I’ve decided that I want to start segment of my blog dedicated to Restaurant Reviews (RR). It’s kind of cathartic for me to sit down and to critique somebody else’s food for once after having been on the receiving end of that criticism. Not like I’m a food snob that actually know that much about what I’m talking about half of the time. In fact, since these meals are entirely by memory, I may not even get all the components right on a dish. If you see any information that is incorrect, please let me know! Take my opinion for what it’s worth :)
It’s fitting that my first restaurant review is of one of my favorite restaurants in Austin. I’ll try to keep the review as objective as possible, since I’m currently staging here and hope to work here in the near future. This was only my second visit to Barley Swine as a customer, but only takes one time to make an impression. Both times, I’ve ordered the entire menu (it changes very frequently), so no two dishes I’ve had were the same.
I tried to remember to take a picture of every dish, before we dug in, but wasn’t always successful. The food is just too tempting. There was one dish that I didn’t get to take a picture of, and a few that we accidentally started eating before I remembered to take a picture.
Off we go, on a journey down Barley Swine’s whole menu! Don’t expect to see the same menu when you go, but expect the same style of food, with the same attention to flavor and precise presentations.
Please excuse the quality of the camera shots. First of all, it’s a cell phone camera (not an iPhone, either!) and the lighting was less than ideal as well.
First course: Heirloom tomato, peach, pimento goat cheese, focaccia
A grilled cheese sandwich with pimento goat cheese filling, peach puree, heirloom tomato salad, and a tomato and vermouth foam. What’s not to love about this dish? The mini-sandwich was grilled crisp and crunchy, with an appropriate amount of gooey, cheesy filling on the inside. The heirloom tomato was delicious, and the sweetness from the peach puree went really well with it. The tomato foam just took the flavor of the tomato and added a lightness to it that just melted away on your tongue. Overall, a solid dish, but nothing really mindblowing.
Second course :Scrambled duck egg, morels, goat feta, green bean salad
I’ve actually had this dish before. Once night, when I was staging, Bryce Gilmore just handed me this dish with a fork and said “This dish is for you.” I loved it then, I loved it tonight. Creamy and flavorful duck egg scrambled with morels, which added a delicious earthiness to the dish. The crunch from the nuts (I believe they were walnuts), the crisp green beans. The colors of the arugula and purple potato, some more crunch and bitterness from the fried sprout leaves. The dill foam, which added the necessary acidity to balance out the richness of this dish. This is what a complete and composed dish looks like.
Third course: Beef tongue, beets, mustard, grilled greens
This was one of those dishes that we dove into before I remembered to take a picture, so it looks messy now. Some sort of beet and cheese salad is a staple at Barley Swine and any other restaurant that is making its way into the modern food scene. This fulfills the basic elements of a beet salad with three different kinds of beets (red, pink, shaved/pickled gold), and little goat cheese fritters, but what sets it apart is the grilled beef tongue and beet greens. Ohhhh, the beef tongue. Sous-vided until succulently tender, and then finished on the grill. Might have been my favorite bite of meat all night. And the grilled beet greens are almost always found on BS’s beet salad (had it 3 different times, with grilled greens each time). Since Chef Gilmore buys the beets in a bunch, it makes sense to use the whole bunch, tops and all. The greens have a natural bitterness and smokiness to them, and tossed with some oil and lemon and finished on the grill, they have a heartiness that almost makes the meat unnecessary. Almost. The yellow beets were pickled with a delicious balance of sweet and sour, and the iridescent pink puree on the bottom is also made from beets.
Fourth course: Gulf shrimp, pickled beans, romaine, buttermilk
Alas, this was the course that I neglected to take a picture of before we had already destroyed it to the point where there was no point. One way BS makes this dish unique is by frying the shrimp heads and serving them alongside the grilled shrimp (again, going for the “waste nothing” approach). Since there were only two, I gave them to my companions since I had had a similar dish last time I visited. Trust me though, fried shrimp heads are delicious and absolutely full of flavor. The standout part of this dish to me were the sauces though. There was a shmear of etouffee sauce that had a wonderful spice to it, and there was some buttermilk fluid gel on the plate that had a surprisingly strong and noticeable tart and creamy flavor. The shrimp were cooked well, the pickled beans were perhaps a tad bit undercooked, and the baby romaine mainly served as a color and textural component.
Fifth course: Corn soup, pickled cukes, coconut, cilantro
This soup was served tableside. The plate came out with the pickles on the bottom, and everything in it, except the actual soup! That mystery was finally solved when our server pulled out a ramekin and poured the broth in. She used a bit of a weird technique that made the broth splash up on the side (seen in the picture).
This soup was probably one of the most delicious soups I have ever had in my whole life. It was so good that I could just eat bowls and bowls and bowls of it, but it just had so many intense and complimentary flavors that it could almost serve as a sauce. The richness from the coconut and the brightness from the perfectly pickled cucumbers, ginger, and sweet corn was just incredible. On flavor alone, it might have been my favorite dish of the evening and was definitely the most surprisingly good dish. I mean, who hears corn soup and goes “whoooo!”? Well if you go to BS and order the corn soup, you have reason to cheer.
