Austin food "experiences"
So far, I'm only critical of Central Market's prepared food services. A recent class at the cooking school with Susanna Trilling proved that the cooking school is a well run operation. The classroom is very comfortable and well appointed; for me the front row is the only place to be in spite of the occasional lard splatter (no problem, she was actually cooking, after all), counter wipedown and jar opening duties, the front row offered not only great views but the opportunity to chat with Ms. Trilling during short breaks, along with the occasional but gratifying chance to tell her what was beginning to burn when she looked away to answer questions.
The menu was a salpicon of smoked fish (served warm over field greens), a pumpkin and black bean tamale, chicken with a molita of peanuts and pepitas and a candied key lime stuffed with sweetened, shredded coconut. The standout was the tamale; masa was mixed with lard, sweetened pumkin flesh (actually, she had to substitute acorn squash) and what seemed like an alarming amount of sea salt. This surrounded a very spicy black bean mixture and produced an explosive, delicious contrast of flavors that was simply amazing. One key ingredient was freshly rendered lard (she sent someone to Fiesta to get it) and one key technique was to manually beat air into the masa so that it was very light in comparison to what we generally see in Texas. Overall, the experience was very nice and I am already scheduled for another class this month. I'm also planning a trip to Ms. Trilling's school in Oaxaca.
Last night was an interesting dinner at Ventana, the Texas Culinary Academy's student run restaurant. I've listed it as an experience because if you go into this thinking critically, you won't enjoy yourself. Our waitress was clearly early in the learning curve; she was so nervous that her voice was shaky. With a little coaching from us, she managed to uncork a nice bottle of Chilean Malbec without disaster and the rest of the service became fairly smooth as she realized we were going to be very patient. A starter of smoked salmon on toast points with a field green salad dressed in a light lemon vinegarette was very nice, if a bit stingy on the salmon. Escargots en croute were excellent; the dish was a virtual fistful of snails, wrapped together in puff pastry and surrounded by a nice demi glace. From there we went to roasted duck breast that was slightly overdone for my taste, but perfectly acceptable. What was amazingly bad was a riosotto topping a slice of roasted eggplant. The eggplant was a nice and interesting touch but the riosotto had been cooked into congee, in fact an amazingly glutenous congee. I think it's still in my stomach. Desserts were very nice with a cake made with a chocolate double stout beer being amazingly dense but not overly rich, a very good product; while creme brulee lacked the level of caramelization I prefer, although my dining parner assured me it was just fine. The tab came to $90 without tip and was a reasonable price, especially when you consider that the profit goes to a scholarship fund and the mistakes in food and service were forgivable with the exception of the riosotto. The chef instructor should never have let the stuff out of the kitchen. Then again, I should never have eaten it. Overall, I'll go back to support the effort these caring students put out as they learn the ropes. It was fun to observe and the cause is worthwhile.
I also enjoyed my dining experience at Ventana. You do have to go with a little time and an open mind. Our waiter was a little nervous and made a few mistakes, but they are training to be chefs. I think it's really a good idea for them to learn what the waitstaff has to go through for part of the training. I've been there a number of times and my meal has always been very good. Also, I like the idea that the profits and tips go to the scholorship fund.
I shepherd a group of ladies (usually 10 to 20 of us) out to lunch every month. Usually we go from Kerrville to San Antonio, but last May we traveled to Austin to enjoy Ventana. I had made reservations for a large group (23) and the restaurant manager had furnished us with choices of three or four appetizers/soup/or salads; three entree choices and two dessert choices...all for $15 per person. We had a delightful lunch, attentive service and a wonderful tour of the facilities and gift shop. I would highly recommend Ventana for an enjoyable lunch. I have not eaten dinner there but will do so the next time I'm in Austin for the evening. I understand that the menu changes every six to eight weeks, so cannot really recomment any specific dishes, although we were offered the chocolate/stout cake that another poster mentioned. Those of us who ordered it were more than pleased.
For anyone interested, Ventana is the restaurant in the Texas Culinary Academy which is the only "Cordon Bleu" certified cooking school in Tx.