EXCLUSIVE: Familiar Austin faces buy Sweetish Hill, announce plans for bakery’s future

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A new school titan of the Austin restaurant world is taking over an old-school classic. The McGuire Moorman Hospitality group has purchased beloved Clarksville-area Sweetish Hill Bakery (1120 W. Sixth St.) from Jim Murphy, with the sale slated to close in early September.

Sweetish Hill Bakery was founded in 1975. (Mark Matson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The owners of Jeffrey’s, Clark’s, Perla’s (and more) will close the doors for remodeling on September 8 and plan to fully reopen by Christmas under the moniker Swedish Hill Bakery Cafe & Deli. The new spelling is a slight rebrand and nod to the Swede’s Hill neighborhood where Patricia Bauer-Slate and Tom Neuhaus originally opened the business at 14th and Waller streets in 1975.

The new Swedish Hill will serve as the bakery for all seven of MMH’s Austin-area restaurants and also operate a retail bakery offering savory and sweet items, a wine bar, and deli serving prepared foods and made-to-order sandwiches. There are also plans to serve bagels and smoked fish spreads (initially probably only on weekends). And, yes, there will still be three dozen parking spaces on site. 

MMH co-founder and native Austinite Larry McGuire points to the business models and offerings of Gjelina in Los Angeles and Russ & Daughters in New York City as inspirations for the concept that will expand on the bakery that Jim Murphy has owned,initially with Bauer-Slate, since 1990.

McGuire, who grew up in the Travis Heights neighborhood and has fond memories of his family buying Italian cream cakes from Sweetish Hill for birthdays, said his business needed a centralized bakery for its wide assortment of baked goods and that purchasing Sweetish Hill and the land on which it sits would allow them to help preserve a bit of Austin and what makes the city cool.

“If we didn’t buy it, somebody was gonna build an apartment complex,” McGuire said.

The bakery, which will bake the San Francisco-style sourdough for Clark’s, the laminated doughs and baguettes for Elizabeth Street Cafe and much more, will be under the direction of chefs and MMH partners Alex Manley and Jennifer Tucker.

Sweetish Hill co-founder Patricia Bauer-Slate and Jim Murphy at Sweetish Hill Bakery in 2005. Mark Matson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After baking in Houston and New York City, Murphy returned to Austin and became the bakery manager at Sweetish Hill in 1988 and a partner in 1990. The bakery, which relocated to the current Clark’s space on West Sixth street in the late 70s, moved across the street to its current location in 1991. Murphy, who helped found the Bread Bakers Guild of America in the 90s, bought out Bauer-Slate’s interest about 10 years ago.

After more than 40 years of keeping baker’s hours, trying to stay afloat in an increasingly expensive city while catering to an aging customer base, and paying fair wages and keeping prices affordable, Murphy said he is ready for a change.

“It’s something we’ve worked hard it. It’s a tough business. It’s a people business. You have to really like it,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, I’m a baker first. And I think the bakery business all over the world is evolving more and more to restaurants and cafes. I don’t want to be in the restaurant business.”

Friendly neighborhood service and cakes like their legendary Dutch chocolate and the fruit-filled holiday cakes have made Murphy and Sweetish Hill a Clarksville-area institutions for decades. And as word has leaked out in recent weeks, many longtime customers have come by the bakery to say thank you to Murphy and pay their respects.  

“It’s just been great to have such loyal customers,” Murphy said.

While he is ready for the change of pace, and to get out from under the soaring property taxes, Murphy, who took about a month to come around to the idea of selling, admits he still has brief moments of doubt.

“Some days I almost wake up with a panic attack, thinking, ‘Gah, what am i doing?’” Murphy said.

What he’ll be doing in the future is consulting, working on projects and maybe teaching classes as Barton Springs Mill. He’ll also help the MMH team get the bakery up and running once construction, which includes expanding into the adjacent Pause & Imagine dress shop, is completed.

Murphy, who along with his partners has always been steadfast about sourcing locally, avoiding trans fats and using unbleached flour, felt it was important that the brand he and Bauer-Slate worked so hard to cultivate remain in good hands. And he believes that McGuire Moorman will honor their legacy.

This is not MMH’s first time to take over a historic brand and space. The company known for its keen attention to detail and stunning aesthetics and branding revamped 80s and 90s icon Jeffrey’s in 2013. McGuire sees his role in taking over the popular neighborhood bakery in the same light, and appreciates the responsibility of polishing a classic brand and carrying it into the future.

