Fed Man 55: Hillside Farmacy (40)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 40: Hillside Farmacy
1209 E 11th St. 512-628-0168, www.hillsidefarmacy.com.
Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.25.12

The waiter looked like Johnny Depp’s stunt double, and that was already enough to distract my daughter from dinner. Then he broke into a pitch-perfect “Stuck in the Middle with You” and she was lost to me until the check came. As it turns out, Rion Archer sings in the band Paper Hotel. But this is Austin, and so he was part of the service team at Hillside Farmacy that night, too. That seems about right, because Hillside feels as much like a performance venue as it does a restaurant, like a color-saturated drugstore cafe from “Amelie” or better still, “The City of Lost Children.”
The lampshades are welded cooking pots, the floor is a careful mosaic of tiny white hexagons and the reclaimed apothecary shelves are stocked with tonics and elixirs of suspect color and dubious provenance. The hostess stand is a reclaimed space heater, the wallpaper a black-and-white repetition of what could either be peacock feathers or marauding scarabs.
Carved from the former Gene’s po’ boy shop and the Hillside Drug Store decades before that, Hillside Farmacy bears the stop-motion design style of co-owner Mickie Spencer, whose welding torch and tile saw also created the post-apocalyptic East Side Show Room, where she and chef Sonya Coté brought another dimension to dining on the East Side: high-style cooking matched to the seasonal bounties of local farms. “Local” as in just a few miles away in some cases, at Springdale or HausBar or Rain Lily. With the Show Room going on 3 years old, they opened Hillside Farmacy in March, and Coté stepped away from the Show Room shortly thereafter. Hillside’s the richer for that move, because while East Side Show Room still earns a place in the Fed Man 55 at No. 44, Hillside’s a few steps ahead after just six months, riding Coté’s creative arc.
The menu glides from croissants, baked eggs and Stumptown Coffee in the morning to mac and cheese, watermelon salad and sandwiches in the afternoon, including the Cook’s Sandwich ($10), an all-star team of paté, bacon and goat cheese that only gets better with a poached egg. And an afternoon glass of gin punch. There’s a raw bar with ceviche, peel-and-eat shrimp and well-sourced oysters that go for half-price Monday nights.
It’s a workable cafe during the day, but nighttime is when Hillside shines its brighter lights. Dinner started with a charcuterie plate ($14, available all day) like a painter’s board dotted with heirloom cherry tomatoes, a pickled farm basket of vegetables, whole-grain mustard, artichoke hearts, nuts, sauces and berries. The acids, oils and textures amplified a creamy pork terrine, a rough country-style chicken liver paté and a dense slice of chicken rolled like a feathered version of porchetta. Humble zucchini fritters ($5) rented a limo for the night, arriving by cutting board, dressed with brightly hot tomato-jalapeño relish and microgreens. It wasn’t all a farm-fresh lovefest. I wouldn’t call a dish of squash and zucchini in watery tomato broth “ratatouille.” I’d call it a lukewarm $14 side dish, no matter where the vegetables were born.
What most tipped the scales past “sandwich shop” at Hillside was a special of snapper over tomato and corn risotto ($18). Although the risotto fell into a lumpy hegemony, it formed a good textural base for the fish, a pearlescent fillet with a golden sear, its demure freshness rendered in full relief by a sauce informed with the richness of butter, the citrus zing of orange and the soulful heat of ginger.
By the way, if the celebrity thing doesn’t work out, Johnny Depp makes a helluva waiter in the meantime.
(TOP PHOTO: Hillside Farmacy's charcuterie plate and a dish of snapper with tomato risotto and orange ginger beurre blanc. INSET PHOTO: The hostess sign is a repurposed space heater; zucchini fritters with tomato-jalapeño relish; chef Sonya Coté, the Cook's Sandwich with a poached egg. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants