Food & Drink

Playing With Fire at Chef Kevin Fink’s Hestia

interior shot of hestia
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hestia has closed its dining room and has switched to a to-go and delivery model, with orders available 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday until May 1.

The first thing you see are the logs, a twelve-foot-tall bank of them stacked snugly in a recess by the host stand. If this were a barbecue joint, nobody would think twice. But Hestia is not a smokehouse. It is Austin’s restaurant of the moment, a sleek venue amid the forest of skyscrapers that is rendering the west side of downtown unrecognizable. The restaurant’s design is edgy and modern, with rough concrete beams and exposed ductwork lending the necessary note of industrial chic. In the 84-seat dining area, booths of chocolate-brown leather face floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows framing views of massive buildings and winsome little trees. More to the point, Hestia is the domain of two of the city’s most innovative cooking talents, executive chef Kevin Fink (who made the James Beard Award finals this year) and pastry chef and business partner Tavel Bristol-Joseph. 

Austin diners fell hard for their work at Emmer & Rye. That restaurant, which opened in 2015, tapped into the national obsession with sustainable local foods; it revels in heirloom grains, pickled and preserved vegetables, and whole-animal butchery—worthy principles that have been incorporated into Hestia’s menu as well. There’s just one major addition: those logs. Almost all the cooking is done over shimmering flames and glowing embers. 

Live fire—as you are no doubt aware—is a thing these days, as are restaurants with open hearths. If you’ve been to Husk, in Nashville, or Roister, in Chicago, you know the trend. Fink had been intrigued with the idea for several years. But he didn’t want to do anything reflexively, so he and Bristol-Joseph did some fieldwork, traveling as far away as Japan. Then he convened the Emmer & Rye staff in a lakeside cabin to brainstorm. “We spent days sharing ideas,” he told me. “We asked, ‘Would we cook only over a hot fire? A slow fire? Can we go deeper? Can we also be inspired by wood and ash?’ ”

spread at hestia

A spread at Hestia.

Photograph by John Davidson

chef-kevin-fink-pats-pick-1

Chef Kevin Fink.

Photograph by John Davidson

Left:

A spread at Hestia.

Photograph by John Davidson

Right:

Chef Kevin Fink.

Photograph by John Davidson

The result of all that effort—and the centerpiece of Hestia—is a twenty-foot hearth miraculously shoehorned into the open kitchen. It doesn’t look like something from Game of Thrones, though. Instead it’s modern and mostly stainless steel, divided into units for baking, grilling, and more (there’s even a tandoor). In each cooking area, post oak logs crackle away, flames licking upward as the wood changes from brown to gray to white. 

Once you’ve gotten a good look at the kitchen, it’s time to settle down and order something to drink, perhaps a Lil’ Birdie, an agreeable concoction of vodka, honey, hibiscus, lavender, and lemon. And because you don’t want your feathered friend to be lonesome, adding one of the amuse-bouche-size “snacks” makes sense. Toast with wagyu beef belly lardo would be my recommendation, if only for a sample of the fantastic sourdough bread made from the restaurant’s own starter; a cloud of baked bubbles could not be lighter. There are also lovely Atlantic oysters on the shell, brightened with nubbins of tart, lightly smoked tomato and dabs of jalapeño-tinged chive oil.

“Crudos,” the next section of the menu, is short, but this is where Fink really hits his stride, doing highly original riffs on traditional preparations. The snapper crudo, for instance, comes accessorized with a jet-black sauce called a recado negro (sweetish, just this side of burnt), which uses jalapeños smoked on the hearth as well as garlic, beets, and orange zest. The pieces of fish are outfitted with wrappers of mustard greens and are cut into precise disks. A colorful garnish of red-rimmed radish and bright orange carrot finishes the pretty arrangement.  

When it comes to small plates, the choices are more extensive. The nibbles of king crab are divine, aswim with sourdough croutons in smoked butter, which gets a tart splash of wild black persimmon vinegar and a hit of umami from roasted kelp. And under no circumstances should you miss the Parker House rolls with cultured butter.

Moving on to entrées, you’ve got options and more options. Meat and fish cookery gives the live-fire method a workout. My friend’s dry-aged wagyu-Angus skirt steak came off astonishingly tender, sided by a novel sauce of tomato, vinegar, and fermented eels. My gorgeous snowy white halibut filet was another story, though. Slow-cooked in a mesh strainer high over the heat, it was a lovely piece of fish, but the soft, almost gauzy texture took some getting used to. For something utterly original, the shaggy, amazing smoked and grilled lion’s mane mushrooms are brushed with, among other things, a savory black-bean miso that has been barrel-aging for a year and a half, with Fink fussing over it like an anxious father. (And speaking of Fink, the chefs often bring out the dishes to explain them; it doesn’t always work with the noise level, but I appreciated the effort.)

The Japanese kakigori at Hestia.

The Japanese kakigori at Hestia.

Photograph by John Davidson

By the end of the meal, you may be flagging, but you must try one of Bristol-Joseph’s beauty pageant–caliber desserts. The frothy deconstructed New York cheesecake is quite the crowd-pleaser, and the s’more is adorable. But the one not to skip is the traditional Japanese kakigori, a softball-size mound of frozen deliciousness so outrageous and photogenic that there are Instagram accounts dedicated to it. Bristol-Joseph uses silky shaved ice, roasted white chocolate, honey ice cream, and a dusting of matcha powder. Long after the server brought the check, I sat there at the table, scooping up one more chilly spoonful after another. If there was a better way to end a meal where almost everything was cooked with flames, I couldn’t imagine what it would be.

Hestia
607 W. Third, Austin
512-333-0737
D Tue–Sun.
$$$
Opened December 7, 2019

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Playing With Fire.” Subscribe today.

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Tags: Food, Pat's Pick, Hestia, Kevin Fink, Pat's Pick

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