Thursday, January 03, 2008

Jane works at Central Market in Austin.

It is what Whole Foods wants to be, or perhaps what Whole Foods, which is also based in Austin, wanted to be before it grew into the triumph of logistics over excellence that it has now become.

Central Market is, quite simply, a good store. The sort, I would kill to have near me in London. Decent ranges of good quality food, well displayed at prices that don’t make you go “ouch”

As well as the food, they also have regular events and Jane had invited me along to one of the cookery demonstrations the following morning which was being given by someone who I call “The acceptable face of Indian cookery in America” Suvir Savan

Now, I am pretty dismissive of the food from the sub-continent I have tried in the US as it tends towards the homogenous curry slop that was the blight of many places in the UK throughout the 70’s and 80’s and still is, if I am being honest.

It is getting a lot better and, at the front of this improvement has been Suvir and his chef/partner Hemant. Their own restaurant, Devi in NYC is easily the best of its kind in the city and one of the few places I consider on a par with places of a similar higher end disposition in London.

I had met Suvir a number of times over the years, but I think it was a shock for both of us to suddenly meet again so far from our normal circles.

The joy of being the only Indian in the room sometimes is that you can tell people whatever you like about the food and they will believe you. They will lap it up when you tell them that your granny used to stand on one leg and drain buffalo milk through muslin at midnight to make paneer. They will look on in awe as you tell them that it takes twenty servants ten hours of solid labour to make a proper dhansak and they will almost be pushed to tears when you say that stealing the last poppadum off the plate is an offence to the gods.

Unfortunately, with a real expert in the house, I could not get away with any of this (although I am sure Suvir has got away with plenty) and so would just have to shut the fuck up.

I didn’t, of course, I never do. Neither did Jane and between us, we interrupted Suvir’s demonstrations more times than was probably necessary. He took it in good part though and the food he produced was good, rich in flavour and with the depth that only real Indian cooks, of which I am most definitely not one, know how to get.

As Suvir signed books after the event, I took the opportunity to invegle my way in to the grou photo

and to harass some poor local food writers about the inadequacy of Indian food in the former colonies until Jane gently told me to “shut up” because it was time to head off.

I had offered to do some cookery of my own that night. When it comes to doing Indian food for friends, I have about twenty-five recipes on rotation. There are some I do every time I cook for someone for the first time to show them how easy they are. Crunchy onion bhaji, thin, citrus dahl and rich, creamy Kormas. It is a pleasure to cook for them and even more of a pleasure when they allow me to boss them around in their own kitchen.

Austin was better than I imagined when it came to sourcing ingredients for our night’s supper and, by early afternoon, we were pretty much set to prepare a simple meal of Bhaji, Tandoori chicken, vindaloo and a Bengali speciality of cabbage & shrimp.

But first, I had to have a nap. Not because of the over indulgences of the night before and not because I had over exerted myself in any way that morning but more because Jane had given me some hard core drugs to deal with an insect bite and they knocked me six ways from Christmas. I staggered to their porch, flopped on a comfortable sofa and slept solidly for two hours. Jolly nice it was too.

If the supper was unremarkable for the food, it was hugely enjoyable for the company and for its leisurely pace. It was also the point at which John announced that he would like to accompany me on my trip the next day, my original mission for visiting Austin. BBQ.

God bless him.

So, the next morning, bright and early, John came to pick me up. I was sitting in Jo’s, a small cafĂ© next to the motel and sipping on a thick hot chocolate when he walked in straw Stetson very firmly in place on his head and beckoned me to join him in his car as we headed off in search of ‘Q.

Now, as if I needed any persuading at all, John spent the time of our drive to Lockhart explaining why Texas Q is better than any other. I could not disagree with him. I love Kansas City BBQ with its sweet sauces or Carolina BBQ with its vinegar bases. I like pork BBQ from Memphis or even some of the mutton BBQ I have tried in Kentucky.

