Drew & Mary Catherine Curren: The making of Arro

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.04.13
 
JULY 2013 UPDATE: Arro opened July 20. See the menus here.
 
When the bakeshop Easy Tiger was mostly a tangle of ornamental wire and sawdust in the shell of an East Sixth Street building in October 2011, Scott Hentschel of the ELM Restaurant Group was already talking about the group’s French restaurant project on Burnet Road. Sometime in early 2012, he said, at the Austin Diner site.
 
Easy Tiger itself wouldn’t open until early 2012, and the French thing, called Arro, simmered on the backburner, boiling over for one of those breathless media preview dinners in August 2012. Then ... nothing. But late last month, an announcement from ELM put Arro back on the map, this time on West Sixth Street, where few people until that moment knew that Haddingtons would be closing. In another twist, it was announced Thursday that Lucy’s Fried Chicken will open its second location in that old Austin Diner spot.
 
Such are the dynamics of restaurant chess, especially in a group that oversees Easy Tiger and Arro as well as 24 Diner — and whose principals also have interests in Waterloo Ice House, Key Bar, the Iguana Grill, Mulberry, even Haddingtons. And now it’s Arro’s move, guided by the husband-and-wife team of Drew Curren, a “Top Chef” alumnus who oversees the kitchens at 24 and Easy Tiger, and pastry chef Mary Catherine Curren. In the long game, Arro should be open by the first of June, Drew said. If the pieces fall right, the second or third week of May.
 
(ABOVE: Drew and Mary Catherine Curren at Haddingtons, which will transform into the French restaurant Arro.)
 
 
(ABOVE: Chicken, waffles and contemporary diner design at 24 Diner, the ELM Group’s first restaurant.)
 
‘Country-style French’
 
With chicken and waffles, meatloaf and patty melts at 24 Diner and housemade deli at Easy Tiger, Drew Curren’s known for American comfort food. Arro will explore his Continental drift, the one that took him from Texas A&M University to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “I like to call it kind of a country-style French food,” Drew said, with a wood-burning grill, steak frites, moules frites, croque monsieurs, lobster bisque, French onion soup and the like. “The whole front part of the menu is desserts and snacks and pickles and cheese and terrines and pâtés that can be served with our Easy Tiger bread.” It’s no stretch to see Easy Tiger as the ELM Group’s commissary, the hub of a self-supplying demi-empire with bread by baker David Norman.
 
Drew said the Arro kitchen will be compact the way it is at Easy Tiger and 24 Diner, where watching the cook shout orders from the pass brings to mind a tollbooth operator. “It’s actually a little smaller than a tollbooth,” Curren said. At Arro, the easy pace of the opening plates will be followed by roasted chicken and fish, grilled steak, lamb chops and other a-la-minute dishes that will test the kitchen’s space and pace.
 
For Drew and Mary Catherine Curren, Arro will also extend their 24/Easy Tiger collaboration as executive chef and pastry chef, their Beauty and the Beast dance of sweet and savory in an industry where dinner and dessert menus sometimes seem like they came from different restaurants. “The reason our menu will flow is that we approach things the same way,” Mary Catherine said. “We don’t like to overdo anything just for the sake of making it present a certain way.”
 
Mary Catherine does the desserts for 24 Diner now. But before she took over, it was Drew who came up with the milkshakes people talk about, the ones with roasted banana and brown sugar or peanut butter and chocolate. It’s a thing between the two of them, a competition over who truly rules dessert. It comes out when he’s describing a typical meal at 24, and she finishes the thought by adding “and a piece of pie.” And he comes right back with “or a milkshake.”
 
An early taste of her work came in 2009 at Zoot (pictured at left), during the first blush of Poteet strawberry season. She dropped cool strawberry mousse on a perfect circle of firm lemon cake with an icy-tart rhubarb sorbet and a neat brunoise of strawberries. They were knitted together like a jazz trio, not scattered over the plate like the deconstructed landslides so fashionable today. “Textural balance is just as important as flavor for me, so I always like to make sure I’m balancing creamy with crispy or spicy with cooling or high acid with something a little bit more fatty,” she said. “I don’t want them to be on opposite corners of the plate, hoping that you get them in the same bite. I want the control over that.”
 
The challenge: Bunker to bistro
 
The job of turning the brown-brick bunker at 601 W. Sixth St. into Arro falls to designer Veronica Koltuniak of Verokolt, who brightened the architectural mood of the old stone dowager that houses Easy Tiger with baking pans and wallpapered cameo silhouettes. She had already converted the dated Waterloo Ice House space at Sixth and Lamar into 24 Diner with tangerine pebble-grain leather and cool slate colors. Her challenge this time: Take the Haddingtons building — purpose-built as a tavern in 2010 — and give it a French makeover.
 
Just as bar food prefers bar light, French food prefers natural light. “You paint everything white and you add as much glass as you can,” was Koltuniak’s first response.
 
But digging deeper is more her style, and she'll have to reconcile the fact that the newness of the place will resist her revivalist instincts, “my typical go-to of going to the architecture, the old bones of the building and starting to pull up what is worthy — well, there’s a lot worthy,” she said. “From an eco point of view, it’s a struggle to give this a really interesting, unique look from what was already there, which was, I have to say, quite lovely and quite expensive to build.” At Arro, Koltuniak said she’ll focus on texture and “not a pastiche or a set decor of a French restaurant, but this joie de vie that we’re trying to achieve.”
 
