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Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Category Archives: Austin, TX

I once stayed at a lovely old hotel in Bruges, Belgium where they required all guests to eat one meal at their restaurant. My obligatory meal involved multiple courses of wild rice. In a salad, in a soup, in a dish cooked with vegetables. I don’t remember dessert, it may have involved wild rice too. The chef clearly just didn’t know what to do for a vegetarian, Belgian cuisine being as meat-focused as it is.

Congress is nothing like that. They don’t miss a beat in serving vegetarians.

This elegant spot in the Austonian building offers 3-course ($75) and 7-course ($125) tasting menus. On a prior visit, they had printed vegetarian tasting menus. On this visit, our waiter just pointed out the vegetarian dishes and the ones that could be modified to be made veg-friendly. She also said the chef would make special dishes if guests didn’t like the ones on offer.

Our amuse bouche was a potato custard with parmesan foam. I asked if it was vegetarian, and she said: Everything I bring you tonight will be vegetarian. Now folks, that’s what you call service.

The rich custard and light, salty foam vanished quickly:

First up on my 3-course menu: a burrata, peach, and tomato salad.

Burrata (fresh mozzarella with cream inside) is always a treat. The tomatoes and peaches in this dish made for an unusual combination of tart and sweet. Sage, in place of the expected basil, cut through the rich dairy goodness.

I could probably make that dish, it was more about the combination of ingredients than technique. I would not, however, attempt to make what came next:

I’d asked for a dish with vegetarian protein but no pasta. They served me fresh fava beans and black quinoa with micro-greens, corn and smoked buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk complemented the chewiness of the beans and quinoa. The smoky note added umami, that quality of mouth-fullness.

I have no idea how to smoke buttermilk, and never has quinoa tasted so good.

My third course was carrot ravioli:

The cardamom, shiso (a variety of mint that is frequently used in Japanese cuisine), and garlic broth had a deep, complex flavor that tempered the sweetness of the carrot filling in the ravioli. Cardamom is great with sweet vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins.

For dessert, we split a lime-basil sorbet. Sounds simple, right?

It was anything but. Dehydrated, candied grains added crunch to the tart yogurt mousse. There was sweet mango and Asian pear, offset by a puree of intensely sour calamansi lemons. Overall, our dessert was sweet and sour, creamy and crunchy – totally delicious.

Calamansi lemons, our server told us, are a cross between mandarin oranges and kumquats traditionally grown in the Philippines. They might be the new “it” ingredient, the way pomegranates were a couple of years ago. (See this article from the Kitchn:

Congress is not cheap. But you would pay a lot more for this level of cooking in NYC or LA. The manager came by and told us that, in addition to happily accommodating vegetarians, they can serve vegans with a couple of days’ notice. So – Austin now has a restaurant that can offer a vegan tasting menu.

Congress is worth your saved pennies.


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On the night we went, Barley Swine had just three vegetarian dishes on the menu. Fortunately, they were three GREAT dishes.

If you’re vegan, this is not the place for you – butter, cheese, and eggs are much used. If the words “chicken-fried pig face” (ewww) on a menu are intolerable, this is not the place for you. If you like cocktails with your dinner, other places do that. (Barley Swine only has beer and wine.) If you can’t imagine waiting an hour or more for a table, you should go elsewhere.

We went early on a Tuesday night, and there wasn’t a wait. The dining room is tiny (there are plans to expand into a larger space), so for now the wait on a Friday night can be considerable.

First up, cream of artichoke with gruyere fritters:

This was a rich, buttery artichoke custard with delicious gruyere fritters and an unexpected element – mushroom “chips” that were earthy and crisp.

Next up, heirloom tomato with pimento goat cheese:

A great dish can make you reconsider your likes and dislikes. I think of pimento as disturbingly shelf stable cheese spread. But when made with fresh cheese, spread on good bread, and served with peaches and heirloom tomato, it is amazing. I loved this interpretation of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

The best dish, scrambled duck egg with morels, came last:

The greens and radishes added a welcome bit of lightness to the indulgently creamy scrambled eggs with morels. Potatoes aren’t my thing, but the purple ones on this dish were very pretty.

The portions are bigger than I expected. My one vegetarian friend  agreed that we could easily have split a third dish. (Our other friends were too busy swooning over scallops to weigh in on portion size.)

I wish I’d been less full, because the desserts here are worth eating:

The strawberry shortcake wasn’t too sweet, allowing the fresh berry flavor to shine. The chocolate swiss cake roll was delicious, but the barley ice cream (which sounds weird), with its sweet and slightly herbal taste, was the standout element.

