Restaurant review: Salty Sow

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.13.12
 
At the Salty Sow, folk-art pigs wink from the walls, bucolic football-shaped pork puffs with lashy eyes at once endearing and creepy, given their place in the food chain here. Maybe they’re not folk art, but rather Byzantine icons to the beast so idolized by Austinites that we’ve built culinary churches with unfortunate names to it: Barley Swine, Noble Pig, Bacon, Javelina, Three Little Pigs, Pig Vicious. It’s fair to say that in this saturated market, the Salty Sow's taking a leap of faith.
 
It’s a leap taken many times before by the people behind the Salty Sow, like when they opened Z’Tejas, Eddie V’s, the Roaring Fork and Hopdoddy. They’ve leapt into a spot on Manor Road that until January was the Red House Pizzeria, and El Gringo before that and John Mueller’s Barbecue before that. A building with more exes than Jennifer Lopez. But the Salty Sow makes a three-star argument that there’s room for one more pig in the pen.
 
The argument starts with little glass jars, one filled with chopped hamhocks in a salted basil-parmesan sauce over daisy-yellow polenta crowned with a slow-cooked egg for $7. The effect was green-eggs-and-ham, breakfast in a jar with the sauce like an extension of the soft golden yolk. Another jar presented the velvety iron of chicken liver mousse ($8) brought to sweet-tart balance with a shimmering layer of apple gelee. Where the jars were high-low twists on Southern comfort, french fries cooked in duck fat ($6) were all fence-climbing indulgence, boosted over the pickets by a pair of slow-cooked eggs and a dish of cool bearnaise with its licorice-whip of tarragon. But it’s a lumbering bowl, an appetite killer on a menu with greater gifts.
 
Among the Sow’s greater gifts were dishes at the humbler end of the Southern scale, like pork belly and collard greens ($12), the best full-plate value in the house. A smoky, primordial slab of pork’s five-layer trophy got a sturdy soy-balsamic glaze, and the swampy greens worked hard to balance the fat and sugar with vinegar acidity. But it was a lopsided fight, won by the sweetness that crept into so many dishes.
 
 
I ordered pork blade steak ($16) almost on a personal dare, remembering my college roommate who pan-fried the most godawful beef blade steaks just so he could say he was eating steak. I’ve had another glorified version of pork steak at Foreign & Domestic, too, and it was a gristly exercise in plateborne masochism. At the Salty Sow, this platter-hogging plank was like Niman Ranch candy, as tender and fatty as pork belly. No small feat, given the generous fat-to-lean ratio. And the fat was cooked to a place where it was chewy — but only just — and every bit as welcome as the dense-fibered flesh around it, anchored by a center bone like a cursive letter Y. With that kind of skill on the flat-top plancha grill, the Salty Sow’s roots are showing, the ones that brought Southwestern success to the Roaring Fork and Z’Tejas. These guys, led by executive chef Harold Marmulstein, know how to grill a piece of meat.
 
I took the high-low route for one dinner, confident that crispy chicken thighs with smashed potatoes and “neck-bone” gravy ($13) would carry the South while a grouper cooked on the plancha with lemon and butter would represent everybody else. It’s an a la carte dish, $16 for the fish by itself. I parried with a $6 side dish of Brussels sprout leaves. The fish was a tiny portion way out of line with the Sow’s value equation, two petite fingers of fish lying crosswise over each other, with a teardrop dish of remoulade that started mild and finished hot. The grouper might have come from the Lawry’s Seasoned Salt test kitchen it was so unimaginatively spiced, cooked a shade past ideal with rough flakes at the edges giving way to tighter sections at the center. What’s to be said when a side of Brussels sprouts ($6) was cooked with more precision than the fish? It was a dish of tender heart sections and outlying leaves cooked as if they’d had fatty tissue to caramelize into crisp tension. Yellow raisins and shreds of salty cheese added flavors to the left and right of the sulfurous leaves, but the sweeter side of the Sow took over again, going to a hard candy place when a little caramelization would’ve done just fine.
 
The chicken thighs added an element of surprise. Rather than being fried, the “crispy” part came from skin cooked to a righteous shell that left the meat juicy above and beyond the blanket of fat blond gravy at its base. The thighs had been deboned and pressed to give the skin a consistent plain, toasted like a Hill Country summer.
 
Can we get together on the meaning of “smashed potatoes”? Creamed, whipped, beaten. All high-action words for the spuds you might expect from “smashed.” No, instead these were small thick-skinned goldies afflicted with office verbs: pressured, crushed, deflated. Whole potatoes laid low by TPS reports and the bus-stop crush of rubenesque thighs. They get the job done, just not the job you hired them for.
 
