’d, the snapper nibbled instead of bit with each refreshing let’s-forget-about-summer bite. East Coast oysters with smokey mignonette followed the snapper.

The next two dishes focused on veggies and were terrific, tempting a lifestyle of vegetarianism. First was the summer salad with crispy grains, roasted tomato, and queso fresco followed by the steamed zucchini, candied squash seeds, coconut, and mint (“I never thought zucchini could taste so good!” yelped the bride). The veggies were a perfect respite from the sumptuous appetizers and prep for the coming savoriness of the mains.

The first main was the freshly milled hominy with shrimp, cowpeas, sweet corn, and paprika, a lip-smacking mix that somehow tasted better with each forkful. The steamed halibut, cooked white as snow, came with cucumber, potato, and pepper confit and a post-delivery douse of buttermilk that lava-lamped a green pepper oil from beneath the fish. This dish was a symphony of fresh flavor with the peppers (too hot for the bride) providing a pop of yippee-kai-yay with the cucumbers, potatoes, and fresh-green taste of the oil.

Dessert started with a glass of hibiscus slushie with red grapes, vanilla sorbet, and mint marigold (described as a palate cleanser) followed by the chocolate and caramel pudding and cheesecake ice cream with roasted sesame. The bartender noted that the roasted sesame tended to split tasters with half liking it and half disliking it with he in the middle. I ultimately found myself in the middle as well, but I also found it a remarkable you-must-try-it dish, a clever manipulation of tongue physiology.

The first bite was an overwhelming tsunami of slap-yer-mama-silly sesame. Seriously, that’s all you taste: sesame. My first thought was “Dang: They done stumbled in the kitchen and totally overdid the sesame!”). I imagine that many dislikers push the dish away after the first bite, and that’s a mistake because the second bite magically tastes completely different. Yes, the sesame is still proudly there, but now the chocolate, caramel, and cheesecake join the sesame as a harmonious barbershop quartet.

Matthew Odam with the Austin-American Stateman lists Pitchfork Pretty as the second-best restaurant in Austin (as of late 2018; topped by Emmer & Rye and followed by Suerte, Olamaie, and Barley Swine). While we’d quibble with Odam’s top five (we’d list, at this moment, Barley Swine, Pitchfork Pretty, Dai Due, Intero, and Lenoir), Pitchfork is unquestionably one of the best restaurants in town. Eleven courses in all, the pre-fixe is a fantastic introduction to Pitchfork Pretty’s magic. One minor suggestion is that the experience could be doubly enhanced with a paired libation menu a la Barley Swine.

Ann Richards famously quipped at the 1988 Democratic National Convention that George H.W. Bush “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”  That may or may not be so, but Read. My. Lips: You can be culinarily born again at Pitchfork Pretty with a silver spoon in your mouth. And you will elect to come back for a second term.

This review is part of our sequential tour-through-the-alphabet of Austin’s restaurant scene. Now you know our ABCs!

web&where: interwebs; 2708 east cesar chavez; (512) 494-4593; reservations
what’s the deal? elevated Hill Country cuisine; table service
overall: ***** (food*****; drink****; atmosphere****; service*****; instagrammability****)
cost: $$$$$$$

our scale:
–          meh [think twice]
*         OK [it’ll get the job done]
**       good [solid neighborhood joint]
***     damn good [we’ll definitely be back]
****   yippity-yikes that was amazeballs [fantastic; one of the best]
***** holy sh!t [transcendental; best of the best]

each $ = $10; cost is based on a typical dinner entrée and appetizer (no drinks)

IMG_0002board-formed concrete always puts me in a good mood…

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IMG_0010Queenʼs Park Swizzle

IMG_0011Mai Tai

IMG_0013pickled quail eggs on fried leeks

IMG_0015pimento cheese with spicy crab crackers and pickled tomatoes

IMG_0017trout roe and soft, white cheese on a fritter

IMG_0018red snapper marinated in habanero oil with green tomato and verbena

IMG_0016East Coast oysters with smokey mignonette

IMG_0019summer salad with crispy grains, roasted tomato and queso fresco

IMG_0020steamed zucchini, candied squash seeds, coconut and mint

IMG_0028freshly milled hominy with shrimp, cow peas, sweet corn, and paprika

IMG_0029steamed halibut with cucumber, potato, pepper confit, and buttermilk

IMG_0030hibiscus slushie with red grapes, vanilla sorbet and mint marigold

IMG_0031chocolate and caramel pudding and cheesecake ice cream with roasted sesame

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