The menu says no substitutions, but our waiter cheerfully accommodated our request to make the artichoke dish anchovy-free. She also explained that the corn soup was made with fish stock, which I appreciated her knowing.

One day, maybe, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant will open in Austin. Until then, I’ll just have to look past the pig face (ewww) at Barley Swine.

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El Naranjo has moved from a trailer to a spiffy new house on Rainey St — all the better to showcase their no Tex/all Mex food.

The space is sleek and pretty, much like Icenhauers next door.

We sat on the cute patio. There’s also a small room that’d be fun for a  large group.

El Naranjo has specialty cocktails, in addition to small selection of wine. My friend had a Sidecar, which he said was perfect, and I had a glass of wine.

Instead of the predictable chips and salsa, El Naranjo brings out fresh bread, spicy butter, and a trio of totally addictive dips:

So far, so good. These are some serious salsas.

In terms of vegetarian options, El Naranjo has many vegetarian appetizers (salads, a dish with nopales, jicama enchiladas as an appetizer) and a few veg entrees, including a chili relleno made with puff pastry and a mole dish.

I asked the waiter five times, and he swore that all three moles that day were vegetarian, not even thinned with chicken stock. The manager came by later and explained that a couple of the moles (poblano and negro) have chicken stock, but they weren’t on the menu that night.

I ordered the rojo mole with vegetables:

The sauce itself was delicious and complex, as a mole should be, with smoky peppers and a slightly bitter note. The vegetables included chayote, peas, and mushrooms. It was all very good, but I could really have used some protein. The manager said they’d consider adding seitan or some other source of veggie protein (not very traditional, clearly) to the dish.

My friend had the pipian (pumpkin seed) sauce with shrimp, and he loved it.

El Naranjo is not cheap ($75 for two of us). But this is intricate Mexican food, as far as you can get from yellow cheese and grease.

I wish them well — and will be back to try the chili relleno.

Swift’s Attic is bringing swank back. If you like to dress up a bit and wish Austin called for it more, this is the place for you. If you don’t like to dress up but love good food, Swift’s is also for you. If you think desserts are the point of a night out, and not an afterthought, this is definitely the place for you.

I love the vintage luxe vibe of this place, which is in the old Kyoto space. In building out the space, a ghost sign for the Sunset Central, an old rail line that ran through Central Texas, was uncovered:

There’s a decent-sized bar space (where they serve the full menu), and a larger dining area. A gorgeous banquette at the back of the space with a bird cage chandelier is clearly the table to get.

In addition to wine and beer, they have a small but interesting cocktail list, priced at $10 each. We tried the Razercrac, their take on a Sazerac made with rye vodka instead of whisky and absinthe. Complicated, cool drink.

Swift’s menu is divided into snacks and plates. Our helpful waiter explained that the menu goes from light to heavy, and that all plates are meant brought out as ready and meant to be shared. So you can sample lots of dishes, which is a lovely way to eat.

Right now, there are limited options for vegetarians. All the snacks but only one plate are vegetarian. I had my eye on a sunchoke salad that sounded vegetarian, but our waiter said it had pork in it. (Appreciate him knowing that.) Lots of pescetarian options, very limited choices for vegans.

So I had a lot of the snacks. The edamame with pop rocks and chili oil was clever – a salty take on pop rocks candy. I loved the blistered peppers, served with an addictive dip made with garrotxa cheese and vinegar.

Really good kimchi has been buried in someone’s backyard to ferment, right? Swift’s kimchi sampler included pickled asparagus, cabbage, and cauliflower – the last had a deep flavor and tasted like it had been fermenting for a while.

My “plate” was a roasted radicchio salad with arugula and olives:

The roasting really brought out the bitterness of the radicchio. My friends raved about the scallops (served with an unexpected cucumber gelato), the pork belly, the sardine. Comparisons were made to Barley Swine and Olivia.

For now, vegetarians are better off stopping here for cocktails and the snacks.

Or you could go straight to the fabulous desserts:

We had chocolate six ways, Popcorn & A Movie (a candy bar with carmelized popcorn and root beer sauce), and beet sorbet with thyme sauce. All were good, but the poor beet sorbet didn’t stand a chance with all the chocolate at the table. I love chocolate desserts, so the chocolate six ways is on my list to have again (and again).

So put on something nice (or don’t), and check this place out.

