Saturday, April 25, 2015

St. Philip: Doing Everything Well

I was in fourth grade at the beginning of the “we all get medals” age. The adults in our lives were all in to make sure we operated at levels of self-confidence and self-esteem previously reserved for major league pitchers and Egyptian pharaohs. We were all winners.

In the midst of this mania, our teacher assigned us all to come up with an adjective to describe ourselves starting with the same letter as our last name. My classmates were Excellent, Fast, Strong, Perfect. And then it was my turn, and I proudly chose Competent Castro. The teacher looked at me with pity in her eyes, and suggested maybe I meant to be Clever Castro or Careful Castro - because, she assured me, just to be competent was not much of a aspiration at all. I tried to explain that to be competent was the best thing you could be, it meant that you could do everything, and that you could do everything well. She was not convinced.

But I never lost faith. As far as I'm concerned, competence still means doing everything well, and it's still pretty bad ass.

And this is where St. Philip comes in. I’ve been for date nights with my wife, for dinner with the kids, for a happy hour snack on the patio, even for a quick lunch. They do everything well - the place is beautiful, the food consistent and delicious, the service phenomenal. Even waiting for a table on the cleverly designed patio is a treat. The entire space is light, airy and open - modern and trendy but in a  friendly, accessible way. Years ago, this place was a plant nursery, and in St. Philip a little of that feel comes through.

Pizza is what this place is about, and pizzas are awfully good. My favorite from the early days - lox and capers - is sadly no longer on the menu, but the remaining pizzas, if a little more predicatable are still worth the trip. Standouts are the fennel sausage and the meatball pies, both of which are rich and savory, bringing out the best in the simple tomato sauce. Both are improved with the addition of field greens, the one major option for pizzas on the menu.

As good as they are, pizzas are not the best thing they do. Golden Cauliflower, over tangy yogurt with raisins and pumpkin seeds is a revelation and always flawless. The chicken and funnel cake is everything chicken and waffles wishes it could be - unflinching in the combination of sweet and savory. The house-made burrata is as soft and silky as any I've ever had. The carrot and avocado salad is exceptional with carrots roasted to a soft bite that compliments the crunch of the granola, the bright greens, and the simply dressed avocado. Just about everything on this menu sings.

Golden Cauliflower
Chicken and Funnel Cake

Burrata and Lavash
Carrot and Avocado
The only disappointment for me is the weekend brunch - and it's really only disappointing next to the sky-high standard I'd begun to expect for the place. The house-smoked lox in Smoked Salmon sandwich was lovely, but was overpowered by the amount of herbed cream cheese. The brisket in the Smoked Brisket sandwhich a little too fatty, the Pancetta sliced too thick for the little sandwich I had it on. Smores Waffles and Brulee French Toast however are amazeballs, skirting that lovely line between breakfast and dessert. The brunch menu is evolving even as I write this post. I have no doubt that it'll be better the next time I go.

Exit Through the Bakeshop is the running gag throughout the restaurant and it works - the bakeshop is a clever little addition at the far end of the dining room. The confections in the cases in front of the enormous wood burning oven are both creative and beautiful. Opinions on taste are mixed. I am an apologetic sugar addict, and I find the desserts not always as sweet or flavorful as I'd like. Friends without such a sweet tooth swear by them.

St. Philip does everything well, and some things extraordinarily well. It is not the best pizza in town, or the best patio, or the most gracious service; but it is the only place I know that is so nearly the best in so many different ways. When I said I wished for competence back all those years ago, this is precisely what I meant.

St Philip on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

24 Hours in Brooklyn

I got to spend a day in Brooklyn this week. Just the one day, and though it was for work, I found myself with enough time to wander off and get my hands on some mighty tasty food.

77 Hoyt St, Brooklyn, NY

I started out the Little Sweet Café, which is, in fact, a little, sweet café. Seats 8, maybe 10 if you’re under 5, as were many of the patrons. This is a Neighborhood Place. Allow me to illustrate:

  1. As we walked in, the man (young, beard, fleece) sitting at the table nearest to the counter was pulling out his wallet to pay. He found he had only a few dollars cash and said to the one-man-show running the place, “hey man, I don’t have any cash – I’ll just pay with a credit card” to which one-man-show replied “nah, don’t worry about, you pay me tomorrow.”
  2. Just after we sat down it started to fill up, which is to say, two moms, kids in tow, came in. They knew each other. That was not the impressive thing. The impressive thing was that one-man-show quickly deposited a slice in of almond brioche in front of the kid at the table next to us saying “it was my last piece – I didn’t want you to go without”

Little Sweet does three things – coffee, pastries, and crepes. Each was good. Not earth shattering, toe curling good, but really solidly legit stuff. I had the almond brioche (the second-to-the-last piece, apparently) and it was light and eggy, sweet without being syrupy. My coworker (both of us beardless and in sport coats, looking very clearly like intruders) had a crepe – simple and hearty, full of fresh veggies and nicely wilted spinach. Flavor in everything was understated and simple. 