Drew Curren talked about challenges inside and out. “A big part of the remodel is getting rid of that huge barndoor that opens up to Sixth Street and putting in a glass facade,” he said. Inside, Haddingtons was a rabbit’s warren of taverns within a tavern, creating tidy pub spaces good for small-group drinkers and shadow lovers, not so good for waiters trying to find smooth service lanes or places to do their sidework. “There was no real flow,” he said. Arro will take out the interior walls and drop in more windows to open and brighten the space. The new restaurant will seat about 100.
 
The road (back) to Austin
 
Drew and Mary Catherine have been together 10 years, married for four, and they recently moved into a house in Allandale, saying goodbye to a 500-square-foot apartment in 24 Diner’s figurative backyard. She’s from Austin and went to St. Michael’s. He has a degree in animal science/pre-veterinary medicine from Texas A&M. His childhood took him from California to Atlanta to Houston before Aggieland. Then he cooked in Houston for a few years before heading to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, where he and Mary Catherine first met. Between their hitches at the CIA, his jobs at Barbuto and Danny Meyer’s Tabla and her jobs at the Water Club and Cookshop, their time in New York stretched to six years. Then, as Drew tells it, “We were standing on the subway platform, and she looked at me and said, ‘We’re going home.’ “
 
They came back to Austin in 2008 to a job market that wasn’t quite ready for cooks with pedigrees, a notion that seems counterintuitive in this restaurant boomtown.
 
But it’s fair to say the Currens were part of a new wave. She found a job at Zoot, and they filed in the gaps with cooking classes for family and friends. From there, Mary Catherine worked for Texas Coffee Traders. “They are just amazing people to work for,” she said. “The treat their employees better than they treat themselves.” It’s a pay-it-forward ethic still practiced at Texas Coffee Traders, where the staff hustles to put coffee in its customers’ hands while they stand gape-mouthed before a worldwide wall of beans, house blends and oddballs like a Balinese coffee that Mary Catherine described with acute precision as “Froot Loopy.” The company already supplies 24 and Easy Tiger and will do the same for Arro.
 
Working for a coffee roaster was a serendipitous move for a pastry chef who weaves in and out of a bakery, an all-night diner and now a French cafe. Mary Catherine Curren is ... particular. A conversation about biscuits turns into a bullet-point thesis on their abuse at the hands of cooks who overwork the dough.
 
“I think about biscuits similar to how I think about pie dough,” she said. “At the diner, I try to keep things simple. When you’re doing an apple pie or a strawberry-rhubarb pie, you’re not really adding a lot of stuff to the already-good ingredients inside, so you have to make sure everything’s perfect. The pie crust is really important.” There are two kinds of pie crust, she said: the food-processor kind and the flaky kind “with big ol’ chunks of butter in there that you want to be layered with the dough so that when it bakes, it melts and makes pockets of air. It’s the same way he makes his biscuits.”
 
 
(ABOVE: The ELM Group’s Easy Tiger on East Sixth Street is a bakery, bar, coffeeshop and deli whose look was designed by Veronica Koltuniak, who’ll also lead the Arro redesign.)
 
Arro’s target market
 
West Sixth Street draws a lot of competition for walk-up restaurant attention: Walton’s, Bess, Maiko, Hut’s, Restaurant Jezebel, Opal Divine’s and the upcoming Benji’s Cantina and Mastman’s Deli among them. Among Austin Francophiles, Arro will compete with Justine’s, Artisan Bistro, Chez Nous and Baguette et Chocolat, a field that lost its strongest player when West Sixth Street French bastion Aquarelle closed in 2011. Drew Curren said Arro will set its place at the table by keeping the kitchen open until 2 a.m., drawing on the late-night dinner data they’ve gathered at 24 Diner. “One of our biggest hours at the diner is the 10 o’clock dinner hour,” he said. “Roast chicken, meatloaf, bottle of wine, cheese plate. Austin eats later.” The idea at Arro is that nobody will be stacking chairs and vacuuming during the last 30 minutes of a nice late-night dinner.
 
That dinner might be an a la carte splurge of steak tartare, seafood stew, French wine and a composed dessert. Menu prices will run $22-24 tops, Drew said, with much of it priced a dollar or two higher than 24 Diner’s $13-$16 sweet spot. A 75-bottle wine list will lean heavily French, backed up by cocktails and eight beers on tap.
 
Within its broader menu, Arro also plans a three-course prix-fixe option for $20-25.
 
“I think your first four choices are lobster bisque, French onion soup, mixed green salad or a vegetable tart,” Drew said, thinking out loud. “Then the next one is a croque monsieur, croque Provençal, Niçoise salad or a Lyonnaise-style salad with pickled mushroom, poached egg, lardons.” Mary Catherine is still working out dessert, in that way pastry chefs blend science with art. It could be a custard/pot de creme/clafoutis hybrid. Or petite renderings of full desserts, or ice creams, or the wide world of wedges.
 
The kitchen will start with three sous chefs: a culinary-school colleague from North Carolina named Thomas Hunter, Jessica Peterson of La Condesa and Ramen Tatsu-ya and Richard Tomlinson, who’s risen through the ranks at 24 and Easy Tiger.
 
It wouldn’t be an ELM Restaurant Group story without an allusion to what’s next, and Drew Curren put it this way: “Investors ask us if we’re sure we have the bandwidth to do three full restaurants.” His response: Try doubling or tripling that.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 
 Avery Brewing dinner at Easy Tiger: Get a taste of Drew Curren’s work on April 8 at 6pm, when Easy Tiger will host Adam Avery of Avery Brewing for an eight-course dinner pairing with rare, barrel-aged beers from the brewery. $100 per person. Reserve at 614-4972. See the menu here.