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I love perfectly worn in boots and broken in jeans, but I am obsessed with the new when it comes to restaurants. My head explodes when I haven’t made it to the newest cool place. (Still kicking myself for not toughing it out when the wait at Barley Swine was merely two hours. And for not saying “OK” when Lenoir said they had an opening in two months. That was two months ago.)

But there’s so much to appreciate about a place that has been great day after day for decades. Like Fonda San Miguel, which has been serving interior Mexican food in the quiet, residential Rosedale neighborhood since 1975 (!)

I love the hacienda-style space, with its warm colors and huge old chandeliers:

The margaritas here are tart and strong, totally worth having. And Fonda staff are happy to help you pick a bottle from their long wine list.

I started with the nopales (cactus leaf) salad at my server’s advice – it wasn’t on the menu. Like okra, this dish has a tendency to be slimy, but not here. I liked that they served it with lettuce, avocado, and salsa so I could make little wraps.

Fonda’s menu is unchanging except for seasonal specials, which are rarely vegetarian. (If fish is part of your diet, lots of options here.)

Vegetarians can start with salads and quesadillas and move on to a handful of mains: roasted poblano pepper filled with cheese, baked zucchini filled with corn and cheese, or vegetable or cheese enchiladas with a choice of sauce.

I’ve had all of these dishes over the years, and they are all delicious. On this visit, I had the vegetable enchiladas with the verde salsa.

Enchiladas are a pretty simple dish, but Fonda’s taste amazing. I love the carrot, corn, and filling, as well as the tart verde salsa. The accompanying black beans are a perfect shot of vegetarian protein.

By the way, they have an epic brunch spread, one that will leave you barely able to stagger home for a nap.

And they’ve been doing all this since 1975. Respect.

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Every once in a while, there are business concepts so destined to succeed that I kick myself for not thinking of them first. (Like Snuggies. A blanket with sleeves. Duh.)

Henri’s Cheese & Wine is like that. A wine bar and cheese shop right next to Barley Swine, where people regularly wait hours for a table. Those people can now wait in a cute little wine bar instead of in a parking lot on South Lamar. Brilliant.

Henri’s space is simple and cozy,with tables and a small bar. There is a deli case for the cheese and a few shelves of wine (you can buy both and take ’em home instead of eating in).

We had the Verata cheese plate, which had wedges of St. Andre brie (triple cream, inevitably delicious), Tomme de Savoie (a nutty semi-hard milk’s cheese), and Deep Ellum (a mild blue cheese made in Dallas). All were delicious, but it was nice to check out the last one, which was new to me. The cheeses were served with a dollop of tasty jam, marcona almonds, and a cone of baguette slices.

Along with a glass of Lioca Chardonnay, it made for a great start to our evening. (Henri’s wines by the glass range from $7-15.)

Once they get going, Henri’s will have sandwiches and salads, with options for the cheese-loving vegetarian, along with plenty of food for those who eat meat.

So check ’em out – whether you’re waiting for a table at Barley Swine or not.

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Sometimes, when eating out, I think: you know, ___ would really love this place. When I was at Haddingtons, the blank in that sentence was filled by “Frank Sinatra.”

The great cocktails, rich food, swank decor: I’m totally sure he would’ve loved it. There’s a large room with a long bar and smaller rooms with old prints and taxidermy (not my favorite thing, but it fits the vibe here).

We went there most recently for Austin Restaurant Week and started the night with cocktails – Haddingtons has a long and creative list. We had a local interpretation of a whisky sour:

It wasn’t too sweet, and my cocktail snob friend declared it a good drink.

We had two vegetarian starters at the table. One was an arugula salad made special with delicious pistachio butter, and the other was cucumber gazpacho:

The gazpacho had a subtle marjoram flavor and a bit of acidity. The grapes and toasted bread added texture to the creamy soup. A great dish for those Austin evenings when it feels like it’s too hot to eat.

Haddingtons typically has a vegetarian main, and this week it was cauliflower steak:

The cauliflower was seared and crisp and came on a bed of cheesy ditalini pasta and a drizzle of caramel carrot puree. If you’re going to have mac and cheese, this is the way to have it: rich and delicious, with cauliflower on top.

There were two desserts on the Restaurant Week menu, and we had them both. The buttermilk pie was fine, it tasted like a shortbread cookie with a sweet buttermilk sauce. The sticky toffee pudding was a blur of caramel yumminess – I’d recommend this option if it’s available when you go.

Overall, Haddingtons falls in the category of restaurants with limited but delicious vegetarian options. The food is rich. But that’s OK, right? Because Sinatra would not worry about calories.

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