The Little Sweet Cafe on Urbanspoon

85 Dean St, Brooklyn, NY

My next stop was at Blue Bottle. I know, I know, Blue Bottle belongs on the West Coast, but I knew they had come in pretty full force to Brooklyn and it was only a few blocks from my hotel. The pour over was amazing – just their house blend, but tons of bright flavor – the paper cup was a drag, but even in the paper notes of cinnamon and balsa wood came through beautifully. The latte (I was getting a little wired by this point, but I had to give it a go) was silky and beautiful, but didn’t have the same oomph as the coffee.

Blue Bottle Coffee on Urbanspoon

409 Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY

Lunch was Shake Shack. Since they’re coming to Austin next month I thought I’d give them a whirl. I had modest expectations. It exceeded them. The burger had a nice crumble to it, the bun was a little sweet and exquisitely squishy, the special sauce (I never get special sauce, but I figured I should do it like it was supposed to be done) was actually amazing. I have no idea what it was, but it was sharp and creamy at the same time and did a great job tying it all together. The fries were OK. On the Austin scale, I put it ahead of Mighty Fine and behind Hop Doddy. Worth a visit, not worth a long wait in line.

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

298 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Dinner was Sotto Casa. I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo while I was there, but the pictures on the site do not exaggerate. So much like Little Sweet, this was neighborhood through and through, full of kids, and unflinchingly European. There are half a dozen salads and maybe 15 different pizzas. Pizzas are all super thin crust, maybe 14 inches, enough for 2, especially if you get a salad. The food was phenomenal, with kind of clarity of flavor you get from ultra-simple recipes. The salad was arugula dressed with salt, olive oil and lemon. The pizza was eggplant, tomato, fresh mozzarella. It was real food, unadorned, beautiful.

Sottocasa on Urbanspoon

Food in New York is omnipresent. I could have done this routine for a month and had a different cup of coffee each day, a different breakfast, a different little hole in the wall Italian place. I love NY.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Cuvee Coffee Revolution

Cuvee has been in the revolution business since the late 80s, from the massively hacked vintage drum roasters at their Spicewood headquarters to the hot rod La Marzocco espresso machines they've rigged up at local shops to the kegs of Black and Blue nitrogenated cold brew coffee that are showing up at venue after venue.

And now they've got a killer little coffee shop all the way down East 6th that's charting a new path for how coffee gets made.

The bar is a long, enclosed island with coffee along the front side and beer (once the permits come through) around back. That long coffee counter is the first revolution. You don't step up to the register, pay, and wait for your drink to pop out the other end. Instead, you shepherd your coffee through the process. Start out with the cup - 2, 4, 8, 12 ounces. Then choose your espresso. Choose your milk. Get your drink. Pay. It's Freebirds for your coffee.

It's different, but it's anything but complicated. The second revolution is the simplicity of the whole deal. There are no cortados or cappuccinos or macchiatos or flat whites or lattes. There is just espresso, coffee and milk. That's it. And really that's the way it's always been everywhere, it's just no one has really fessed up to it - all those drinks are just different names for proportions of the same two things. Sometime in the early 90s some clever folks up in Seattle fancified coffee. Cuvee took it back to words that make sense.

The third revolution is the espresso machine. Or lack thereof. Just two sculpted chrome arms extending from the counter top and a barista ready to walk you through the process. The plumbing and control is all under the counter.Why erect a two foot wall between the person that's doing the drinking and the person that's pulling the shot? It's a little thing, but it goes a long way to bring you closer than you've ever been to your espresso without pulling it yourself. Mod Bar for the win.

It goes without saying that the coffee is amazing - the pour over is the best I've had anywhere, and while the drink-formerly-known-as-latte was not the most beautiful I've seen, it was silky soft and rich. Meritage has been Cuvee's go-to Espresso blend for the better part of the last decade, and it's lovely and balanced. This espresso without bite, but with an earthy, woody depth that goes on a good long while.

Cuvee isn't a coffee shop where you and your laptop go for the afternoon to escape the loud guy in the cube next to you. It's way too alive for that. This is a place you go to drink coffee, to connect with friends, and to play.

  Cuvee Coffee on Urbanspoon


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