James Beard Award semifinalist: Grae Nonas of Olamaie

Grae Nonas eanred his second consecutive James Beard Award semifinalist nod. (Credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Grae Nonas eanred his second consecutive James Beard Award semifinalist nod. (Credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

It’s been quite a whirlwind 12 months for Grae Nonas, co-executive chef and co-owner of refined Southern restaurant Olamaie. Last year he nabbed Best New Chef honors from Food & Wine magazine and a semifinalist nod for Rising Star Chef of the Year from the James Beard association, and his restaurant landed at the top of the Austin360 Dining Guide. He followed up all of that today with another semifinal nod for Rising Star Chef of the Year honors from Beard, an award that recognizes “a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”

For the full list of semifinalists, click here. The finalists will be announced on March 15.

 

James Beard Award semifinalist: Tyson Cole of Uchi

In 2011, Tyson Cole became the first Austin chef to win a James Beard Award. He tied with Saipin Chutima of Las Vegas  Lotus of Siam. Photo by WILL RAGOZZINO.
In 2011, Tyson Cole became the first Austin chef to win a James Beard Award. He tied with Saipin Chutima of Las Vegas Lotus of Siam. Photo by WILL RAGOZZINO.

One of the major factors in Austin’s culinary rise has earned another honor. The James Beard Foundation has named Uchi executive chef Tyson Cole, who opened his exceptional sushi restaurant in 2003, one of the 20 semifinalists for Outstanding Chef in the country. Cole has been nominated four times for Best Chef Southwest, winning that award in 2011, but this is his first time to make the short list for the best chef in the country.

For the full list of semifinalists, click here. The finalists will be announced on March 15.

 

James Beard Award semifinalists: Launderette and executive pastry chef Laura Sawicki

Chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of Launderette. (Credit: Laura Carroll)
Chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of Launderette. (Credit: Laura Carroll)

“The Houston-born chef who helped open wildly popular La Condesa and Sway following an early career in New York and London has an undeniable culinary vision. But he also sees his role as a creator of culture and facilitator of social energy. Artists, patrons of the arts, service industry veterans and the hipnoscenti have packed the airy space with hungry excitement since opening week.

You don’t usually show up at a friend’s dinner party expecting a clear explanation of the menu’s theme. People generally cook what they like to eat and hope you feel the same. That personalized principle appears to guide Ortiz and pastry chef and partner Laura Sawicki’s menus at Launderette.”

That is what I wrote, in part, about chef Rene Ortiz’s East Austin restaurant Launderette when I reviewed it last June. I dug the place enough to give it an 8.5/10 at the time. The James Beard Foundation apparently digs it, too, today naming the spirited and nostalgic upmarket diner a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the country.

The restaurant from Ortiz and his culinary partner, Laura Sawicki, opened in March of last year and quickly became a fixture on the east side. Sawicki was also named a semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry chef, her second such honor. She was nominated in 2013 while at La Condesa, which she helped open.

Sawicki blends cleverness with technique for wonderful desserts at Launderette (see her play on Girl Scout’s Samoas. I wrote the following in my 2015 review:

Sawicki made a name for herself as one of the city’s best pastry chefs during her time at La Condesa and Sway, and it is great for her to once again have a permanent venue for her creativity. She hybridizes a few ideas with a fluffy and flaky take on apple pie ($9) laced with angular cuts of cheddar cheese on a plate made sticky with salted beer caramel. It’s at once an apples-and-cheese plate and a caramelized apple, and the unexpected sage ice cream on top is proof that nobody in town bests her in the ice cream game.

Sawicki exhibited more ice cream brilliance with the candied ginger ice cream on her English sticky toffee pudding ($9) and the cool, herbal blast of basil ice cream on a lemon curd tart ringed by compressed strawberries on a dish that glowed like an early afternoon at an Italian beach.

Completing the idea of dinner as a celebration, Sawicki’s dessert menu includes bite-size birthday cake ice cream sandwiches that taste like Mexican sheet cake ice cream wedged between soft layers of cookie dough.

For the full list of semifinalists, click here. The finalists will be announced on March 15.

