Fed Man 55: Barley Swine (7)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 7: Barley Swine
2024 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-394-8150, www.barleyswine.com.
Hours: Mon-Fri 6-11pm. Sat 5-11pm. Closed Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.18.12
When Bryce Gilmore works the pass at Barley Swine — calling plates, moving food to the servers — he crowds the bar like a circling wrestler, shoulders squared, hands on the counter’s edge. Somewhere in there has to the memory of doing it all himself, in the days behind the screen on the grillbox of his Odd Duck trailer before he opened Barley Swine in December 2010.
Odd Duck showed what a chef who’d already worked at Wink and Cafe 909 could do when left to his own devices. Gilmore turned to Central Texas farmers and ranchers to build a menu of dishes like grilled romaine with poached egg and ricotta and a sandwich with porter-braised pork. He carried that well-sourced small-plate philosophy to brick-and-mortar at Barley Swine. Food & Wine magazine liked it well enough that it named Gilmore one of its Best New Chefs in 2011.
I could still taste the simple joy of the trailer days this year in scrambled eggs with grilled broccoli, goat cheese and pine nuts. And before that in Brussels sprouts with lemon and a salad of grilled sweet carrots with goat feta. Each of those dishes was less than $10, the building blocks of a menu that ranges from about $7 to $18 per plate, with the idea that three plates should just about do it. But simplicity is hardly a prerequisite for success here, as evidenced by a long dish of rabbit rendered as a terrine, a fried nugget of schnitzel and a grilled medallion in concert with mushroom, peppers, radish and sauces of herbal green and sweet tawny brown.
Desserts can be an event here, too. German chocolate cake became a deconstructed festival of shapes and colors: a sine wave of white cream icing, blocks of aromatic cake, ribbonesque folds of chocolate, a snowfall of toasted coconut. Sweet and über-savory joined forces for grilled foie gras with sage funnel cake that pulled flavors and textures from walnut-chile butter and flakes of maple “snow” that coalesced into a sweet caramel paste.
But this is a ranking, not a coronation. Whereas in the study of light, the gathering of all the colors yields not black but white, so too does the gathering of too many flavors, techniques and textures wash out not just their individuality but their potential for union.
The fried keynote protein is over here, the foam over there, the okra is standing sentinel between scattered caches of black-eyed peas or slivers of radish. There’s a light-green schmear of something banking up the side of the bowl. And then there’s popcorn. In a dish of grilled zucchini and duck egg and sprinkled over a redfish mousse. And more foam than a tidal pool, with grilled okra, with hefeweizen doughnuts, with that duck egg and popcorn thing. It feels less like thoughtful composition and more like showing off. But if I could pull off something like a crescent-shaped cascade of pepper rings, chile puree, fresh beans, precision-fried pig’s ankle and bronzed foie gras, I’d show off, too.
Barley Swine is as much a bar as any tavern, even the Horseshoe Lounge next door, the $9 beers, the champion-caliber waitstaff and the wood grill notwithstanding. All the seating is bar height, and you sit in company with strangers and shout to be heard above any of them. In that course, I’ve attracted the attentions of a drunken West Austin socialite, talked social policy with a former U.S. congressman and argued beer with an impressively bearded man. In that regard, a communal six-top at Barley Swine is a great place for a date, because nothing's sexier than showing how comfortable you are with strangers. Even if the company's not that interesting, at least you know the food will be.
(TOP: Clockwise from top left: Foie gras and sage funnel cake; fried pig's ankle with peppers, beans and foie gras; scrambled egg with broccoli and pine nuts; grilled squash salad. FIRST INSET: The dining room holds about 40 people at bar-height communal tables; the Barley Swine building has also housed a bakery and a vintage clothing store; shredded boar and soft-boiled egg. SECOND INSET: Duck egg with grilled zucchini and popcorn; rabbit three ways with beers from Oskar Blues; deconstructed German chocolate cakePhotos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants