Gardner sets elegant stage, gives vegetables top billing

I circled the Taste of Texas event at the 2013 Austin Food and Wine Festival encountering some expected (but no less exceptional) bites of beef, pork and seafood from some of the state’s best chefs.

My surprise came when I landed at the table operated by Contigo owners Ben Edgerton and executive chef Andrew Wiseheart. Known for their hearty ranch-style fare (rabbit and dumplings, ox tongue slider) and charcuterie, the guys delivered an unexpected twist with a puffed rice chip topped with shaved local fennel and pine nuts dressed with Thai-inspired vinaigrette.

They weren’t just playing against type as a lark. The duo was planting the seeds for a future concept. They remained coy at the time, refusing with a grin to tip their hats. When they returned to the Austin Food and Wine Festival last year, serving butternut squash with smoked shitake mushrooms from an open-fire grill, their simple and elegant banner filled in the remaining blanks: Gardner.

The spring event gave the savvy partners (and childhood friends) a highly visible opportunity to tease their new vegetable-centric restaurant. They opened Gardner, named after Wiseheart’s father, in the old U.S. Post Office in East Austin at the beginning of November.

Gardner rides a surging movement of restaurants focused on showcasing vegetables. Chefs across the country — from Oxheart in Houston to Blue Hill in New York City — and around the world, at places like Noma in Copenhagen, have drawn raves for their imaginative and transfixing interpretations of a food group some have long considered in direct opposition to pleasure.

Gardner is certainly not the first Austin restaurant to capitalize on the zeitgeist. Excellent restaurants such as Qui and Uchiko offer vegetarian tasting menus, and Lenoir and Barley Swine have proven playful masters of vegetable preparation. And they aren’t the only ones. Over the past year or two, you can’t swing a bunch of carrots without hitting a restaurant serving a take on Brussels sprouts or beet salad.

Following the wave of snout-to-tail obsessives, you’re now just as likely to find cauliflower as beef heart on a menu. Pork belly, please take a step back — sunchokes are having a moment.

The refined new restaurant gives Wiseheart (and his chef de cuisine, Andrew Francisco) a chance to express culinary creativity outside the meaty confines of rustic Contigo. The restaurant is not vegetarian (about half of the menu is strictly vegetarian), but it is veggie-focused.

When meat is used, it’s generally as an accent. That butternut squash from last year’s festival? It has a secret. It was poached in beef fat. It makes a glorious return at Gardner as an entrée ($18) lapping up beef fat vinaigrette in a dish spotted with tiny mushrooms, some riding an aromatic billow of deep smoke flavor, others fried to a crunchy finish.

The unique menu is separated into Bites, First, Second and Dessert sections. The bites may play into the stereotype of some diners’ suspicious view of modern cuisine. The plates are artful in their simplicity and offer what they advertise: a bite or two of food. That means when you order a sunchoke custard ($5) brimming with seductive brown butter and topped with crispy onions that will hit the nostalgia centers of your brain, your spoon will only make a couple of passes. One man’s “Saturday Night Live” sketch is another man’s silky point of entry to a multi-course meal. You can build a meal through a variety of menu arithmetic, but I’ve found one Bite, one First plate, one Second plate and half a dessert per person makes for a good-sized meal that will run you about $50 per person before alcohol.

Brussels sprouts aren’t leaving this veggie revolution without a fight, and the Bites version here ($3), in an almond miso broth with green garlic, will make one person double take at the size (there are only a few caramelized nubs) and another at the nutty and sumptuous flavor.

I found that take on Brussels sprouts much more appealing than the soggy First plate version ($10) drowned in bone marrow broth that reduced a slice of French sheep’s milk cheese to a gummy Shrinky Dink. I’m not above the snickering fray, and a tiny translucent tangle of spaghetti squash and bright pea tendrils ($4) left me wondering if something was missing from the plate, though I did appreciate the vegetarian play on a chicharrón, best used to scoop the rich bonito butter at the bottom of the bowl.

You’ll encounter the occasional plate of raw vegetables at Gardner, like a beautiful crudité Bite ($3) that was great to look at but overpowered by too much mascarpone cheese and disruptive olive powder, but vegetable preparations abound. Pickled bites of turnip sit amid raw medallions of radish and herbaceous tarragon on a First plate of thinly sliced cured cobia ($13). Perfect pillows of potato gnocchi in truffle and ginger cream sauce fill a Second plate ($24) draped with sautéed spinach and winged with smoky broad leaves of grilled kale. The kale was fried in a juicy and warming roulade of Cornish game hen ($28) wrapped in wilted greens.

The crudité was not the only dish that pleased the eye more than the palate. Thin, fibrous discs of sliced celery root dotted with black truffle kisses and showered with freckles of pink peppercorn layered creamy Carolina Gold Rice, but the textures and flavors of the three components never found harmony on the entrée ($25), and I couldn’t find an easy way to incorporate a brittle sheet of pine nuts with the chili-stung beets on which it sat ($9).

Those dishes represent Gardner’s occasional misstep: sometimes their ambition and imagination get in the way of their pragmatic ability to deliver on their elevated promise. But I enjoy watching them strive and challenge what we’ve come to expect with fine dining in Austin.

The menu isn’t the only change of pace. In a welcome change, the elegant and somewhat utilitarian Scandinavian dining room — colored with dark slate walls, handsome wood accents and hard angles – is isolated from the bar area and hostess stand. The design makes the dining room feel like a stage to showcase the dishes coming from the bright kitchen-laboratory, which you can glimpse from your table. Service is professional and restrained, but not icy, and servers have a tight grasp on the menu. They must: The minimalist menu offers little explanation, meaning you need to rely on your server for a detailed breakdown.

The servers are also adept at navigating a flexible (and somewhat pricey) wine list. The collection finds various ways to balance and complement the range of vegetable dishes, from the apple notes of Domaine Huet’s dry 2013 Vouvray ($75) to the dark berry and pepper of Dashe Cellar’s 2011 Zinfandel-Petit Sirah blend ($93). The list also features more esoteric offerings like a Gaillac wine from Causse Marines and takes alternate routes to familiar flavors, offering a Vespolina (in addition to a Nebbiolo) for Piedmontian earth. In addition to the Old World profiles of the former, New World lovers also have diverse options, from South America (Chile) to California (Mendocino Country) and Australia (four different selections from Adelaide). Gardner serves a handful of draft beers and large-format bottles and plans to add liquor service soon.

While Gardner has given Wiseheart and Francisco a new palette from which to draw inspiration and color, the chefs have not completely abandoned their meaty ways. Gardner served one of the best steaks I ate all of last year. An impressive sear wrapped thick cuts of ruby-hearted rib-eye ($38) on an entrée that included smoked sweet potato laced with twirling ribbons of pickled sweet potato and wispy lashes of tarragon.

I preferred that sweet potato treatment to a thudding blue cheese tart ($10) with a firm sweet potato crust. Gardner has a tendency to hang onto the vegetables a little too long, which can prove a challenge if you want to end the meal on a sweet note.

A carrot and buttermilk dessert with a granita of greens ($9) pushed my veggie endurance to its limit, though I did enjoy a Japanese pumpkin ice cream swirled by creamy kumquat tendrils with tiny slices of electric blood orange and fragile pieces of pumpkin glass ($9). Even more traditional sweeter desserts, like cold aerated knobs of milk chocolate, came with savory flares like a parsnip mousse and an imaginative parsnip-anise soup ($9).

While the desserts don’t work as well as many of the previous courses, they speak to the motivating factor behind Gardner. The restaurant is adventurous, daring and progressive. And though it will draw some derision for its preciousness, Gardner is advancing the culinary conversation in Austin. Their new (old) voice is welcome.

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