“Do you care for any vodka with that?”
Orange juice — I had asked the flight attendant for some orange juice. But despite the convincing case Kendrick Lamar made in my earbuds, I felt inclined not to drank. I was at cruising altitude, trekking 1,800 miles in order to feed myself. And now I was thinking, about expectations and about managing them.
I saw the booze as a specious salve for the jittery nerves engendered by a delayed, overbooked flight. But for my neighbor — embittered towards American Airlines and pawing the arm rest like a caged tiger — alcohol was exactly the tranquilizer he needed. In fact, it was precisely what he expected. “Finally, some service around here,” he grumbled with a half-convincing smile. (For several more minutes, he continued to paw.)
I got off the plane in San Antonio, Texas and hit the road, first toward College Station and then over to Austin. Many windshield bugs later, my brother and I tumble out of the car in front of Barley Swine. We sit at the counter and order the entire menu, because its contents are not the reason for my vacation but they will hopefully justify our detour.
He and I aren’t thinking anymore, only yapping — about everything and about nothing. Predictable, I guess, for two people connected by name but disconnected by geography. Our server “Billy” acts as the brains of this operation. She directs our attention to just the right places on an overwhelmingly large beer list. She arranges the orderly arrival of so many dishes, one by one, like the beats of a metronome.
First are beets: crimson and orange, roasted, nudged against little neon scoops of mustard ice cream with smoked trout in different textures. I close my eyes and fly back to The Fat Duck circa 2008. Pommery mustard ice cream tasted much like this; blood-red cabbage ‘gazpacho’ provided similar company. But I don’t love it now — the ice cream feels forced, and its flavor too forceful. The yellow mutes the red and I can’t help but be blue. We send back clean plates only because it’s obligatory this early in the game.
But soft shell crab is itself a game. Thin strips of zucchini have been compressed with coconut and vanilla. Deviled egg purée hides below. To skewer the first two and drag them through the latter is to see-saw between saccharine and spice, crunch and creaminess — a thrilling ride.
The best dishes — like that crab — are dynamic and playful. Creamy chickpea panisse form an edible sculpture with carrots, goat cheese and ancho chile. Sweetness, tang, and smoke alternate in a loop. Warm ‘refried’ lentils nod to my Tex-Mex, taco-filled childhood. Their interaction with chilled, Indian-spiced green lentils works explosive magic on an already delicious plate of pork.
Pastry chef Kyle McKinney’s rooibos tea sorbet tastes like Fruit Loops, and his chocolate soup with crisped rice, like the Snap, Crackle and Pop a younger me tried to drown in the cereal bowl with a thick swizzle of Hershey’s syrup.
Lorelei ingredients like grilled lamb bologna, chicken fried boudin, and uni scrambled eggs beckon from all over the menu. Only the latter wrecks, a whisper of the sea drowned by salty broccoli and shiitake mushrooms. But, boy, that bologna! Along with candied peanuts and bacon jelly, it is among the rewards for blindly diving into a bowl of chilled pea soup. (Blind because your eyes are still closed in rapture after the previous spoonful.)
I quibble now because that’s what jaded schmucks like me do, but I feel like sugar might be the panacea in this kitchen’s pantry. Here, with crab have come peaches; with boudin, grapefruit; even pork and duck met dates and strawberries. It is perhaps only because we ordered a dozen small plates — a makeshift tasting menu — that these sweet nothings have sounded like more than whispers. But the truth is that, by the end, we have come to expect them. It’s just too easy.
Don’t talk or even listen to me, though. I’m the sicko who turns quick trips quixotic, who fashions weekend getaways into whirlwind get-outta-my-way’s. Tomorrow I will wait four hours in the sun for barbecue. Yesterday I walked forty-five minutes to grab a goddamn coffee. There’s no glory in that.
Barley Swine far exceeded my expectations because, for once, I didn’t allow myself to create any. I went simply because someone I trust told me that I should. And despite its excellence, dinner wasn’t even the most important thing that happened this weekend. My brother graduated college, and this trip to Austin was to celebrate that. Maybe next time I’ll just ask if he’d care for some vodka instead.