Austin chefs and restaurants nab five James Beard semifinal noms

Chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of Launderette. (Credit: Laura Carroll)
Chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of Launderette. (Credit: Laura Carroll)

Chef Rene Ortiz’s spirited and nostalgic East Austin restaurant Launderette has been named a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation. The restaurant from Ortiz and his culinary partner, Laura Sawicki, opened in March of last year and quickly became a fixture on the east side. Sawicki was also named a semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry chef, her second such honor. She was nominated in 2013 while at La Condesa, which she helped open.

Tyson Cole is a semifinalist for James Beard's Outstanding Chef award.
Tyson Cole is a semifinalist for James Beard’s Outstanding Chef award.

Two men very familiar with the Beard Foundation once again garnered recognition from the culinary institute. Uchi founding executive chef Tyson Cole, Beard’s 2011 Best Chef Southwest, was named one of 20 semifinalists in the country for Outstanding Chef, his first such honor, and Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine and Odd Duck earned his fourth consecutive semifinalist honor for Best Chef Southwest. He was a finalist last year, along with Austin’s Aaron Franklin, who won top honor for the Southwest in 2015.

Grae Nonas of Olamaie also earned a semifinal nod for Rising Star Chef of the Year, his second consecutive year for the honor given to “a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”

Other Texas semifinalists include Helen Greek Food and Wine (Houston), Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata in  Houston, Hugo Ortega of Caracol in Houston, Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston, Anvil Bar & Refuge (Houston), Tracy Vaught of Houston’s Hugo’s, Caracol and Backstreet Café, The Pass (Houston), Teiichi Sakurai of Tein-An in Dallas, David Uygur of Lucia in Dallas, Matt McCallister of FT33 in Dallas, Omar Flores of Casa Rubio in Dallas, Four Seasons Resort & Club Dallas at Las Colinas (Irving) and Misti Norris of Small Brewpub in Dallas,

For the full list of semifinalists, click here. The finalists will be announced on March 15.

Taco Tuesday: Confession time: I was wrong about Capital Taco

Capital Taco at 1901 S. Lamar Blvd. (Photo by Matthew Odam)
Capital Taco at 1901 S. Lamar Blvd. (Photo by Matthew Odam)

I’ve eaten at hundreds of establishments around town. I’ve spent hours reading menus, digesting branding and analyzing curb appeal. It has given me the ability to do some quick-glance analysis about places. I think Malcolm Gladwell must have a chapter about it in one of his books.

Often I’m right. Quite often I’m wrong.  And, I’m just as happy being wrong as I am being right.

All of which is to say, I was wrong about Capital Taco.

I don’t even know what it was about the trailer that I was suspect of. Probably several things at work: The fire-engine-red trailer looked a little too pristine, too boring. Its name and logo seemed too cute, too generic, almost like a taco trailer plucked from a movie set. And it was sandwiched between Austin’s Pizza and Corner Bar, neither places I choose to visit with much frequency. It all just seemed a bit forced, a bit odd, a bit … off.

Yep, I was wrong.

When I see a food trailer menu as big as the one at Capital Taco, I get a little nervous. Can they really pull off ginger chicken, brisket and migas tacos? Here they can. The order started with the standard first question: Do you make any of your tortillas? The nice gentlemen answered “no,” but with a grin that seemed to say, “I understand they are usually better that way, but wait until you taste what I’ve got cookin’.”

He was right to grin. I have little use for white meat chicken, but this bird was wrapped in a flour tortilla bursting with bold flavor, from the fierce little bits of piquant ginger to a tart salve of sour cream, floral cilantro and chunks of ripe mango that could be at home in a first-rate fruteria.

The brisket taco at Capital Taco (Photo by Matthew Odam)
The brisket taco at Capital Taco (Photo by Matthew Odam)

Having good neighbors can mean an extra set of eyes on your place when you’re gone, or a cup of borrowed sugar when you’re in need. For Capital Taco and Brown’s BBQ, it means one of the best brisket tacos in town. Capital’s taco packs lean and fatty cuts of the excellent meat from the neighboring bright red trailer, and isn’t afraid to leave its own mark, shoving the $4 taco full of hunks of avocado, shredded mozzarella and pickled jalapenos. It’s a delicious mess. And almost enough to make a meal in and of itself.