Sixth course: Scallops, grits, pickled corn, onion scapes
This dish was done well. Scallops are my absolute favorite seafood (so much umami!), and the ones on the plate had a gorgeous sear on them without being dry. There was some grits on the plate which provided a nice, creamy contrast, what I think were some caramelized mushrooms, pickled corn, and a scallop “chip” made from shrimp stock, scallop puree, and tapioca starch. My companions liked the chip, and while I found the scallop flavor unique, the texture was that of your typical oriental shrimp chip and I thought they tasted slightly burnt. The scallops were definitely the star of the dish.
Seventh course: Pork belly, zucchini, pine nuts, nicoise olives
Pork belly may well be Barley Swine’s signature ingredient. Bryce Gilmore loves his pig (look no further than the name), and his pork belly sliders that came out of his Odd Duck food truck is what made him famous. Here, the pork belly is fork tender, smoky from the grill, and flavorful. With the summer squash, the sunflower sprouts, the oyster mushrooms, and the bright zucchini puree on the bottom, this dish just screamed summer. Seasonal menu indeed. The nicoise olives (chopped and dehydrated) were intensely flavorful and helped round out the dish, but once again I found the pine nuts to be a little bit overtoasted.
Eighth course: Grilled quail, duck liver dirty rice, charred leek, hoe cake
Ohhhhh man. Duck liver dirty rice…need I say more? I had this same quail about two weeks ago as part of “family meal” one night (the perks of working there :D), and fell in love with it. The dirty rice inside is SO good. Aggressively seasoned with cajun spices, and so rich and satisfying with bits of the duck liver distributed throughout. The quail was cooked perfectly (sous-vide and then finished on the grill), juicy and moist with plenty of meat. James looked at me when this first arrived and muttered “Is there any meat on this thing?” After taking a bite, an “Oh!” followed a big smile. The hoe cakes are delicious too. There was some maple syrup in the batter to give it a different flavor dimension and sweetness, and the poached quail egg on top was beautifully cooked and provided a rich “sauce” for the hoe cake. It was almost like a chicken and waffles kind of dish, but much, much better. The charred leek and balsamic puree on the bottom of the plate added some nice flavor to the dish. Nobody at our table was a big fan of okra in general (I don’t like foods with mucilaginous textures), but even the pickled okra was palatable, though definitely not my favorite :).
Ninth course: Goat neck and shoulder, buckwheat, green olive, carrot
The goat came out shredded and compressed into a cake. When we cut into it, the meat just broke apart and became these tender, flavorful shreds of meat. The chunky white stuff you see is a wild onion creme fraiche, and the orange is a carrot puree. There were grilled baby carrots (real baby carrots, not the fake ones in stores), and a buckwheat/green olive salad. The goat was really tasty and had a nice amount of gameyness balanced out by the creme fraiche. The buckwheat salad was extremely crunchy, almost gritty, but not unpleasantly so. The carrots still had some good texture and were quite sweet.
Tenth course: Grilled lamb, tomato, fried chickpea cake, basil
This was absolutely my favorite dish of the evening. There are actually two kinds of grilled lamb in this dish: a lamb steak (either ribeye or tenderloin, I think), and a square of merguez, a spiced lamb sausage. Both were tender, flavorful, and delicious. I’ve sampled the merguez on its own from snacking on the scraps leftover from trimming it, and wasn’t super impressed. But after being roasted on the grill and paired with the delicious mushroom sauce, it blew me away. The little fried fingers of chickpea mousse were crunchy on the outside and soft/creamy on the inside. The basil puree and the sweet sungold tomatoes added brightness to this dish, while the beech mushrooms were earthy in a way that enhanced the lamb flavor. With some fresh basil and cilantro to top it off, delicious. My favorite dish of the night.
Eleventh course: Chicken-fried pig face, slow-cooked egg, grilled radicchio
Despite the intimidating name, it’s nothing more than the meat from a pig’s head (primarily cheek) that has been battered and fried. The meat was tender and succulent from all the fat in the meat, and tasted very “porky”. The slow cooked egg was another feat of culinary gastronomy, as it was set but completely jiggly and tender throughout. There was a pronounced bitterness in the dish from both the grilled radicchio and the frisee. It was finished with some pickled carrot and onion puree.
Twelfth course: Sainte Maure goat cheese, grilled zucchini bread, chamomile
This was our “cheese course” that led into the rest of the desserts. The goat cheese was unique, as you can see. It resembled a goat brie, with a chewy rind and a meltingly creamy center. The zucchini bread was a little bit dry. The candied walnuts were good, but the star of the plate was the chamomile and lime fluid gel. Wow, was it powerful! Everybody that tried it raised their eyebrows and released an audible “Whoa!” It struck the perfect balance of sweet and tart, and have my fork returning repeatedly to scrape the bottom of the plate, just to get that mini flavor explosion over and over again.
