Executive editor and restaurant critic Patricia Sharpe has eaten it all. But it’s her job to keep searching for the newest trends and tastiest dishes in the constantly changing Texas restaurant scene. Over the past year, she traveled to several dozen restaurants to try buffalo-milk burrata, coffee-and-chile-rubbed rabbit, and margarita-inspired tuna tartare. After sizing up the delicacies, she came up with her coveted list of the ten best new restaurants in the state. Here’s the story behind the story.
Do you think Texas is tapping into its strong German heritage with the recent popularity of beer gardens and swine dishes?
It’s a trend, but not a conscious one. I doubt many restaurant owners thought, “Ohhh, we should do more German dishes.” But in the back of their minds, they knew that certain things—like sausages and beer—would resonate with Texans, especially in the central part of the state, where German immigration was strong.
How do you feel about the new trend in communal dining?
I like it. I’m a private, fairly shy person, but to my surprise, I enjoy chatting with other people at the table. That is, as long as I don’t run into a blowhard who monopolizes the conversation. Then it’s as bad as being trapped in an airplane seat beside a nonstop talker.
What is your favorite dish from the top ten restaurants?
So hard to say, but the last thing I tried at Congress—my number one restaurant—were three desserts from the new pastry chef, Erica Waksmunski, and I think she’s terrific. One thing she did was what I call a postmodern carrot cake, with a layer of delicious creamy roasted-carrot purée on the bottom topped by a carrot-coriander genoise and sided by buttermilk-pineapple sorbet (which reprised the cream-cheese taste of the typical frosting). It was brilliant. Executive chef David Bull made a great hire.
You are so descriptive in your writing. For example, you describe the grilled corn from one restaurant with “lime-tinged yogurt, cotija cheese, and popcorn.” Can you taste each of those details in the dish? When do you have to ask the chef what’s in it?
I could taste all of those—that restaurant, the Monterey, in San Antonio, has very emphatic flavors. But sometimes I do have to call or email and ask. The current style in writing menus drives me crazy—they don’t describe dishes in a user-friendly way, they just list the sexiest, most alluring ingredients with no connecting words. I want to go back to the eighties, when menus were like mini-recipes. We restaurant reviewers loved that!
What’s your writing process? Do you go home immediately after a meal and write about it? Or do you take extensive notes and pictures and procrastinate about the writing process?
I go home, or back to my hotel room, and immediately write up notes—first impressions, random reactions, strong opinions. I look at the pictures I took with my iPhone to get a very accurate description of each dish. It takes thirty minutes to an hour. Usually I don’t write the finished column for a day or more—it helps to let it jell a little bit.
Last year you said Dallas and Houston had the best restaurants in Texas. Austin hosts three of your top ten restaurant picks this year. Do you still think Dallas and Houston have the best?
Being bigger, Dallas and Houston have more restaurants period, thus more good ones. Those cities also have folks with larger disposable incomes, so they can pay more for an evening out. That enables restaurants to hire top chefs and build designer dining rooms. I think over the long haul, Dallas and Houston will continue to have better restaurants. It’s just logical. Austin is on a roll this year and last, though.
What was the most unexpected thing you tasted during your research?
Oh, the snails were so good! I hadn’t seen escargots on menus much since the eighties, when they were horrid little pencil-eraser things. Now they are plump and delicious and big. I don’t know if it’s better suppliers or chefs knowing what to do.
Do you ever get tired of reviewing new restaurants? It seems exhausting always trying new places. Do you have any favorite, go-to restaurants that you’re always excited to revisit?
How can I complain about such a fabulous job, but yes, I do get tired—not of the eating, but the note-taking, picture-organizing, scheduling, traveling, packing and unpacking, remembering what aliases I’ve used at different restaurants, that sort of thing. My favorite mindless comfort food is from my childhood: the “Frisco” at the Frisco Shop here in Austin. It’s just a hamburger with sweet-pickle relish and a slice of American cheese on a standard bun, wrapped in tissue. But it takes me back. I like to sit at the counter, reading a book and drinking a lime Coke. Heaven.
Do you think your prediction in this article will help ignite the escargot trend?
Ha. Like I have that much influence!