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Austin’s Best Italian, CFS, Tex-Mex: One Chowhound’s (Long) Report

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Austin’s Best Italian, CFS, Tex-Mex: One Chowhound’s (Long) Report

MPH | Oct 12, 2005 06:54 PM

Since posting about a bad meal at Wink, I’ve been eating my way around town in a quest to find the best versions of my favorite cuisines. I thought I’d share my impressions with the chowhound community.

Italian

Vespaio—I absolutely loved this restaurant. Great food. Great wine--with lots of affordable Italian varieties. Thanks for the recommendation, everyone. My dining companion and I started with a special appetizer of fried anchovies. Nothing like the canned versions, these tiny fresh fish are dusted with flour, fried, and served with lemon wedges, just like they are in coastal Italy. I had the risotto del giorno of soft-shell crab risotto with a whole fried soft-shell crab on the side. Perfectly cooked, the risotto tasted like the sea (you could tell it was made from a good broth and not just cream). So satisfying. My friend had the pantosi di zucca, which were like dumplings stuffed with pumpkin in a walnut-oil-based sauce. They were really flavorful--with just the right spices for fall. We also had a very good appetizer of steamed mussels in a spicy tomato- and herb-based broth. And I loved the chocolate semifreddo—the chocolate gelato was rich and complex, and the accompanying pistachio meringue-type cookies were a perfect accompaniment. My friend was less impressed with the poached apple slices over butter cake (basically, a pound cake), but it was still pretty good. Even the espresso was strong but not bitter, with a nice crema. My only quibble is that even a great restaurant with a wood-burning oven like Vespaio still produces an oddly chewy, soft, and dense bread that they call Italian ciabatta. Oh well. My dining companion and I didn’t want to stop eating—that’s how amazing the Vespaio experience was. I’m planning to go back before they stop serving those fresh anchovies.

Asti—Despite having a poorly-executed seafood risotto here when I passed through town two years ago (the risotto was both undercooked and soupy), I wanted to give this place another try. Unfortunately, the food is still disappointing. On our visit at lunch, I had a special fettuccine with basil pesto, green beans, and potatoes. The pesto was fine but unremarkable. Textually, however, this dish was a mess: the one-inch cubes of potato and long green beans didn’t work well with long fettuccine that marries best with a clingy sauce. Though the pasta was fresh, it was on the very hard side of al dente. I love pasta and was hungry, too, but I lost interest in this dish halfway through it.

No one enjoyed the main-course salads they ordered. The “tonno tuna salad” consisted of spinach leaves tossed with vinaigrette and topped with tuna that tasted like it was straight out of a can or pouch. Similarly, in a variation of the Tuscan classic of day-old bread tossed with tomatoes, basil, and onion, Asti’s panzanella was bland. It was composed of white onion, lettuce, a few cubes of grilled bread, and chunks of what tasted like boiled chicken. Like the tuna, the chicken lacked any kind of seasoning. Plus, since they used almost no tomato in their version and mainly the white of the lettuce, the salad was a visual nightmare--a mass of indistinguishable white cubes of food. My companion was so disappointed with both this dish and the roasted red-pepper and tomato soup, that tasted like cream rather than either vegetable, she couldn’t be persuaded to try dessert. The best parts of the meal were a perfectly-dressed salad of mixed greens with shallot vinaigrette and the desserts, including an untraditional version of chocolate cannoli and an “affugato” of vanilla gelato (affogato, or drowned, in this case with espresso, and served with small cookies).

We found Asti to be friendly and sophisticated, and the spot’s an oasis of tranquility on that busy block. However, it’s not good Italian nor is it destination dining. I’d have wine and dessert there with friends who insisted on staying in Hyde Park. Otherwise, I don’t plan to return.

CFS

I wasn’t too impressed with the Hoover’s in San Antonio—maybe my expectations were too high after hearing raves about the Austin original. I ordered the CFS with traditional sides (mashed potatoes and greens). The CFS was huge, hot, and crispy with pretty good gravy. Like the CFS, the sides were good, generous approximations of home-cooking. Yet everything lacked that certain something extra that makes you want to keep eating well past the point of being full. We thought the same thing about the peach and blackberry cobbler that we took home with us. To be fair, however, the two people who ordered the pork chops really liked them. Has anyone been to both the San Antonio and Manor Road locations? If a fellow hound with first-hand experience attested that the Austin original is much, much better, I might give it a try. Otherwise, though Hoover’s is on the good side of average, I’d be tempted to conclude that they’re not the best.

I did, however, really like the CFS I had at Tony’s Southern Comfort and the Nutty Brown Cafe. For research purposes, I ordered it with more or less the same sides. At Tony’s the cooking was very straightforward but oh-so-good: the meat was tender and well seasoned, with a very flavorful batter; the mashed potatoes were rich and homemade; and the greens were salty, smoky, and just tender enough without turning to mush. At the Nutty Brown Cafe, the CFS was good mainly because they use good meat, though the batter was also tasty. But it was really their sides—garlic mashed potatoes and that old Southern classic, green beans with ham—that were phenomenal. They tasted like someone’s labor of love rather than throwaway dishes. What an unexpected surprise.

Also enjoyed were the chicken and waffles, the catfish, and the banana pudding at Tony’s and the burger and apple pie at the Nutty Brown Cafe. At the Nutty the waitress told me that the pie comes from that shop in Wimberley. Ironically, if I’d gone to the NBC after reading the recent review in the Chronicle, I would’ve had the rib-eye steak and missed out on the CFS. The reviewer didn’t actually try the CFS but just repeated that the waiter had said it was good.

Tex-Mex (breakfast)

Polvo’s—This place was packed with non-Mexicans when some friends and I tried it for Sunday brunch recently. I’m sorry to say that we did not enjoy the food. I remember that the smoky brown salsa from the salsa bar had a nice depth and that the chips were warmed and salty, though they tasted store-bought. But we were all unhappy with the classic Tex-Mex breakfast plates. The migas were pronounced flavorless despite having too much onion. The huevos rancheros were made up of overcooked eggs (that were ordered over-easy) topped with a ranchero sauce that was needlessly spicy. The best main dishes were the eggs scrambled with some form of meat: machacado and chorizo con huevo. But, even these eggs were hard-cooked: scrambled into very large chunks that were interspersed with few and small specks of meat. The best versions of these Mexican egg dishes have so much meat (and grease) in them that the dish is darkly speckled, with almost as much meat as egg. Plus, they’re scrambled just until cooked so that the texture is almost like cheese curds. That way the mixture coheres well when wrapped in a tortilla.

I know that the dishes often recommended at Polvo’s feature seafood; the day I tried the restaurant, someone nearby had ordered a seafood dish that looked interesting. But, I expect my favorite Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants to do a great job with the basics. At Polvo’s the flour tortillas were rubbery like ones you get at the grocery store (they aren’t made in house). The large homemade corn ones were better, but they’re made with a sweet masa that just doesn’t taste right with the kind of food we ordered. The spicy a la mexicana version of breakfast potatoes, sautéed with onion, tomato, and peppers, were fine, but they tasted like the ranchero sauce, which tasted like one of the salsas, etc. The refried beans were mashed to a nice texture, though they tasted vegetarian--not the most authentic way to refry them. And how hard is it to make good chorizo con huevo? We concluded that a much better version of the breakfast classics could have been prepared at home. Hence, a return trip is pretty unlikely.

The search continues. . .

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