Ginger chicken taco from Capital Taco.
Ginger chicken taco from Capital Taco.

I saw the words “turkey” and “mole” and got a little worried. I envisioned slightly dried and stringy meat in a thick, heavy-handed sauce. What I got was juicy shreds of turkey bathed in nimble mole whispering notes of winter spice and chocolate. The pickled jalapenos and cilantro brightened the dusky dance of meat and sauce.

And, though the breakfast hour was behind us, given the accomplishments of the other tacos, I had to try the migas. Good call. The robust twirl of eggs dotted with tomatoes encased crunchy tortilla strips and gooey cheese. A touch more salt and pepper and we’re talking one of the best of its kind in town.

Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. I had intended to hit another taco place this morning and found out it had closed. So, after some quick thinking and recalling a Twitter exchange between two taco lovers I respect, I decided to hit the nearby taco trailer. Capital Taco is the closest taco purveyor to my house. I have driven by it thousands of times without stopping. I won’t be making the same mistake in the future. Being wrong never tasted so right.

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Gardner closing, will reopen soon as new concept, Chicon

Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart will close Gardner in March. (Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STAATESMAN)
Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart will close Gardner in March. (Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STAATESMAN)

East Austin restaurant Gardner will close on March 11, as partners Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart change their restaurant’s concept.

The veggie-centric fine dining restaurant will morph into Chicon, a more casual establishment akin to the owners’ first restaurant, Contigo. The duo hopes to have the restaurant at 1914 E. Sixth St. open by the end of March.

The sister restaurant to Contigo will feature a wood-fired grill and will be designed by Kevin Stewart, with the handmade steel and cedar furniture expanding on the ranch aesthetic oft Contigo. Menu details, along with hours and staff, will be released in early March.

“With Chicon, my goal is to make the food that my team and I love to eat. We’re excited to make food for the every day. We’re still going to be using the same ingredients, have the same drive, and we seek to create a place that people in the neighborhood will love,” Wiseheart said.

Chicon will have an outdoor patio but the existing bar will be incorporated into the main dining room layout, making for a more cohesive and communal feel. Gardner will remain open for dinner service Monday-Saturday and Sunday brunch until the final night of service on March 11.

“We are fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to launch three businesses in our tenure. Gardner was the most ambitious of these three concepts, and it has been extremely rewarding to serve the people of Austin for the past year and a half,” Edgerton said. “Ultimately, our goal is to serve our community well, and we are excited to work diligently to transform the Gardner space into a new restaurant that will accomplish that goal.

Uchi group rebranding, bringing new concept to Austin next year

What do Tyson Cole and the Hai Hospitality team have planned for Austin next? Only time will tell. (Deborah Cannon AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
What do Tyson Cole and the Hai Hospitality team have planned for Austin next? Only time will tell. (Deborah Cannon AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The team behind the Uchi family of restaurants is rebranding with an eye to the future. The Uchi Restaurant Group, which operates Uchiko in Austin and Uchi locations in Dallas, Houston and Austin, has changed its name to Hai Hospitality.

With the change in branding comes news that the group will introduce a new concept to the Austin market next year. Hai Hospitality plans to open a restaurant at 2115 S. Lamar Blvd. (across from Black Sheep Lodge) in the next 12-18 months. There are no details on the restaurant’s name or intended offerings from the new concept.

The growing restaurant group has already stepped outside the realm of sushi and fine dining, opening Top Knot in Dallas earlier this month. That modern American restaurant (located above Uchi) serves sharable small plates influenced by the flavors of Southeast Asia, Latin America and Japan.

Hai is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “heard” or “I agree.” Many Uchi staff use the word in their interactions with guests.

“Years of working alongside Japanese sushi chefs, not only did I learn the language, I loved the respect they showed one another. Answering questions with ‘hai’ isn’t just a ‘yes’; it really means ‘heard,’” Uchi founding executive chef Tyson Cole said. “Saying ‘heard’ is much more impactful, in my view, than simply saying ‘yes.’ The idea that you are taking the simple act of answering a question to another level of respect is powerful. Over the years staff all began to respond ‘hai’; it just happened organically companywide, so this feels like a natural progression for us.”