Happy Halloween: Three desserts at Austin restaurants I’ve loved this year

In honor of the sweetest of holidays, I’ve put together a list of three desserts I’ve loved at restaurants that have opened since last Halloween.

 The s’mores tartufo at L'Oca d'Oro reached precariously toward the sky like a dessert Tower of Pisa featured a graham cracker base, balls of hazelnut and caramel gelato, a dripping chocolate cap and a gooey coat of toasted marshmallow cream. It looked like a bunch of tartufos had jumped on top of each other and draped themselves in a trenchcoat like a wobbly caricature detective in a kid’s book. (Credit: Jay Janner)
The s’mores tartufo at L’Oca d’Oro reached precariously toward the sky like a dessert Tower of Pisa featured a graham cracker base, balls of hazelnut and caramel gelato, a dripping chocolate cap and a gooey coat of toasted marshmallow cream. It looked like a bunch of tartufos had jumped on top of each other and draped themselves in a trenchcoat like a wobbly caricature detective in a kid’s book. (Credit: Jay Janner)

 

A dense peanut butter semifreddo with chocolate cereal milk ice cream and cocoa crunchies that evoked the sugary breakfasts-in-a-box my mother would never let me have as a kid. (Credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez)
Geraldine’s: A dense peanut butter semifreddo with chocolate cereal milk ice cream and cocoa crunchies that evoked the sugary breakfasts-in-a-box my mother would never let me have as a kid. (Credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez)

 

Executive pastry chef Amanda Rockman's signature golden Basque cake laced with bright citrus and given sweet depth and complexity from charred dates and the rich tingle of speculoos at dinner at Cafe No Se. (Credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell) Cafe No Se Dinner Chocolate butterscotch semifreddo , coconut brittle, Whiskey, chocolate dip,, left and Rockman's basque cake, speculoos, charred dates, citrus, cour cream, righ on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Executive pastry chef Amanda Rockman’s signature golden Basque cake (right) laced with bright citrus and given sweet depth and complexity from charred dates and the rich tingle of speculoos at dinner at Cafe No Se. (Credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell) On the left,  a chocolate butterscotch semifreddo with coconut brittle.

 

 

Dish of the week: Fried quail with egg salad

Whole fried quail at Odd Duck. (Credit: Adrienne Dever)
Whole fried quail at Odd Duck. (Credit: Adrienne Dever)

This restaurant has experimented endlessly with quail throughout its existence. The dish has appeared on the menu in several iterations. I’ve had a cowboy comfort food version of the bird with buttermilk biscuits and pinto beans, an ancho-mustard sauce glazed version, and a recent brunch incarnation was pancake-battered, fried and served with maple and hot sauce in egg foam.

The most recent version, currently available at dinner for ($18) includes a creamy egg salad and a savory Japanese-inspired soy caramel, made on one visit with fish and lamb bones and on another with smoked chicken feet. The whole bird is dredged with pumpkin and sesame seeds and fried to a clean, crunchy finish in sunflower seed oil, with pickled jalapeno slapping some puckered tang on the dish.

You can get this dish at Odd Duck, the restaurant co-owned by chef Bryce Gilmore, who recently received his fourth finalist nod for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest award.

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Dish of the week: Goat sliders

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The Whip In (off Interstate 35 between Woodland Avenue and Oltorf Street) has slowly transformed over the last 30 years, evolving into a retail beer and wine bar that takes a playful approach to bar food, with the Topiwala family mashing up Indian and Texas flavors.

The goat sliders – how many convenience stores source meat from Windy Hills Farm – deliver juicy, gamy flavor wrapped in puffed naan ($12). Flecks of roasted jalapeno put their aggressive stamp on charred patties the size of smashed golf balls, with pickled white onions adding pucker to the flavorful sandwich. Crumbled feta ($2 extra) tempers the sliders salty sting. I eat the garnish of fresh greens and tomatoes separately as a side salad, allowing the goat to shine with little adornment. My only complaint: I wish I got three little sliders instead of two for that price. Order a side of cilantro chutney to cool the mild spice of the accompanying fries that come with the dish. Wash it all down with one of more than 65 beers on draft.

Dish of the week: Pupusas with cheese and chicharrón

 

The wall at El Sunzal features a mural of El Salvador, with a description of the country's various regions.
The wall at El Sunzal features a mural of El Salvador, with a description of the country’s various regions.

You think Austin and San Antonio have beef over tacos?

The origin of the pupusa led to a minor international incident between El Salvador and Honduras during the negotiations of the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2003, with each country wanting to claim the doughy treat as its exclusive export. The crisis was narrowly averted and a couple of years later the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly named the pupusa the country’s national dish. Problem solved?

The soft rounds of stuffed masa at El Sunzal (named after a beach in El Salvador) in East Austin (642 Calles St.)  come in several varieties. A creamy version at a recent lunch included quesillo cheese and a fatty paste of ground pork (chicharrón). The mixture is spread on the dough, which is then folded over and cooked (likely in pork fat) on a flat-top grill to a sunglow finish. A side of chopped cabbage in a pool of vinegar (cortido de repollo) gave a crunchy, acidic bite to cut the fat.

