Friday, May 15, 2015

Counter-Lust in Austin: A Seductive New Dining Spot in Texas

No Tables. No Servers. No Tipping.

Let’s see, where have I been? Monday, it was in San Francisco. Tuesday, back in Dallas. Wednesday? Houston. And Thursday found me in Austin, Texas. Hopping around from city to city via plane, car and Uber, I’m playing road warrior again this month. My travel schedule is insane, but right now being on the road feels like the right thing. And occasionally (actually, often) I find myself poised in front of brilliance. Whether it is listening to Darrell Corti, Tim Gaiser and Shelley Lindgren wax eloquently about Chianti Classico, or Alois Lageder explain with a deeply back-lit gleam in his eye about his transformation from grower to bio-dynamic guru, right now I feel like one lucky fellow. But those are vanity posts for another day. I’m currently smitten with a little new place in Austin, and one you should get yourselves to, A.S.A.P., before it becomes the hardest seat to get in Texas. And I’m betting it won’t be long before that happens.

I happened upon Counter 3.FIVE.VII a few weeks ago. Not having a reservation and arriving a bit late, the hostess asked the kitchen if they could squeeze in one more diner. It was only 8:45, I didn’t have a reservation, and the 25ish seat counter wasn’t fully occupied (n.b. the kitchen closes at 9). My radar shot up and I saw a chef in the kitchen give an affirmative sign, so I thought, why not, let’s give this place a shot.

Jason Huerta is the beverage director, whom I knew from Dallas, and is one of the brightest young wine professionals in the country (How’s that for a p.r. popping proclamation, Dr, P?). The first night I was there, Jason was home sick. But, as a sign of his leadership (and the "1 Team - 1 Dream" staff) , the beverage program was brilliantly handled in his absence.

Seafood Stew - Saffron, Ocean Consomme, Seafood Garniture
I sat down and had the 3 course menu (the restaurant has a 3, a 5 and a 7 course fixed menu, with or without wine matching). It started with a seafood stew that simultaneously sent  me to San Francisco, Porto d’Ascoli and New Orleans, crowned me king and saw me off on a blazing royal raft towards Heaven. Or was it Hell? It didn’t matter, if this was my last meal on Earth, so be it. Yep, it was that damn good.

Mind you, I’ve dined around, so I can be a bit jaded. And Austin, which I love, is growing into a city where dining has come from fast casual, flip-flop trendy, slowly, to the more serious cuisine than one finds readily in cities like San Francisco, New York, Houston, Paris, Rome, you get my drift? I’m all for being the cheerleader, but if you’re going for 3 star Michelin, you gotta play like you’re in the big leagues. That kind of dining is evolving from the first time I walked down Congress in the early 1980’s.

My Uber driver Patrick put it this way, “Ever since the Circuit of the America’s (race track) opened, Austin has been transformed. We’re getting a lot more international visitors.” He said this as we were driving down Congress, the main drag in Austin.When he let me off, he pointed to a group of Chinese tourists taking selfies next to a large guitar on the walkway. “See what I mean?” he said, as I headed into Counter 3.FIVE.VII to meet my clients.

Yeah, Austin is getting all “growed up” and along with it comes a deeper commitment to food, not just as something to fill the belly, but as a first world existential polemic. Food can be as political as, say, politics. But it can be so much more delicious. And combined with the seamless wine matching that a lad such a Jason Huerta has devised, well, it makes life ever so much more beautiful.

All this to say – get your butts into one of those seats at Counter 3.FIVE.VII, before those seats become an unattainable wish.

First off, the food is healing. It is beautifully presented, and one can see the loving care they put into each dish, as there you are, sitting around their kitchen watching all the busy bees at work. The seats are comfortable (and this is coming from one who normally eschews “high chairs”). The music is wonderfully eclectic, in a way that Austin shines. I tried to imagine this restaurant in San Francisco. First, it would be much, more expensive. Next it would already be impossible to find a seat at. And then there is that laid-back Austin style, a “New Texas” evolution that isn’t so self-conscious. There’s still a healthy dose of self-deprecation among the workers. It’s like they actually are surprised that one would like the place so much. But as one who does dine “around” the world, I’m good with a little innocence around the edges. It’s healthy.

 Koshihikari "Risotto" - Stinging Nettles, Smoked Pork Jowl, Crème Fraîche
Executive Chef and partner Lawrence Kocurek was animated the second time I dined here. A mellow guy, he brought out many of the dishes himself. He’s also pretty busy as the restaurant garden-to-table provider. Many of the herbs and vegetables come from his garden at home. Nice touch, from one who dines regularly from the home garden. Texas is a great place to grow food, not just meat. And right now, veggies and herbs are bright and full of energy. And that kind of energy in food, as well as being delicious, can be healing.

Look, I’m not talking enough about the food. And I apologize for that. I’ll leave that to the Bill Addison’s of the world, who have a greater vocabulary and wordsmith skills.

Jason Huerta today (L) and (R) Texsom 2011 "Texas Best Sommelier" chatting w/Serge Hochar
But I will brag on Jason Huerta’s matches. There was one dish that Jason seemed particularly vexed with matching. It was Langue de boeuf "Beef Tongue" with Bitter Greens, Oysters and Burnet leaf. Jason told our party, “I originally paired it with a Rhone red, but I wanted a touch of American oak. I found this Rioja; I’m hoping you all think it’s a good match. Let me know what you think.” Yes, Jason, you nailed it. From the first course with a Friulano, to the Rioja, followed by a positively out of this world Assyrtiko and then an Australian Mourvedre “Baby Bush” from Hewitson (“I love all the wines these folks make.”). And the killer surprise at the end, with the unbearably light dessert, a nebulous sake, Rihaku "Dreamy Clouds", Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori.

The five course wine and food pairing we had:

I. Rainbow Trout Roe, Roasted Hazelnut, Asparagus
+ Friulano Villa Chiopris - Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
II. Langue de boeuf "Beef Tongue" - Bitter Greens, Oysters, Burnet
+ Beronia Rioja Reserva, Spain
III. Octopus - Japanese Sweet Potato, Bok Choy, House Lap Cheong
+ Assyrtiko, Argyros - Santorini, Greece
IV. Duck - Turnip, Black Garlic, Crawfish, Alliums
+ Mourvedre “Baby Bush”, Hewitson - Barossa Valley, Australia
V. Flavors of Sake - Khao Mahk - Pineapple, Coconut, Cream Soda
+ Rihaku "Dreamy Clouds", Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori - Shimane, Japan
I look at clouds from both sides now - Khao Mahk

Owner, CEO and Dreamweaver Eric Earthman cuts an imposing figure among the delicately tweezed micro-greens. But Eric has the put the right touches on a place that should become a destination dining spot from food lovers from all over America, not just Austin or even Texas. The food is that good.

At the end of our five courses one of the guests lamented that the dinner was already over. An Italian, she wasn’t someone to be easily impressed. “Oh well, the next time I’m in Austin, I better come back here and try the seven course meal,” she allowed, if only to compensate for having to get on a plane and go to the next city, the next presentation and hopefully the next meal.

Eric, Lawrence, Jason and the whole team at Counter 3.FIVE.VII, we’ll be back soon. And I will tell anyone and everyone to get to your counter. In the meantime, don’t forget about me when you do become the hottest seat in Texas, save me a chair in the corner, will ya please? I’ll be back.

Instagram page: HERE
phone: 512-291-3327
315 Congress Ave. Ste. 100
Austin, Texas 78701

Open Tuesday-Saturday
Wine and Charcuterie Bar 4pm-11pm
Chef's Counter 5pm-9pm

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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