On The Chopping Block
I have always been quite skeptical of Austin cooking. It doesn’t seem to make sense that a city so relaxed and laid back could ever become a culinary center. Upscale cuisines take precision and expertise – traits you wouldn’t expect from a population that is dominated by a sea of burnt orange-clad individuals that fall somewhere between 18 to 22 years old.
It’s a college town so I expected college eating. Pizza, sandwiches, Buffalo wings, and burgers – you know, that kind of cuisine. The food dollar bills and coins can buy after waking up in a morning daze of inebriation, bewilderment and confusion as to why you’re still alive after drinking every form of alcohol available on 6th Street.
Upon arrival I assented with myself, “Just give me the barbecue and Tex-Mex and we’ll call it fair game.” Lone Star and Shiner Bock would help wash it all down in normal fashion.
But I met my match on a cool Friday night this October. The menu, according to the chef, had just been thrown together the day before after a hiccup in obtaining ingredients earlier in the week.
He bought the wrong amount of potatoes. He didn’t have enough bowls. The sous-chef forced him to drink a pitcher of a beer before cooking.
Was this a sane idea? Should I have left the second after stepping through the door? It was being held at the guy’s house out of all places.
At the helm for the evening is newly established chef, Max Marshall, a native of Austin. He speaks softly yet with a touch of wit and charming cheek. Tonight he’s donning a black apron atop a black t-shirt with black jeans and slicked back hair. A small strand coolly rests in front of his face. He sips slowly on a tasse du vin while moseying about the kitchen.
All the while my fellow patrons casually stroll in – coolly acknowledging each other in such a familial way. It’s relaxed here with no need for showboat presentation. They sit down on the couch and listen to music. Someone turns on the Nintendo and hands a controller to a friend. A young lady mentions to Mr. Marshall that tonight’s bottle of wine, which she brought, “Is some expensive shit.”
Such a lack of formality is what defines Mr. Marshall’s auberge of sorts. His patrons, composed entirely of close friends, come for the pleasurable food and sociable atmosphere. Far unlike the customary theatrics of Manhattan – or even Brooklyn nowadays – Austin has retained its sense of self.
Dinner doesn’t arrive at the expected 9PM serving time. Nor does it make it at 10PM. Somewhere in-between the two-hour hands a platter of French baguette crostini and a plate of Brie make it to the table. Then a bowl of dipping oil made with parsley and garlic.
“This shit is good!” says the young lady who brought the bottle of wine.
“What’s in this?”
Eventually I manage to grab a taste for myself, although the necessity for exclamatory remarks seems to miss its cue. Hm. Perhaps I’m sampling the wrong shit?
As drinks are passed around – a mix of red wine, a bottled bock beer and Lone Star from a can – Mr. Marshall announces that dinner will be ready soon. By now it’s already twenty past 10 and the aroma of reduced stock has wafted about long enough.
The sweet smell of caramelized cipollini onions mixes with the astringency of balsamic as the meal is finally plated. Oh my, there’s a tinge of rosemary also.
With the help of his sous-chef, the plates arrive to the delight of the guests. Atop the mismatched plates: A plop of mashed potatoes here, some onion bulbs there, a cluster of tossed salad in this corner, a meager drop of sauce along the plate’s edge, two prosciutto wrapped asparagus placed over that. The meal looks quite earnest.
But I have to remind myself – this meal isn’t about the formalities of cooking, or dining, or even rectified restaurant practice. Just take a damn bite already.
The mashed potatoes are chunky yet creamy. A hint of parsley and rosemary come through.
The asparagus is a bit limp yet nicely salted, the prosciutto a bit bland albeit crispy.
The salad has the right balance of plump, yellow grape tomatoes, fresh mesclun mix and a bite of earthiness a la sunflower seeds. A creamy poppy dressing brings it all together for a mellow and buttery bite.
But the main star is the veal. Though a bit desiccative on the inside, the outer spices and rosemary-infused sauce preserves the chops. Maybe they weren’t cooked at a high enough heat or given enough space on the pan. Or maybe they’re just not thick enough to be proper chops.
And yet, the center is not brown. Nor is it a deadpan shade of sepia or drained hazel. It maintains its common medium-rare to medium center, like a good man that goes to work each day with an identical normality of the calendar.
It would be a lie to say Mr. Marshall has hit his culinary climax. The meal is good – it passes for following a recipe – yet it does not dumbfound. It hits on the intended flavor points, but it does little beyond that.
Such a meal reminds me of something a well-rounded mother might cook after mulling through culinary magazines for a few days. She surely knows how to impress the crowd – but beyond that she is but a home cook.
So maybe that’s where Mr. Marshall stands for now. His cooking is far better than what the hoi polloi can create, by far. But if he wishes to improve upon his technique and mastery he must realize the fundamental necessities of a great cook and restaurateur.
It is one thing to play up a theme of casual elegance or relaxed dining, but there is no skimping on the dainties of cuisine. Timing is key, planning is indispensable.
Dessert, if I can even recall, was forgettable. No course followed dinner either, nor an offering of coffee or tea.
Instead it went straight to the whiskey – Jameson to be exact. A real rough and tidy group needs no poppycock decorum it seems.
As bones were still being chewed at the table – while dessert was being sampled by a few - Mr. Marshall’s young feline joined in on the mix. Fumbling about the plates, the grimalkin became quite the subject of a post-dinner photo shoot and evening entertainment.
I must impart, “Informal procedure” may be an inadequate designation.
By the time the plates had made their way back to the kitchen, an incoming troupe of eight or so kindred spirits came in through the door with 18-pack in hand. It was Lone Star, of course, as it is the cheapest and most palatable of the lowbrow brews in Texas.
Yet a fun fact, whether the young individuals know it or not, is that the beer has been brewed in Illinois since 2000. Which makes the beverage more of an ill-judged novelty drink than an authentic re-creation of the 1884 original.
I’d say such a comparison falls roughly where Mr. Marshall’s cooking stands for now. It’s a novelty meal for these folks – something you don’t find at the usual college dining table. But it’s also a bit of a misconception to say it is culinary elite.
Natheless, give the man some time and he’ll surely get it right. He needs to rethink his approach.
Which is why, perhaps a wise first step for him is to fire the faulty sous-chef.