Speaking of hired help, I got tag-along vibes from a pair of petite bone-in filets ($18), the little islands of beef on the west side of a T-bone. Competently cooked with a side of woodsy mushrooms and a thin marrow-wine sauce, they were the middle achievers in a gifted environment, along with a watery side dish of cut-up heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella ($7). This time of year, I like my tomatoes sliced wide and flat and dressed casually, not tossed in a slurry like pico de gallo. Turnips never beat a summer tomato until now, when sliced and glazed turnips ($5) took over the table’s sideshow.
 
The menu saves a seat for cured, smoked and moussed-up meats, and they were represented well by a special of smoked sturgeon ($9) with pickled red and gold beets from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, served over a light potato pancake with lemon creme fraiche, capers and onions. Like so much here, it was one level too sweet, but a well-composed bite nonetheless that lightened the smoke-and-satin characteristics of the fish. An educated version of a lazy Sunday brunch classic.
 
 
I figured that oysters would be a lost cause in an appetizer of oyster-boudin fritters ($8), subsumed by the frying and the boudin’s bully-pulpit pedigree. I was wrong. They were soft and cool beneath that amber shell, asserting their own briny flavor in the bar-snack mix. On the other hand, the oyster’s ascension might have meant the boudin wasn’t doing its job, with the pork and spice sitting in the back seat while the rice did the driving. The smoky chipotle remoulade that came alongside was almost a separate entity, ready with heat carried both by temperature and real jalapeño spark. An ideal bite with a cool glass of Independence Peach Saison, a beer with just a whisper of fruit in its dry, effervescent delivery. The Salty Sow carries a robust lineup of Austin beers on tap for $6, including Independence, Thirsty Planet, Real Ale, Circle and Austin Beerworks. The wine list lets you go big or small at $28 to $135 a bottle, with good showings from Duckhorn, Trefethen, Trimbach and the king of value-priced American sparkling wine from Gruet.
 
Cocktails dance to the Sow’s Southern tune with names like the Salty Sow’r (whisky, lime, tamarind), the Blue Sow (Tito’s vodka and pickled okra stuffed with blue cheese) and a smoky twist on a margarita called the Curly Tail, with mezcal, a smoked-salt rim, blood orange and serrano pepper slices frozen into an ice cube for a slow burn. It was much more interesting than the frozen house margarita ($7), lonely without smoke in its plain-salt beginner’s glass. The cocktails are $8, a good deal made even better during daily happy hours from 4:30 to 6:30, when they’re a dollar off on weekdays and $2 off on weekends. In my ongoing education in the brown liquors, I appreciated how a Maple-Glazed Old-Fashioned let me take my time, with one big square ice cube cooling the drink with its time-released melt. It’s a sweet cocktail by birth, with a candy-stick Maker’s Mark base, but the acidity from a splash of pomegranate juice kept the maple syrup from doing a Waffle House dance.
 
When a more appropriate time for a spoonful of sugar came, bananas Foster beignets ($6) were like carnival funnel cakes met a Monte Cristo sandwich. Or Elvis’ favorite sandwich praying for peanut butter.
 
The textures were right: hot, crisp, fluffy, gooey. The taste was pure oil and dough with the drying roof-of-the-mouth suction of powdered sugar, all drizzled with cane syrup with a side of nutmeg ice cream melting from heat and overstimulation. A lighter and better finish was a $5 trio of that nutmeg ice cream with peach sorbet and rum-raisin ice cream.
 
Service was solid and attentive, mostly, even with a second-day trainee whose apologies weren’t necessary, given Austin’s overall state of service, with so many new places and too many complacent faces. But that didn’t carry through to each visit unfortunately, and one night I sat untended for 10 minutes after being seated in a mostly empty restaurant, listening to the patio fans rattle and the piped-in blues-rock wail away. Most of the floor staff was gathered for a meeting off the main dining room, a meeting where I’m sure they talked about customer service but not about irony. On another night, I loved the tag-team hostesses whose job it was to make people feel welcome, and they were good at it.
 
Salty Sow’s rambling pen encompasses six dining and lounging areas: a covered patio, a veranda, a courtyard with wood-block tables and misters, a separate carriage house that serves as “The Trough” lounge, with a communal table in the center and cozier two- and four-tops along the windows. There’s a private dining room with a long table, then the front room, with slide-in booths and a front entrance shaded by what looks like a half-moon shower curtain. So many archi-textures here: corrugated steel, stained picnic table wood, hog wire, rock beds, caged lanterns, wood slats, HardiePlank, all in colors you might find in a hog-ranch diorama. The Sow has done more than move into somebody else’s old church. It’s made a home for a congregation of its own.
 
Salty Sow
1917 Manor Road. 512-391-2337, www.saltysow.com.
Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
 
(TOP PHOTO: Crispy chicken thighs with smashed potatoes and "neck-bone" gravy. FIRST INSET: Niman Ranch pork blade steak, hamhocks and polenta in a jar, oyster-boudin fritters. SECOND INSET: The side dining room, Brussels sprouts, a pig statue in the front planter bed. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)