- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
If you or I strolled through the alley behind the Vortex Theater on Manor Road we’d probably see a nondescript concrete path colored with unidentifiable vegetation. Dai Due chef-owner Jesse Griffiths saw inspiration.
He foraged wild grapes from the alley the day he signed the lease at his butcher shop and restaurant located across the street. Griffiths used the grapes and a recipe from a Chez Panisse cookbook to create a starter for his restaurant’s sourdough bread.
He loved that the yeasts would be local to his neighborhood. It’s fitting that Griffiths would take a lesson from locavore pioneer Alice Waters. Griffiths’ restaurant culls local and seasonal ingredients and, using a from-scratch ethos, creates sensational dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is exemplary Texas food, the restaurant quintessentially Austin.
Dai Due, its name a nod to the Italian proverb “From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care,” started in 2006 as a supper club run by Griffiths and his wife, Tamara Mayfield. Griffiths found the phrase in a cookbook he discovered in Italy, where his appreciation for local and seasonal cooking blossomed.
Dai Due served about 40 supper club dinners a year and expanded its operation to a popular farmers market stand in 2008. Regulars of the farmers market will recognize venison breakfast sausages and biscuits and gravy ($9) on the breakfast menu at the new restaurant. Dai Due calls it their “day menu,” and you can order both breakfast and lunch from it during the morning and afternoon.
The jewel of a recent breakfast was a small bruléed grapefruit that looked like a ruby, its glassy torched surface dusted with salt crystals ($3). You can get your biscuit fix with the Central Texas breakfast ($13). Ours was a bawk-quack affair: one chicken egg and one duck egg with viscous golden yolks, served alongside crispy spires of sweet potatoes and a tender slice of charred ham suffused with sweet peach smoke from its finish on the grill.
If you’re fighting allergies (or a hangover), the carnitas torta provides spicy sinus-opening amelioration. The seeded white bread slathered with refried beans, barbacoa and pickled onions is meant to be a Mexican-style ahogada, meaning drowned. But at the suggestion of our server, we took the fiery chipotle beef stock salsa in a side bowl for dipping, allowing us to regulate the intensity of the burn. The friendly server’s advice was representative of the fact that the staff knows and appreciates the complexities of Dai Due’s fluid menu.
Other nods to Mexico included queso flameado ($12) that twisted and wrapped chorizo verde, piquant green chilies, and onions in its taffy-like folds. More melted cheese came in the form of a wonderful dish of paprika-flecked broiled Neufchatel and cheddar cheeses, the latter giving a nutty backbone to the creamy former.
A thick mound of Neufchatel did a Leaning Tower of Pisa act atop French toast at brunch. Sweet, sticky homemade cajeta draped its oozy embrace across fluffy, honeycombed bread laced with the snap of sliced apples. It was like eating caramel-apple flavored angel food cake.
I don’t usually get too excited about bread programs, but Dai Due’s, helmed by executive pastry chef Abby Love, is the best in the city. Start your dinner with a toasty arch of mesquite smoked bread — crunchy on the outside and flossy inside – served with whipped lard ($6). One night the cloud of lard blended with the rounded, flirtatious sweetness of pear, another with the more direct approach of brilliant honey.
Airy cornbread with whispered sweetness hid in a pool of beef chili sprinkled with slowly melting cheddar, onions and expressive pickled jalapeños. Chef de cuisine Andrew MacArthur (formerly of Fino) and his crew make the chili with ground chuck and shredded plate steak, an oft-overlooked cut that serves as proof of the benefits of having expert butchers stationed feet from the kitchen.
A cold meat board ($16), which included velvety summer sausage, restrained chorizo seco and a mind-bending chicken liver mousse drunk on peach-pit infused brandy, arrived with toasted triangles of caraway-seeded light rye. Perfect bread.
And it makes for the perfect hot pastrami sandwich. A sandwich is only as good as each component. Let’s break it down: The grilled rye, with its gentle anise allure, wasn’t soggy with butter or too brittle and dangerous around the edges. Between the slices: tangy Thousand Island dressing, crunchy and just-disruptive-enough sauerkraut, melted cheddar from Full Quiver Farms in Kemp, Texas, and just the right amount of fragrant pastrami. All products (except the cheese) made in house. All delivered in harmonious proportions. Best pastrami sandwich I’ve had in my life.
Pastry excellence stretches from the start of the meal through dessert, whether with a creamy pumpkin pie in a crumbly crust or a trio of cookies that included savory bacon-pecan, seasonal pumpkin-gingerbread, and (my favorite) a grapefruit cookie swept through with a citrus breeze.
The biggest (but relatively minor) issue I took with my food at Dai Due was the occasional need for acid and spice to cut the meaty dishes. A pork confit banh mi ($13), which needed more chicken liver mousse, benefited from the introduction of smoky chipotle sambal, and a rich patty melt was improved with bread-and-butter pickled jalapeños. I purchased both the sambal and jalapeños from Dai Due’s butcher shop, which left me thinking it would be a wise marketing move for the restaurant to make its excellent homemade condiments available tableside.
The street-facing half of the beautiful space is occupied by a butcher shop overseen by head butcher Julia Poplawsky. A metal rack delivers animals from the walk-in freezer behind the kitchen, past the grill, to the front of the store, where a team of butchers wield their knives with measured precision. You can peer into the butchers’ area from a handsome dining room colored with royal blue banquets and painted wall trim. The oak floor and pecan tables and live-edge counter at the foot of the open kitchen echo the restaurant’s naturalistic approach and the wood-burning grill.
Griffiths, who looks like Paul Giamatti in a hybrid role of mountain man and welder, created the triple-wide, cowboy-style open-fire grill that runs on a pulley system. Oak is Dai Due’s primary wood source, but they take the same approach to wood as they do with ingredients, using the best of what is available, meaning some days you’ll taste peach or mesquite. If diners want dinner straight from the butcher’s case, Griffiths and his team at both ends of the house will recommend meats and cut them to order.
The jars of spices and fermented homemade goods ringing the butcher and bakery space reminded me of a Texas version of award-winning San Francisco restaurant Bar Tartine. Dai Due’s electric kimchi pierced the smoky char of grilled scallions and rosy skirt steak marinated in a piquant sauce tingly with dried chilies and housemade rice wine vinegar ($18).
Dai Due also worked sauce alchemy with a sweet and tangy pinto-honey sauce that brightened a flawless pork shoulder confit ($21). The snap of thin-sliced apple and daikon, spark of jalapeno, and floral cilantro gave complexity in texture and flavor to the fatty pork that was crunchy around the edges and supple throughout.
The sauces on the steak and pork, like the wild grape yeast starter, are indicative of Dai Due’s local, homemade mentality. The earnestness and dedication to the mission are noble, but without execution, the process could come across as a gimmick or a bad “Portlandia” sketch. Just doing something doesn’t validate the idea. Doing it well is what matters. Hell, even Homer Simpson can build a robot.
Dai Due sets you up with their idea and knocks you out with the delivery.