But, when it comes to real BBQ and I mean the “if they have BBQ in heaven” sort of BBQ, it will come from Texas and, more than that, it will probably come from Lockhart or Lulling. It is the sheer confidence in the quality of the meat that does it. As john put it, poetically “if you need sauce, there must be something wrong with your BBQ”

We had set our sights quite high. Four BBQ joints in three hours. I knew I was man enough for the job and, looking at John, I could see that his loins were very much girded. Not that I would ever knowingly look at a Texan’s loins, I want to make that abundantly clear.

First stop, Kreuz Market. The first family of Texan BBQ now in their “new” location following familial struggles after the death of the original owner. It looked the part and, certainly it was better than anything I get back in London, but it was not as good as I remember it.

So, we soon moved on to Black’s. This was more like it for me. Black’s was the working folks BBQ pit and it showed. A down home style dining room proved the perfect location for more brisket and some fabulous links.

I could have gone back for seconds, but John had other plans, we had to head 50 yards across the road, by car of course this is Texas after all, to Smitty’s. Now, this is the oldest of the lot and the smell of smoking is ingrained in the walls as well as the meat. On my last trip, this had been my favourite and it was still right up there. Heart stoppingly good, in fact and arguably the brisket of the day.

I was fading a bit by now and, after links, ribs and brisket, I was already beginning to come out in meat sweats. John however, the ‘Q professional, had paced himself nicely for our last stop. A fifteen minute drive saw us arrive at City Market in Lulling.

New to me, this is generally considered to be one of the top pits not just in Texas but in the country and on this evidence, it is a richly deserved reputation. The brisket was smoky, but not over done. It was moist and fatty but had bite. In short, it was perfect.

John, at this point, had decided to let loose and showed me how to make a brisket sandwich. That too will enter the pantheon of top dishes when I compile a list from around the world. I can taste it now, when I close my eyes. It really is that special a beast, or bit of a beast.

As John was chauffeur for the day, I insisted on paying. It was only right and proper. In return, when I popped to point Percival at the porcelain, he sneaked off and bought me a City Market Baseball cap. Now, I look ridiculous in all hats. It’s the big ears you see, in case you had not noticed. But, I shall treasure this one for as long as I draw breath. A hat from arguably the best BBQ pit in the world. Not too many balding Anglo-brits can say that now can they?

We took a leisurely drive back to Austin and by 4pm, John was dropping me off at the motel. He parked and walked me up to my room to say goodbye. I would not see him again before I left. This really is a very special man indeed, for all sorts of reasons and I feel fortunate to have met him.

As he walked away, his curvy shape silhouetted in the Sun, he turned and said in his laconic drawl “and by the way, thanks for the BBQ” and with that, he put his Stetson back on his head and walked slowly back to his car.

No John, Thank you.

That evening, Jane came over to the motel to meet me one last time. We strolled across the street to Amy’s Ice Cream and, after buying a tub each, went back to sit on the benches at Jo’s.

It was a balmy evening and the music was playing gently in the background. It was at that point, just as I was leaving, that I felt I really began to understand Austin.

It was a shame, but now I have made two new friends, I have no excuse not to return.


Dave said...

The last time I was in San Antonio, I went to the same four places, although in exactly reverse order. The only disappointment was that Kreuz's, by far the weakest food, was our last stop. I found only their sausage to be terrific.

My favorite, by far, was City Market, especially the brisket and sausage. I'm sure you know that Lockhart-inspired Hill Country has opened in New York City -- and the brisket is terrific.

Tana Butler said...

What a delightful and HILARIOUS post. "Popped in to point Percival at the porcelain" had me cackling, as did your granny on one leg.

I'll send the link to Hemant and Suvir.

We still miss you!!

Food Czar said...

I plan on making my own trip next month. See my Food Czar blog (on Blogger) about March 1st. In the meantime,you can check out my other reviews. Thanks!