The fluffy and chewy pupusas cost $2 each, and you can also order traditional mixtures of cheese and refried beans or cheese and bright green bits of loroco, a plant native to Central America. I wish there had been more of the loroco, as it was hard to ascertain the flavor of the slightly nutty and bitter bud.

 

 

Dish of the week: Grilled pork banh mi

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Gently sweet grilled pork? Check. Tangy, crunchy pickled carrot and daikon? Check and check. Floral cilantro, fierce raw jalapeno and homemade mayonnaise? Check, check and check. Housemade French baguettes? Well, seven-and-a-half out of eight isn’t bad.

This stuffed banh mi sandwich ($6.45) is one of my favorite of its kind in town. There’s probably more chargrilled pork stuffed into that soft roll than any banh mi I’ve had in town. No, the bread is not completely homemade, but they do finish the product they receive par-baked from out of state. Not bad for a trailer.

Tebi Nguyen has been selling banh mi sandwiches and more from his wood-paneled red trailer Saigon Le Vendeur for two years. He previously worked at ramen spot Daruma, but it’s the cuisine of his native Vietnam that is the star here. Saigon Le Vendeur also sells a tofu sandwich, spicy chicken, pork patty and O.G. version. That last one comes with aromatic Vietnamese meatloaf and pate. Today’s special was also a winner: a bowl of springy vermicelli and crisp bean sprouts and lettuce scattered with about a half-dozen grilled shrimp warmed with toasted garlic ($11).

Saigon Le Vendeur (located at 2404 E. Seventh Street next to the MetroRail tracks) is open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. If they were located just a little closer to bars, they’d sell a million of those sandwiches at night.

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Dish of the week: Nori tama toast

Nori tama toast with egg, green onion, cheese and dried seaweed. (Credit: Matthew Odam)
Nori tama toast with egg, green onion, cheese and dried seaweed. (Credit: Matthew Odam)

I had a little ritual my first few days in Tokyo last spring. Each morning I’d go to the mom-and-pop coffee shop next door to my AirBNB rental and enjoy a cup of coffee, hardboiled egg and fluffy Japanese milk bread. Flossy, feathery, plumped and slightly sweet, the bread reminded me of Texas toast on steroids.

On one piece I’d spread strawberry jam, the other came with a slice of ham hugged to the bread by melted cheese. We left that neighborhood after a few days, but I continued to savor variations of the bread throughout my trip to Japan.

I have finally found the fix for my Japanese milk bread cravings. This piece of nori tama toast comes topped with crumbled egg spread across the bread’s ivory expanse, with a melted layer of mozzarella holding it in place. The creamy and irony mixture is spotted with green onions and the oceanic flavors of dried seaweed bits.

Who needs breakfast tacos when you can have this?

The all-day treat came from Sa-Tén Coffee and Eats at 916 Springdale Road, Bldg. 3, Ste. 101 in the Canopy arts building. Kome co-owner Kayo Asazu and East Side King co-founder Moto Utsunomiya opened the Japanese-inspired café in 2014. The sun-lit space inside the arts complex, fittingly colored in warm wood and industrial greys, is open daily for breakfast lunch and dinner.

The Japanese milk bread, made using a process called Tangzhong, is imported from Bakery Crescent in Chicago. No, it’s not local, but when it’s this good, I don’t quibble with geographic provenance.

At $10, the lunch plate, which includes two sides, is one of the best deals I’ve come across lately. One special featured crunchy fried chicken thigh breaded in Panko and drizzled with Worcestershire and tar-tar sauces. With it came a springy kale salad electrified by white balsamic vinegar and a satisfying Japanese curry, bursting with turmeric, coriander and cumin, studded with fukujinzuke, a crunchy mixture of daikon, radishes and other vegetables.

A peaceful retreat surrounded by artist’s studios, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, Sa-Tén is open Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

 

Dish of the week: Pastry pro offers tasty play on Girl Scout cookie

(Credit: Giant Noise)
(Credit: Giant Noise)

They stand sentry at the entrance to Walgreen’s. You work with their marketing directors, err, parents. Or, you are their parents. From mid-January to late-February the Girl Scouts and their tempting cookies are unavoidable.

At the threat of heresy, I will go on the record here and say that I am not a fan of the beloved Thin Mints. My GS cookie preferences lean towards the Samoas, though I won’t turn down a cold Tagalong or an almost-stale Do-Si-Do. Heck, even the gluten-free Toffee-tastics are pretty swell.

Launderette (2115 Holly St.) pastry chef and partner Laura Sawicki, who was a Brownie growing up and “cookie queen” three years in a row, drew inspiration from the outfitted sugar dealers to create a marvelous take on the Samoas. The chocolate-dipped cookies are topped with a slightly salty miso-butterscotch caramel and flakes of toasted coconut. It is the perfect combination of gooey and creamy, with a hidden crunch. Launderette serves two for $6 at lunch.