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An Austin Adventure of Gastronomical Proportions at Barley Swine

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In order to continue riding the wave of culinary creativity, sometimes we have to think outside the box. Sometimes we have to look outside the city. What is going on in the restaurants up the interstate? What ingredients and techniques are the chefs next door using? How do the dishes, drinks, and ambience all factor into a diner's emotional experience?

This past holiday weekend, I found myself in Austin, home to Bryce Gilmore, named one of Food and Wine's best new chefs of 2011. Perhaps best known for his Odd Duck Farm to Trailer food truck featured on a 2010 episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, Gilmore's mission is to provide local, organic, sustainable foods as accompaniment to libations in a relaxed setting.

Just days before the new year, Gilmore carried his mission from the trailer to a brick-and-mortar storefront which, as an homage to beer and pork, is aptly named Barley Swine. With newfound freedom that was previously stifled in a trailer kitchen, Gilmore's creative brilliance is now launching into new gastronomic territories.

Bryce is not new to life in the kitchen. His father, Jack Gilmore, was chef at Austin's Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill and now owns his own restaurant, Jack Allen's Kitchen. From dabbling in his father's kitchen to studying at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and then working restaurants across the U.S., Gilmore has taken his skills cross-country, but he eventually return to his hometown of Austin. Bryce and his brother purchased an old Fleetwood Mallard trailer (hence the name Odd Duck), revamped it by installing a wood grill, and opened doors in December 2009.

Once the truck business took off, he left his brother in charge and moved on to a bigger project: a gastropub with more room to store and explore. Located near Odd Duck in South Austin, the gastropub is unpretentious with its heavily wooden interior and metal piping accents. The bar is made from salvaged door panels, the tables pushed close together to encourage communal dining. Bryce's vision behind Barley Swine is for it to be a true gastropub: a casual place for friends to gather over good drinks and "top shelf" foods. It's supposed to be a bar more than a restaurant -- the food secondary to the social atmosphere -- but the menu just so happens to serve chicken fried duck confit instead of buffalo wings. With Gilmore's intensely creative concoctions, it seems the food here is what gets the spotlight.

The wine and beer lists themselves are no wimps though. Gilmore takes the local theme further with the beers. At least half are from Texas breweries such as Real Ale, Independence and Jester King. After taking a seat at the bar, I told the bartender, Geoffrey, that I preferred Belgian beers with a hint of wheat. He gave me a bottle of the Allagash White from Maine, but I didn't like the nickel aftertaste. Geoffrey generously offered to replace it with a Real Ale Devil's Backbone. This draft beer from Texas lacked the bitter bite -- I guess I'm a true Texas gal. Geoffrey served my husband, who prefers stouts and beers with more hops, the Real Ale Real Heavy.

The food menu (which changes every month according to whatever Gilmore can get his hands on) is unpretentious, just like the place itself: no fancy descriptions, just a list of the dish's ingredients, printed on cardboard stock. The admonishment "Changes and substitutions are politely declined," is written across the bottom, reinforcing Gilmore's confidence in his creations; he knows what he's doing, and he's not going to let you mess it up. Barley Swine does what they call "small plate offerings." Think tapas, or dainty portions made to share. Can't make up your mind about what to get? Get them all. Nobody will think you're crazy.

As with all great chefs, the joy is in giving up control and letting them take the reins. I asked for the chef's tasting menu, and the following courses are what he sent out:

1. Beer-battered zucchini, mussels, basil dressing

The zucchini and Prince Edward mussels were fried in a batter made from Brooklyn Lager (also available on tap). The crispy batter was keenly salted and flavorful but light enough so that it did not overpower the zucchini and mussels. The sweet drizzle of basil dressing complemented the saltiness of the foods wonderfully. One of the best dishes of the night.

2. Grilled carrot salad, goat ricotta, almond brown butter

The carrots were cooked just right, retaining the fresh crunch while coated with delicious butter. Because it was made into a ricotta, the goat cheese was not overbearing.

3. Quick-grilled scallops, shishito pepper, cucumber

These bay scallops were flash-cooked so they were still tender and dressed with a Japanese mild sweet pepper. The cucumber in combination with the barely-cooked scallop made each bite burst with freshness.

5. Sweetbreads, green bean salad, potato, buttermilk, braised bacon

Sweetbreads are an animal's thymus gland or pancreas, but by the way Gilmore prepares them would make you think they were the best damn chicken nuggets you've ever had. Another one of my favorites.

6. Spice-rubbed Bandera quail, beets, roasted shallot yogurt

The quail was seasoned with allspice for a Caribbean flavor. The sweet and tangy yogurt complemented the warm nuttiness of the bird.

7. Grilled lamb, goat cheese grits, nicoise olives, carrots

The lamb ribeye was sadly my least favorite dish due to its tough texture. I chewed and chewed and still had to swallow a chunk of it whole. By now, I was incredibly full anyway and ready for dessert.

8. Hazelnut chocolate crunch, honey-nut nougat, caramel pudding

I am not normally a fan of nougat nor caramel but this dessert is outstanding. The crispy wafer added just the right crunch to the otherwise creamy chocolate, and the tiny nougat nuggets brought a mildly nutty sweetness. This dessert is like Ferrero Rocher on steroids and though I usually prefer savory over sweet, this was ultimately my favorite dish of the night.

We muttered expletives because everything was so damn delicious. We relished every bite of every dish. We sipped our beers and chatted with the bartender. We watched the chef taste the food and add the finishing touches before sending the dish out to eager patrons. We were starry-eyed.

Not yet thirty, Gilmore is already making his mark in the culinary world. His ability to use the entire animal and experiment with flavor combinations while retaining the essence of each ingredient make him both an artist and a scientist. His signature is starting a dish with a modern cooking technique such as sous-vide and finishing it by employing a classic method like searing over a wood-burning fire. This results in the preservation of true taste and texture combined with a hint of smoky flavor.

With Bryce Gilmore's growing recognition, it is not uncommon to wait an hour or two to be seated in one of the thirty-something chairs inside. Luckily, there are seats on the porch, and upon request, the bartender will bring you a drink to ease the wait. Barley Swine has become one of my top pit stops in Austin. Check them out at the restaurant website.

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