Thirteenth course: Corn brulee, chocolate, mint
A play on the traditional creme brulee, this surprisingly was my favorite dessert of the evening. The custard was perfectly smooth, with just the right amount of corn flavor. The little clusters were made of caramel popcorn and almonds bound by white chocolate. I would have been happy to just snack on those all day long. The chocolate mint tastes like those Andes minty chocolates, and the goat milk caramel on the bottom was fantastic. The custards were resting on a little circle of short pastry and it reminded me of an upscale version of chinese egg tart. Just a fantastic, fantastic dessert.
14th course: Chocolate swiss cake roll, barley ice cream, hazelnut
This dessert is quite simple and speaks to our childhood obsession with Little Debbie snacks. While staging and observing the garde-manger station, I’ve seen countless plates of these leave the kitchen, always wanting to just snatch the cake roll off the plate and stuff it in my mouth. Hello, inner fat kid. The technique required to perfect a swiss roll is not to be underestimated (I’ve tried before with limited success). The barley ice cream was delicious (I’ve eaten my fair share while working. We get the scraps after the pan has been cut into rectangles!), with notes of honey and malt. The overall effect was similar to a chocolate malt sundae. The caramel coated hazelnuts were tasty as well. Overall, this dessert didn’t really stand out too much, since it was the most “normal” out of all of our desserts. However, it was still a great dessert and all chocolate lovers will enjoy it.
15th course: Grilled foie gras, oatmeal cookie, berries
Similar to the chocolate dessert, I’ve seen countless dishes of this dessert leave the kitchen as well. I love how foie lends itself to so many different sweet and savory applications. The base of this dish is a raspberry coulis/fluid gel, and it’s topped with 3 mini chewy oatmeal cookies, pecan granola, toffee crunch, pickled berries, strawberry ice cream, tarragon, and of course, the grilled foie. I love the contrast of different flavors in this dish, and this is one of those desserts where it’s not necessary to try and get a little bit of each component into each bite. Each component goes so well with the others. Some foie with the ice cream, some oatmeal cookie with the berry, some granola with the tarragon and ice cream, some toffee, foe, and raspberry coulis, etc. So many different, contrasting flavor combinations in one dish. I especially loved the tarragon and strawberry combination. It’s going to have to be one that I experiment with in the future.
Recap: Barley Swine is the perfect place to go on a casual date if you want to experience upscale, artistically crafted food. It’s not a place to go if you’re ravenously starving. It’s not a place to go for a formal event. It’s not the place you should go if you’re on a tight schedule. Barley swine is a place to have relaxed conversation and enjoy your food and drink slowly. The kitchen is open, which to a pessimist means it’s noisy but to the optimist it helps the diners connect with the food by being able to see (and hear!) their dish being created. At Barley Swine, one should not eat with the objective of getting full, but with the objective to gain the maximum enjoyment of your food using all of your senses. My three friends have never experienced real fine dining before (in fact, before going in they were lamenting about how next time we meet for dinner we need to go to a buffet), but they all walked away impressed with the experience. I told them it would be one of the most intense food experiences of their life. They didn’t believe me at first, but in the end they concurred. At final count, we partook of proteins from 9 different animal sources.
One of the best things about Barley Swine is how much they support local farmers through their farm-to-table philosophy and seasonal menu. The menu undergoes minor changes every week as Chef Gilmore adapts to what the farmers can provide. Having shopped with him at the farmer’s market, I can see his dedication to using the highest quality ingredients, no matter what the cost. Even simple things like eggs and onions he buys from the farmers, where a dozen eggs costs 5 dollars. Though he can get eggs for about 1/4 of the price at the regular grocery store, he chooses not to, and I respect him greatly for that. So while the meal may seem pricey compared to some of the more low-key restaurants around town, be assured that you’re not being “cheated” or whatnot. The restaurant’s bottom line is extremely high, and even if you can only treat yourself to a meal like this once or twice a year, it is worth it.
One thing to note is that they do not accept reservations, and tables are on a first come, first serve basis. You can put your name and phone number on the list and leave the area (grab a drink, grab a snack to take the edge off your hunger, etc), and the hostess will call you when your table is almost ready. There is an extensive beer list for those that enjoy beer (hence the “Barley” in Barley Swine).
LOL at how we were referred to as the “KIDDO’S” table, hahaha.
The $15 comp was my “employee discount” I guess, haha. $165+$28 tip=$193 total, ~$48pp. Expect to pay more for alcoholic beverages.
Overall rating: 9/10
Barley Swine, 2024 S. Lamar Blvd, Austin. www.barleyswine.com
Full disclaimer: While I do “work” at Barley Swine, this is in no way intended to be an advertisement. I’m not even getting paid right now, I’m just there to learn from Bryce and his team. I approached Bryce, asking him to let me stage there because I believe in the philosophy in his food, and that has not changed. I most likely won’t be working here long term, so please don’t think that I have some ulterior motive to writing about Barley Swine. Thanks!