Review: Épicerie Cafe & Grocery

Épicerie Cafe & Grocery
2307 Hancock Drive. 512-371-6840,
Hours: 10:30am-9:30pm Mon-Thu. 10:30am-10:30pm Fri-Sat. 10:30am-5pm Sun.
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.21.13
A woman I met for lunch at the new Épicerie Cafe & Grocery remembered going there when it was a hair salon called Innu. The memory sparked a conversation about cafes in residential areas and a story about being chased away from parking near Foreign & Domestic by a homeowner. This demure policy operative and her Army captain fiancé were ruining the neighborhood, the homeowner explained loudly. Like bass players and backyard chickens. Menaces.
The encroachment of boutique restaurants and trailers into residential streets can’t sustain itself forever. At some point, the townies will get tired of their streets being used as feeder lots for the food culture and do something about it.
Épicerie got a taste of that last summer when its Rosedale neighbors put picket signs in their yards like talismans against the impending noise and parking, but it opened without riots in late December. The noise is mainly an issue on the inside, where it caroms off glass cases, the marble-topped ordering counter and wood floors like trapped honeybees, propelled by the spare right angles of a Michael Hsu design. The parking issue is real enough, because the polyhedral lot is more suited to a few stylists’ chairs than a 40-seat restaurant, especially when the crowds thicken after dark.
If Épicerie looks and feels like a French cafe, or at least a fresh New Orleans take on the form, that impression rings especially true in a $5 quartet of hot beignets, lying like antique pillows with soft warm centers and a duvet of bright powdered sugar. With a Chemex pourover of hot Blue Bottle Coffee, it felt like the start of a good day or a proper finish to a respectable lunch. But for a shop with the word “grocery” in its name twice — once in French, again in English — the grocery part of the operation eluded me. But I wasn’t in the market for cheese at $25 a half-pound, $12 bricks of dried fruit, coffee at $24 a pound or beer and wine at 50 to 75 percent above retail. It was like shopping at a souvenir stand.
That sense of pricey affectation isn’t fair to Épicerie’s real draw, which is well-executed, clean bistro food with solid value from chef and owner Sarah McIntosh. Oxtail stew, for example, was a beautiful dish of farm-basket colors: the Instagram red of roasted tomatoes, the alabaster white of cubed turnips, the burnished bronze of densely fibered beef, laid against a canvas of coarse-cut grits for $12. A cool quinoa salad moved beyond the novelty of the wonder grain, letting its pearled texture support sharp, assertive grapefruit and fennel, held together by a base of yogurt and top notes of toasted pistachio for earthen crunch ($9).
A trio of charcuterie lined a long, tri-tone cutting board, starring lacy cross-sections of fromage de tête, a pork head cheese done more in the fat-cased style than the Jell-O-mold format. Closest I can think of is prosciutto, and if you like that, you’ll like this, served with pickled shallots. A confiture of pear and sliced backcurrants played sweet contrast to chicken liver mousse with the texture and taste of sweet oxidized butter. The board was finished out with olive relish and a pork rillette like carnitas if carnitas had traded life in the pen for a week at the spa. At $10, it’s an affordable luxury, a rare value in Austin’s growing housemade charcuterie market. A $5 glass of H.M.S. Victorious chenin blanc threaded a cold, bright line right down the middle of the board, a wine chosen from 10 or so available by the glass at $5-$10.
Along with beignets, the dessert case brought a cookie as cobbled as a chocolate chip quarry in salted dough, like a safe-for-work version of licking the beaters. A lemon bar found the right balance of sweet and tart on a flaked platform, but the real marquee attraction was a shortbread bar like eating toasted butter by the stick.
Part of Epicerie’s draw is a sandwich menu that includes grilled cheese, fried shrimp and blackened fish. Last week, there was dark-meat duck pulled from its confit slumber and laid over pear butter. The effect was like brandied bird, a confection on crusty bread, its sweetness countered by bitter charred radicchio, a constellation of parsley leaves and the yellow-gold ubiquity of a fried egg. It was a pretty sandwich, a nickel shy of $12 with no sides, but filling nonetheless.
I can’t weave the same laurels for a $13 Kobe beef sandwich, in part because “Kobe” is one of those labels so randomly applied that it’s come to mean the same as calling any sparkling wine Champagne, whether it’s French or not. It's some powerful marketing when Texans will fall all over themselves for beef with passport provenance, however tenuous.
The beef in this sandwich was red and robust and marbled with willowy veins of fat, but if real $100-a-pound Kobe beef from Japan is this hard to pull apart with strong canine teeth even when it’s shaved this thin, I wouldn’t pay a premium for it. Épicerie puts that beef on a word-class Easy Tiger baguette, a properly stubborn bread that made the sandwich a challenge to eat in polite company, even before the horseradish sauce geysered from the ragged edges. On the bright side, a $2 side of fries had a heart of gold and breath like salted air. Those fries made Épicerie’s $11 boutique cheeseburger a solid value in theory, built on a softball-sized roll with thick, crunchy pickles and Vermont cheddar. But the thick beef patty at its core was overcooked, its fire-branded hide surrendering to a dry, gray center.
Epicerie’s strength seems to be simplicity, the kind expressed by grilled cheese with fresh, crusty bread well-suited to butter-toasting and a generous blanket of yellow-gold comte cheese that started mild and finished with a big tannic bloom. The sandwich had the backbone for dunking into a thick tomato soup whose rough acidity made it hard to appreciate on its own.
There are swamp beans and there are show beans, and you don’t usually find the beauty queens in red beans and rice ($9). But these were as fat and sun-baked brown as a still-life painting, each one a Jelly Belly with a pot-o-beans center. Neither did the sausage hide in a murky roux, but instead stood in relief against the rice like Monument Valley in a Golden Age Western, the sear marks like shadows from the setting sun. As good as these individual elements were, they didn’t seem interested in working together to become greater than their sum, which I’d argue is the point of red beans and rice in the first place.
If you’re not looking for your lunch to make its own rules, a dish of roasted, bone-in dark meat chicken for $13 was content to be properly cooked without ornamentation, just hard little Brussels sprouts and heavy-handed lentils grown fat with pork, like a runaway piglet had crashed a nice French picnic.
My mascot for Épicerie would be an appetizer of melted raclette cheese, a kind of queso flameado for the pinkie set, a warm earthenware dish from the heart of the wheel with a whiff of the barnyard, served with waxy roasted fingerling potatoes and slices of fat-dabbled salami and bread for $8. It’s a farmhouse lunch for the creative class, the kind of thing that might appeal to Épicerie’s neighbors in Rosedale — if it were in somebody else’s neighborhood.
(TOP: Clockwise from left: Épicerie customers might recognize the ivy-covered wall from the Innu Salon it replaced; beignets; a side room with retail wine for sale; red beans and rice, left, and quinoa salad with grapefruit. FIRST INSET: Duck confit and pear butter sandwich; a lemon bar, salted chocolate chip cookie and shortbread; oxtail stew with turnips and grits. SECOND INSET: Melted raclette appetizer; the cheese case in the front room; roasted chicken with Brussels sprouts and lentils. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)