Fed Man 55: Foreign & Domestic (21)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 21: Foreign and Domestic
306 E. 53rd St. 512-459-1010, www.fndaustin.com.
Hours: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.12.12
Foreign & Domestic’s Ned Elliott makes a sport of alienating the restaurant culture that makes his little boutique restaurant possible, telling “Top Chef” live-Tweeters to “get a f***ing life” and calling other people’s small-plate menus a way to fleece the public. This from a guy who charges $8 for bread. He’s famously maligned his North Loop neighborhood, those customers who don’t get out fast enough and the people he’s worked with. In a review last year, I gave him a pass for all that, saying Austin had matured enough to handle a guy who comes out and says all those things the rest of us just think.
But I didn’t appreciate how much that negative mojo leeched into the food until a leisurely dinner this summer when Ned wasn’t there. I didn’t have to watch him glare down the line, glare at his cooks, glare at me and then Tweet some sharp little barb about it, like how I should cut my hair or how he watched me the whole time, somehow missing the part where I had to spit every bite of lamb into my napkin because it was inedible. Of all the restaurants on this list, Foreign & Domestic is the only place where I’ve had to take food out of my mouth. Not once, not twice, but three separate times. So why is it on this list at all, at No. 21 no less? Because when F&D hits, it hits big, and its Dr. Jekyll side could be in the Top 10 if Mr. Hyde weren’t there to drag it back.
The bright side shone this summer with an architectural appetizer using tomatoes as mortar and ornament for a wall of toasted bread behind a luminescent puck of gelled tomato ($8). Complex to assemble, intriguing to look at, but so simple to appreciate as an expression of summer’s tomato harvest. Another seasonal bounty — King River salmon — found its champion in raw form with fennel and green apple ($12). Both dishes made vivid contrasts to the rough-country entrees that followed. From the same kitchen that was unafraid in the past to dress octopus with squid ink foam came boneless fried chicken and pepper gravy over a biscuit crowned by a trucker’s hat of a fried egg ($18). It worked within its limited gifts, the burn of the over-fried bird soothed by lemon jam. F&D beat Austin at one of its own games with a 12-ounce burger on an English muffin loaded in turn with pork belly, buttery blue cheese and tomato jam ($19). Excess on a mission, served with tempura-style onion rings. Mission accomplished.
Both seemed like the kind of stunt food that attracted the Food Network’s Guy Fieri to F&D for a mismatched “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” episode. But Elliott’s embrace of challenging food transcends novelty. He introduced Austin to venison heart tartare and crispy pigs’ ears, for example, and made us love them all the same. On the more conventional side, few places in town do a better job with duck, finished with carrot butter, lavender and fried duck skin like kettle corn.
But the dark side has taken its toll with dishes like that unchewable lamb, ham steak with more gristle than lean, regrettably fishy crab lasagna and beef tongue cooked the way yours feels in the middle of a hangover. Mr. Hyde’s harvest.
It could be argued that we need the static generated by Foreign & Domestic’s bipolar frisson. The current runs both ways, sometimes electrifying, sometimes shocking, always illuminating. And sometimes that’s enough.
(TOP: The kitchen is part of the dining room at Foreign & Domestic. FIRST INSET: 12-ounce burger with pork belly, blue cheese and onion rings; tomatoes con pan tomate appetizer; chicken with biscuit and gravy. SECOND INSET: F&D's building once house Austin Homebrew Supply; venison heart tartare with crispy pig's ear. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants