- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
My visits to the Hill Country stretch back further than my memory. My family vacationed there for decades. I attended summer camp in Hunt. And my folks have a place along the Blanco River.
But, for the life of me, after all these years, I wouldn’t have known what “Hill Country cuisine” was if it swung off a rope and landed on my soft head. And when I read earlier this year that the preciously named Pitchfork Pretty would be opening in East Austin with a menu featuring “Straight Up Hill Country Cuisine,” I wasn’t just perplexed; I was worried.
It sounded like marketing jargon run amok. Sure, there is plenty of produce and protein in Central Texas, from cabbage to peaches, lamb to beef. But when I think of the Hill Country, even though my mind may summon tasty thoughts of goat cheese and quail, I rarely think of food; I certainly don’t think of “cuisine.”
Worry number two came from the menu’s centerpiece fried chicken. Austin has enough fried chicken to feed all the church picnics from here to Charleston. I thought we needed another fried chicken option about as badly as we needed another vape shop. It felt like profiting off a dining public that just can’t help itself.
Take a breath, Odam. It’s all going to be OK. After all, games aren’t won on paper, and restaurants can’t stand on marketing plans and menus alone.
The restaurant from owner Seth Baas and chef Max Snyder, two native Texans who met while working in San Francisco, may lead with some vaguely evocative sales poetry, but the follow-through is unquestionable and strongly defined. Pitchfork Pretty delivers thoughtful, surprising and some downright thrilling dishes. Yes, even the fried chicken is great. Spectacular, in fact.
As restaurants across the country have attempted to capitalize on our hunger for comfort staples, I’ve grown fearful of laziness, heavy-handedness or misdirected creativity. But when those dishes are executed with a deft touch, as at Pitchfork, you realize just how great they can be.
Ember-roasted chilies studded a textured mound of dark pimento cheese served with whole wheat crackers so rich they almost tasted like cookies ($6). Cucumbers pickled with the glow of beer and sheened with herbaceous oil were offset by the smoke and earth of grilled mushrooms ($5). And sticky-sweet habanero jelly, one of my favorite condiments, pinned roasted peanuts to slabs of the ultimate Texas roadside meat treat, beef jerky ($11).
Even the dense but supple torta-like buckwheat cornbread with its flower-flecked miso butter ($6) reached ascendant heights. That skillful execution of baked goods is also on display in Snyder’s and baker Rachel Bach’s small morning menu of breakfast sandwiches of cured salmon and housemade charcuterie squeezed between sturdy but relenting potato rolls and salty and seedy toasted everything bagels with just the right crunchy airiness and chew. The two also team on desserts that include a startling lemon icebox pie in a crumbly crust covered in a creamy citrus cloud ($7) and rich almond pound cake with oozing chocolate sabayon and marjoram ice cream ($7).
But where Snyder really separates himself from other kitchens crooning the same country tune is with a haystack of fried, paprika-dusted leeks that held a crown jewel dill-pickled quail egg that slid from its throne like an oyster ($3). The presentation and execution served as evidence that this chef has served in some of the country’s top kitchens, including Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Coi in San Francisco.
After that early bite at one dinner, I fully bought in and elevated my expectations; they were repeatedly met. Plump Oaxacan-cheese-filled Yucca dumplings sat in a briny mix of carrot and radish ($10); twirls of shaved celery, bright compressed melon and sweet blue crab kissed by the grill were enlivened by a floral papalo sauce ($12); and aguachile stung a beautiful bowl of snapper and melon cooled by basil and aloe ($14). The kitchen also scored with a light and artful dish of olive-oil-poached ruby trout (coloring outside of the Texas lines there, I believe) blanketed by a layer of breadcrumbs invigorated with orange zest ($24).
It was then that the city-meets-country, rustic-meets-refinement ethos and style of the restaurant became clear for me, and everything else started finding harmony in my mind: the mesquite-colored wood and stable ceilings blending with Mexican-style brick and Texas-meets-Japan wood-cut blocks; the cloud-like linen light fixtures above a concrete floor; a high-end bar lined with antique sweet tea glasses facing a row of jars colored with pickled and preserved foods. An elegant vision of Texas with enough restraint to keep from teetering into highly stylized caricature.
While several appetizers played with some of the state’s Mexican influences, the crunchy and tender sweet potato rosette dabbed with peach jam ($11) served as a bridge back into a selection of entrees located squarely in the heart of Central Texas. White onions and pickles cut into the plump and savory grilled beef sausage ($9) and waves of beef tongue that tasted like high-end Steak-umms ($13) on a plate that could stand tall in any Central Texas barbecue joint, as would half of an almost blackened but incredibly tender barbecue chicken served with Hill Country sweet potato puree and grilled cabbage ($25). But good luck finding a barbecue plate anywhere with the lush and decadent chicken liver pate and chive-dotted toast that came with Pitchfork’s barbecued chicken.
Which brings us back to that fried chicken ($29). So, smart guy, Austin doesn’t really need another menu with fried chicken on it, eh? Well, it does when the chicken is this good. The crunchy exterior, all unassuming pale chickpea flour (gluten-free lovers, rejoice), hides the real secret: a habanero vinegar brine that pops you with a heat that slowly fumes throughout your head. Let the heat settle in before taming it with the tang of housemade buttermilk ranch dressing.
If that’s what “Hill Country cuisine” is, I’m into it.