Made to measure: Brian Malarkey’s Searsucker

 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.24.13
 
Brian Malarkey is the cook with the Beach Boy looks, the newsboy hat, the porkpie hat, all the hats. The one from “Top Chef” who made seafood sausage on the fly, the nice judge on “The Taste.” His people call him “camera-ready,” and at the Austin Food & Wine Festival last month, he could strike a pose like the Olsen twins in the ‘80s. On command. The festival was Malarkey’s pace-car lap in Austin, revving the engines for Searsucker, which quietly opened its doors Thursday at 415 Colorado St. in the former Maria Maria space.
 
Of all the “fabric of social dining” restaurants in the empire run by Malarkey and hospitality provocateur James Brennan — Burlap, Gingham, Herringbone, Gabardine — they picked Searsucker for Austin. Does anybody wear seersucker without irony and a bowtie? Why not Denim or Tie-Dye or CoolMax?
 
“I didn’t see a lot of tie-dye, but there’s definitely a denim factor down there,” Malarkey said. “Denim is something I’d really want to do. But we’ve got these five restaurants ... five different kinds of ideas.” Those five ideas look something like this:
 
 Burlap (Del Mar, Calif.): Asian Cowboy (short rib with wasabi cream sauce).
 Gabardine (San Diego): Seafood and small plates (clams and mussels with chorizo).
 Gingham (La Mesa): Urban Cowboy (burger with pulled pork barbecue, bacon and fried egg).
 Herringbone (La Jolla): Fish Meats Field. Get it? (monkfish osso buco).
 Searsucker (San Diego; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Austin): New American Classic (tomahawk ribeye with cognac and horseradish). “Searsucker is the one that really resonates with people,” Malarkey said. “It’s the one that’s a direct reflection of me entirely.” Why the eccentric spelling of seersucker for Searsucker? “It speaks to my love for the cooking technique, for searing,” Malarkey said. Also: “The domain name was a lot cheaper.”
 
Reached at home in California last week, Malarkey had just come back from a weekend cooking for the James Beard Awards in New York, which came right after the Austin festival and right before a trip to Alaska. His kids were tagging after him like rodeo clowns when the phone rang.

He was a high school rodeo champion in Oregon, riding cutting horses and roping calves, a nugget he could have exploited for his Texas debut. “It’s starting to come out a little bit,” he said. “We have Cowboy Caviar on the menu, which is essentially Rocky Mountain oysters. Because every spring we would have cattle and we would cut the calves. When I was like 6 years old, we were eating cowboy caviar.”
 
Searsucker won’t be a slave to its San Diego pedigree and surf-and-turf swerve. “It’s got kind of a Wild West feel to the menu,” Malarkey said. “You’ve got Tongue and Cheek, you’ve got pork butt, eggs and bacon for dinner. There’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of country and kind of fun.”
 
Whether that will help in a market sometimes hostile to outsiders is an open question. A couple of celebrated names have come and gone after lukewarm receptions here: Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe, Stephan Pyles’ Star Canyon, even Carlos Santana’s Maria Maria in the same exact spot as Searsucker. And they were playing songs to which Austin already knew the words: Southwestern, cowboy cooking, Mexican food.
 
“I think it all comes to down to the people that are in there day-to-day,” Malarkey said. “We’re not coming in there and making a chain restaurant. We’re making a restaurant that’s for Austin.”
 
To gauge the day-to-day team, I took Searsucker executive chef Josh Maynard and sous chef Kenzie Allen to lunch at Swift’s Attic earlier this month. Swift’s is like Searsucker on a more intimate scale, with charismatic frontman C.K. Chin in the Malarkey role and an all-star kitchen team of Mat Clouser, Zack Northcutt and Callie Speer. We started with grilled shishito peppers and a tiradito of raw scallops and cucumber sorbet, then “Bowling Alley Burgers” and craft sandwiches that we shared like a pre-shift family meal.
 
 
If Malarkey is that eternal kid from Fun, then Josh Maynard is Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. He’s lean and intense, with a half-smile that says, “I’m a step ahead of you already; keep up.” His arms are a mosaic of tattoos, the tribal markings of chef life. But the long and loopy text on his neck takes it a step further: “débrouillard.” It’s French longhand for “System D,” like a Fight Club for kitchen roughnecks who get the job done no matter what.
 
Maynard comes to Austin from the Searsucker in his native San Diego. He’s not one of those culinary school kids, but worked as a dishwasher and did time at pizza places on his way up the ranks. “This was kind of an accident,” he said of his life in the kitchen, a seed planted during dining forays through Europe with his grandmother. He worked in New York for five years. “I moved there on a Greyhound. Just my knife kit and a pair of boots,” he said.
 
In New York, Maynard was a prep cook at Keens Steak House. “I peeled potatoes in their basement for eight hours a night at first,” he said. Then came the Russian Tea Room, then Public when that Manhattan restaurant earned its first Michelin star — “I learned so much about plating and flavor profiles” — then Picholine and others before heading back to San Diego for Bertrand at Mister A’s, then Jsix and finally Searsucker.
 
Searsucker Austin is channeling some local cred by hiring Kenzie Allen as sous chef to back up Maynard. She was the executive chef at Asti when that Hyde Park trattoria earned its way into my Fed Man 55 rankings at No. 19 this year with grilled cantaloupe salad and robust penne with housemade sausage. Halfway into her 4½ years at Asti, Allen tasted her way through Italy for two months, getting a better feel for the food that was putting food on her table back home. Asti is a known quantity here, a steady harbor and springboard for chefs like Jason Donoho of the Alamo Drafthouse, John Bates of the Noble Sandwich Co. and Brad Sorenson of No Va. But like each of them, Allen wanted to branch out.
 
“Just knowing (Brian) from ‘Top Chef’ — not knowing him, but knowing who he was — it definitely felt like something fun,” she said. “And it’s going to be a huge restaurant. All the restaurants I’ve worked at have been small. So it’s going to be a challenge for me. And I want that.” Besides Asti, some of those “small” restaurants have included the Driskill Grill with Josh Watkins and the wine bar Taste. Maynard and Allen will be joined by sous chef Adam Brown, who worked at the Searsucker in Scottsdale, Ariz.
 
And Searsucker is big, with more than 7,000 square feet and seating for 180-200 people. They’ll do dinner every night, with cocktails until 2am. Lunch and Saturday-Sunday brunch are in the works. Judging from the San Diego and Scottsdale menus, appetizers will run $8-$16, with main dishes from $17 on up to $75 for that tomahawk ribeye, but mostly in the $24-$35 range. The decor looks like an urban cowboy’s living room, with a wall covered in knotty reclaimed wood, linen light fixtures as big as wagon wheels with bare-filament bulbs and deep loungy leather couches. It’s casual, a kind of restaurant-size conversation pit for a guy who’s always looking to start another one. “I have A.D.D. tastebuds,” Malarkey said. “What else you got?”
 
Searsucker
415 Colorado St., 512-394-8000, www.searsucker.com/austin.
Hours: Dinner 5-11pm daily, cocktails until 2am. Mon-Fri lunch and Sat-Sun brunch coming soon.
 
(TOP: Searsucker is now open in the former Maria Maria space at 415 Colorado St., a concept from San Diego chef Brian Malarkey, who appeared at the Austin Food & Wine Festival last month. His entry in the festival’s taco showdown was “Duck, Duck, Goose,” with duck confit, duck cracklings and foie gras queso. FIRST INSET: Light fixtures and conversation pits in progress at the new Searsucker. SECOND INSET: Executive chef Josh Maynard will lead the kitchen at Searsucker Austin. Austinite Kenzie Allen — a veteran of the Driskill Grill and Asti — will act as sous chef. The homepage from the San Diego Searsucker. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)