Review: Foreign & Domestic
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.11.11
Foreign & Domestic. Even the name has attitude: F&D. Effin-D.
Ask Effin-D owner Ned Elliott about attitude. He gave a master's class in it a few months ago during an interview with Eater Austin. He talked about how he fell in love with the neighborhood: "I'm surprised there's not like a chalked outline of a body." About how he's glad people feel comfortable enough to linger: "I want to go tell them they're not going to pay for my daughter's education." About the respect he feels for his colleagues: "Thank you, Thomas Keller, here's the middle finger."
The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks can relate to what happened next. A whole flock of middle fingers. People don't like it when your smack-talk hits so close to home. He took a conciliatory tone on Facebook: "My regret is that I put my foot in my mouth. I hope that you will forgive me and visit my wife (chef and co-owner Jodi Elliott) and my restaurant with an open mind."
But here's the thing. Ned Elliott has nothing to atone for. He spoke truth to flower-power. Austin's a big girl now; she can handle it.
At first, I felt a little cheated that Elliott never said anything like that when I interviewed him for the Statesman. It was more like, "We never ever wanted to come down here and say, 'Hey, look at us, Austin. We have 10, you know, between us, 18 years' experience working in New York.' We just wanted to say this is the food that we like and we hope people enjoy it."
But I wasn't trying to position myself as a provocateur in the style of Eater Austin. Anybody can throw gas on the campfire and talk about how good the marshmallows taste. A MacBook beats a match any day (don't forget to close the cover while striking). Then again, some people get bent out of shape anytime you step outside the cocktail chatter that passes for restaurant feedback around here.
The closest Elliott and I got to confrontation was when he pushed back against being called "upscale," even when that was attached to "Upscale Newcomer of the Year" for the Austin 360 Dining Guide. "We don't want to be pigeonholed as a destination restaurant," he said at the time. Fine. Foreign & Domestic falls into a high-low hybrid category, where a place with rough edges and a little urban grit can have food with the same swagger as something with more money behind it.
The response has been solid, and the fallout from the Eater interview faded. "Biggest night in our short life so far," F&D said July 14 on Twitter. Even after a weeklong summer break, they came roaring back Wednesday night with a full house.
Aside from that Newcomer award and a short write-up before that, I've never given Foreign & Domestic a full review. Four visits went into this report. One right after it opened in May 2010, another in October and two more in the last six weeks. Over that time, most of the dishes have spoken eloquently of the creative intensity behind them.
Tartare dishes made from finely chopped venison heart and fried pig's ear ($9) and beef heart with an egg yolk like golden pudding ($8) reinforce F&D's love for the less-beloved parts of the animal. The heart, the fat, the tongue, the liver, and not always to great effect. Shards of crispy beef tongue ($8) were shaped like criss-crossed tongues, cooked somewhere between overdone brisket and jerky, as challenging as the chef's own salty flair for language. Unlike the ox-tongue slider we had at Contigo that converted even squeamish tweenagers, this was the kind of "other" meat dish that makes people shy away in the first place.
F&D can move with grace from a simple dish of sliced ham from Allan Benton's storied Tennessee farm to a complex sous-vide duck breast finished with carrot butter, lavender and fried duck skin like a carnivore's kettle corn. At $18, it was reasonably priced, elegant and filling. There's even room to praise a salad of baby greens ($7) with beets, watermelon radishes, pickled onions and other elements you'd expect from so many salads just like it. But this one was sweet and sour, crunchy and dense, a bowl of ascendant flavor and color. From seats at the counter of the open kitchen, we watched one being assembled in front of us, a flurry of slicing, spicing and tossing to order.
When your kitchen is also your dining room, you've either got an efficiency apartment or a really small restaurant. The seating can be uncomfortably close, and the economy of space spills onto the wine list. It's short and full of personality, with much of it in the $20s and nothing over $42. But we settle for "personality" when somebody isn't so classically pretty, right?
F&D's building doesn't have space to support a deep wine list, nor apparently a space cold enough to properly cool a bottle of feral Berroia Bizkaiko txakolina ($38). But I'll defend the choice of this Spanish outrider of a wine, because it brightened up an already solid bowl of pasta featuring a fondue of red pepper and tomato and the crunch of toasted almonds. Our waiter said that while F&D makes its own lasagna pasta, the little spiral noodles in the "Priest Strangler" start as dried pasta. They're precisely tender, making for a dish vibrant with red sauce and green basil leaf, their flavors bringing an herbal bouquet to bear on spoonfuls of bipolar textures from the almonds and noodles. There's a lot going on here for a simple $16 bowl of pasta.
Let's talk about bread. Nobody rides for free at F&D. For five or six dollars, I've ordered popovers as big as softballs and elegant Parmesan gougeres as small as gossamer golfballs. What sport spawned the caramelized onion brioche this week, I don't know. It looked like a muffin baked in a soup can, with a bloom on top where most of the onion lay in repose like a jelly doughnut, with a side of sweet peach butter, the least favorite of my pay-as-you-go sauce absorbers.
At times, the restaurant can be a puzzle whose pieces don't form a cohesive picture. Octopus with chorizo and bubbles of squid ink. Heirloom pork steak knuckled with gristle. Whipped hog fat. Their charms were lost on me, but none as much as lasagna with crab, braised beef, tarragon and dandelion greens ($18). A collision of textures and colors. Not a pas de deux or a tango — a collision. A little gamey, a little fishy, a little bitter. None of these were places I wanted to be.
I wasn't aware that lamb bubblegum had joined the big list of adventure meats. But that's what I took away from a grilled leg of lamb with fennel and yogurt ($20). We tried pieces from the ends of the plate, from the middle, even cut into smaller and smaller pieces. It was inedible for all the ribbons of gristle, and we ran out of polite places to put it. The waiter asked if he could bring us something else, a response that sets a serious restaurant apart from an amateur act.
When we didn't send the dish back, our waiter brought a banana tart to make up for it, with a feathery crunch, dressed out with spiced pecans and delicate mocha ice, all of it drizzled with chocolate. A mess to look at, a marvel to eat. We haven't talked about Jodi Elliott a lot, but she gets credit for that banana tart. She was also behind a blackberry-coconut sundae that held back a surprise burst of lime at the end like a stir-crazy inland version of key-lime pie. A fried rhubarb pie with sesame ice cream ($7) wasn't an attractive dessert, just a rustic crescent moon of crust crimped around a rhubarb filling as pink as your expression while you figure out whether it wants to be cherry or cranberry. But sesame ice cream with big toasty aggression ruled the dish.
When coffee came, it came in bodega-style cardboard cups with blue and white Greek designs that Ruth Reichl (or Ruth Bourdain) might rhapsodize about in one of her daffy Internet haikus. F&D knows how to channel the New York groove. Effin-A.
Foreign and Domestic
306 E. 53rd St. 459-1010, www.fndaustin.com.
Hours: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking. Top: Parmesan gougeres, sous vide duck with carrot puree. Inset: baby greens salad with beets, almonds, watermelon radishes and more.)