It helps if you understand just how small Barley Swine is: thirty-odd chairs along a short bar and around tall tables in a limestone building on a South Austin thoroughfare. It’s so compact that the minute you sit down you become best friends with the strangers on either side of you. That’s why we didn’t bat an eye when the man on my left gazed at our desserts wolfishly and inquired, “You going to finish that?” Since we had, in fact, eaten all we wanted and since he had already poured us generous samples from his bottle of wine, we said, “Be our guest—please.”
Barley Swine epitomizes a certain kind of “keeping it weird” Austin restaurant: easygoing, devoid of pretense, with an open kitchen and gregarious servers. It’s so approachable that the foodie world was astonished when, in early April, 28-year-old owner Bryce Gilmore was named one of the ten best new chefs in the nation by Food & Wine magazine. My own initial reaction was “Wow, really?” immediately followed by “But of course.”
Like so many chefs these days, Gilmore (a native Austinite who graduated from the California Culinary Academy) has tapped into the two major trends du jour. He is an ardent supporter of local growers and he embraces the notion of nose-to-tail eating. Even better for his Austin bona fides, his first independent restaurant was a food trailer named Odd Duck, which is now run by his brother, Dylan. But while trend consciousness may get you noticed, taste is what matters, and on that count, Barley Swine’s eclectic New American cuisine is rock solid. Take, for instance, something as simple as our first starter: fresh brussels sprouts. Gilmore quarters and flash-fries them so that they fluff out and frizzle delectably; spritzed with lemon juice and olive oil, the lightly charred morsels come off sweet and irresistible.
Our entrées explored three kinds of protein: pork, rabbit, and beef. To our surprise, the much-heralded trotter, while undeniably tasty, was more like a crumb-crusted pulled-pork patty. The rabbit, though—now, that was a revelation. To counter the meat’s notorious dryness, Gilmore wrapped it in bacon and fashioned it into a roll filled with a â€¨tarragon-brightened rabbit forcemeat. But the best entrée that evening was braised beef short ribs. Finished on the grill so they took on a deep, dark, crusty exterior, they reminded us of nothing so much as a smoke-free brisket.
Maybe we were just too full when dessert rolled around, but the two we tried seemed more comforting than exciting. A silky passion fruit curd with strawberry gelée looked stunning on a rectangular white plate, but I was more intrigued with the velvet-textured hazelnut chocolate cake with a crown of dark-chocolate ganache dotted enticingly with sea salt.
As the evening wound down, we asked our new friends what they had ordered. They, of course, had a whole slew of different favorite dishes, but we did all agree on one thing: Austin is one of few cities in the country where you can be running a food trailer one day and be a superstar chef the next. Beer & wine. 2024 S. Lamar Blvd (512-394-8150). Dinner Mon–Fri 6–11, Sat 5–midnight. Closed Sun. No reservations. $$–$$$ +