“I’ve been through this a bunch before; it’s a valid concern,” McGuire said of people worried about losing their favorite bakery. “We’re trying to open the best thing we can open. My job is to set them up for the next 30 or 40 years. That’s our goal.”

Franklin Barbecue closing for summer vacation

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When you work the kind of crazy hours barbecue professionals put in, you deserve a break. Especially when you’ve been doing it for a decade like Aaron and Stacy Franklin. The whole crew at Franklin gets a break starting next week, so if you’ve got out-of-town friends looking to grub some barbecue or you’re a glutton for waiting in the heat, you best make other plans. Franklin Barbecue will be closed from July 30 through August 9. What that means, this Sunday will be the last time to get that transcendent brisket until Friday August 10. During that lull, check out the Top 10 barbecue restaurants in Austin. Or maybe just take a few plays off, friends.

Franklin Barbecue. (Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

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Update: Loro closed Tuesday following smoke-related evacuation

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Update: Loro will be closed all day Tuesday following the smoke incident Monday night.

Some team members at Loro smelled smoke Monday night, leading to an evacuation and a visit from the Austin Fire and Police departments. While nobody was hurt, the incident, which Loro says made the restaurant get a little smokier than usual, has led the Asian smokehouse to close for lunch Tuesday. Management has not yet decided whether the restaurant on South Lamar will be open for dinner, but keep an eye on their Facebook and Instagram for updates.

Frozen mango sake cocktail at Loro. (Arianna Auber AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Your new go-to source for Dallas restaurant recommendations

If you’re heading up I-35 toward the Metroplex sometime in the future, you probably want to start following Michalene Busico on Twitter and Instagram. The Dallas Morning News announced last week that the long-time journalist has stepped into the role as the paper’s restaurant critic.

The lamb shank at FT33 is artfully plated and full of hearty and complex flavors. (Credit: Jeff Gregory)

Busico, who takes the place of Leslie Brenner who left last summer, has worked as food editor at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Robb Report. Busico was raised in California by first-generation Italian-Americans and discusses her personal and professional history with food in the story on the DMN website.

Welcome to the Texas food scene, Michalene.

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Austin chefs and the world respond to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death

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Journalist, filmmaker, author, explorer, raconteur and chef Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in France on Friday. He was 61. During his career as an author and documentary filmmaker for television, Bourdain visited Austin multiple times to shoot episodes of his TV shows and speak at the Paramount Theater and South by Southwest. Austin chefs and food-lovers, writers and fans of Bourdain around the world are reacting to the news.

(Hear my thoughts on the passing of Bourdain here, from my conversation on 104.9 The Horn Friday afternoon.)

CNN confirmed that Bourdain committed suicide. If you or anyone you know is battling depression or thoughts of suicide, please know there is help out there and recovery is possible. And please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline phone number at 1-800-273-8255. Chefs with Issues is also a resource if you are struggling and work in the food world. Locally, you can call 512-472-4357 to connect with mental health services.

Anthony Bourdain and president Barack Obama met over beer and bun cha in Hanoi for an episode of “Parts Unknown.” (Credit: CNN)

Barbecue legend John Mueller, currently of John Mueller Black Box Barbecue in Georgetown, appeared on the Austin episode of Bourdain’s “No Reservations” in season eight:

“Huge fan of his work. His style of storytelling was amazing as he made you feel like you were there. When I was privileged enough to meet him he was laid back, gracious, and we had one hell of a time.” — John Mueller

“A generation of chefs and eaters lost an icon today.  Bourdain showed us all that curiosity and passion are the real secrets to a life well lived.  He will be sorely missed but his influence won’t soon be forgotten.” — Mark Buley, chef/partner at Odd Duck and Sour Duck Market.

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2012, last 'busy' night of SXSW, last table, last straw for the entire team (We were all very tired and needed a rest). He ate with The Shins and Sleigh Bells. He did not hesitate to say hello and actually hang with us for a few moments. We asked him after the meal. This is the person that helped my parents understand why in the hell I wanted to be in the kitchen all my waking moments. He helped highlight the other side of it all and progressed the ideals of what the modern hospitality industry was up to. My current sous chef now told him that night, straight up, you made me wanna cook, not be a chef, but a cook. This picture will always be a great memory and the people in it made it so awesome. We almost all got in a verbal spat this service, but cooking for our champion Anthony Bourdain wiped all that away. He was our voice, our reason, our mentor, our trailblazer. So much more can be said, but may all the dishes we cook today be a reminder that life is precious and we all have a purpose, cook hard today! Peace be with you and thank you chef.

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East Austin Mexican restaurant Takoba reopening for the World Cup

One of the best places in Austin to watch World Cup action is returning just in time for the biggest sporting event in the world. Mexican restaurant Takoba, which closed indefinitely in January, will reopen on June 14, according to an email from management. The restaurant will be open for every day of World Cup matches, with the restaurant opening each day in time for televised matches. The first televised match is Russia vs. Saudi Arabia at 10 a.m. on June 14.  For the record, Mexico’s first match (versus Germany) is next Sunday (June 17) at 10 a.m.

Takoba.

Correction: A previous version of this post included the wrong times for kick-off.

Exclusive: One of Austin’s top sushi chefs leaving for Chicago

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One of Austin’s great culinary characters, a sushi obsessive with a relentless curiosity, is leaving town.

Kyoten Sushiko chef-owner Otto Phan, who started his business as an East Austin trailer before opening a quick-service lunch spot and austere omakase, has decided to move to Chicago to further pursue his lofty food goals. He has operated Kyoten, which ranked in the Top 15 in the city in both of the last two Austin360 Dining Guides, since July 2016.

“The goal has always been to be the best sushi chef in the world, and I know the pathway is a lot shorter if I move on,” Phan said. “It was going to take LeBron James a long time if he stayed in Cleveland to get that first championship”

Otto Phan prepares Tasmanian ocean trout nigiri at Kyoten Sushiko. Jay Janner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Phan, who briefly worked for sushi master Masa Takayama in New York, said that in order to ascend to his desired heights in the food world, he needed to be in a “Michelin-starred marketplace,” a city where the restaurants are ranked by the vaunted Michelin Guide. The Houston native and University of Texas graduate has found a location in Chicago’s Logan Square, a seven-seat omakase located in a mixed-use development on the edge of the city’s excitement, not unlike his Mueller restaurant in Austin.

Kyoten’s seared madai. Matthew Odam/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Phan will prepare his final dinner service — his meals are approximately 22 courses for $150 — at the end of July. Before he leaves, he will train his replacement, and Kyoten will remain in business under the same name. While he is not ready to announce the name of his replacement, Phan says it will be a young, hungry chef and not an established, well-known name.

“It won’t be exactly the same without me. He has some shoes to fill, but I think he will be able to do it,” Phan said.

While he said the move from the town he has called home off and on for 14 years is bittersweet, Phan, whose work is fueled by a love of ingredients and experimentation with vinegar flavor profiles, said the move is the next logical step in his career.  

“The stage needs to be bigger, and the risk needs to be higher,” Phan said. “I’ll be better in Chicago.”

And Austin will be a little less great without him.

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From the 2017 Austin360 Dining Guide:

This is my favorite sushi in Austin. But let’s address the elephant in the room: This is a surreal dining experience. You’re in a space smaller than a millionaire’s walk-in closet. And, with only eight seats available at the sushi counter, there’s a chance you and your date may be the only two people in the restaurant for the omakase experience. OK, even calling it a restaurant feels a little strange. But this is the bizarre and beautiful world chef Otto Phan has carved out for himself in the Mueller development.

Kyōten doesn’t offer the gorgeous design, sense of atmosphere, mannered service or wine list that Austin’s other top sushi restaurants have (though the sake pairings are very good), but what it does have is a chef driven by a joyful curiosity who creates exceptional sushi. The (possibly awkward) intimacy of the silent space affords you the chance to inquire about sourcing, technique and process from Phan as he hands you a buttery piece of sockeye salmon from Alaska, a bulbous piece of Oregon albacore kissed by sesame oil, Japanese pike mackerel bold enough to stand up to aged vinegar, and madai marinated in a vegetarian Japanese fish sauce that has none of the funky smell but all of the flavor of the traditional Southeast Asian variety.

There are not many dimensions to this unique dining experience, but the one it has can transfix you if you share the chef’s curiosity and give yourself over to it. And, if omakase isn’t your thing, there’s no better sushi served at lunch anywhere in town.