To Dai For
One of Austin’s best “local or nothing” chefs gets his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Chef Jesse Griffiths is hardly old—he’s 39—but he seems like an old soul. Partly it’s that impressive beard, which makes him look like a village elder, or a friendly brown bear. Partly it’s that since 2006 he has been a mentor to Austin’s food community, being one of the first to go down the path of local, seasonal, and nose-to-tail eating. (For eight years he ran a series of fanatically popular pop-up dinners known as the Dai Due Supper Club. By the time he discontinued them, he had amassed a mailing list of 10,000 patrons.) His bona fides grew two years ago when he published Afield, a beautifully designed cookbook done in collaboration with photographer Jody Horton. (The book is especially helpful when you need a recipe for feral hog.) But mainly it’s his presence. In a time of hipness and irony, Griffiths embodies sincerity and a conviction that there is a right way to do things. He didn’t start out to become everybody’s favorite uncle and guru, but he has done so just the same.
Three and a half months ago, the Dai Due Supper Club abandoned the road for permanent quarters on Austin’s East Side. When I walked into the newly built structure, I must say I was a little surprised. I guess I expected mismatched chairs and wildflowers in canning jars (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But the design, by Kevin Stewart, is urbane and even a bit industrial, with red-brick walls and acres of plate glass. The look is softened by accessories, though: graceful black Windsor-style chairs, pecan plank tables, bundles of dried herbs, and boxes of onions and potatoes.
I was not surprised, however, to find the wood-burning grills and prep area in open view. “We want everything we do to be transparent,” Griffiths says, a philosophy he has long embraced. But I was impressed at just how visible everything is: there is even a meat trolley rail to bring carcasses in from the walk-in cooler, and sure enough, halfway through our meal, a side of beef came swinging and swaying into the kitchen. In keeping with Griffiths’s local-or-nothing approach, most produce is grown within thirty miles of Austin, with a few exceptions for special things like apples from North Texas and Meyer lemons and avocados from the Valley. Seafood comes from the Gulf. Even 99 percent of the beers and wines are from Texas (yes, if you give these well-selected Texas wines half a chance, you might even enjoy them). Griffiths is doing his best to follow the Italian adage that the restaurant’s name is based on: Dai due regni di natura, piglia il cibo con misura. “From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care.”
About the only things that aren’t emphatically local are the recipes. The international spectrum ranges from Korean to French, but that said, most dishes draw on Texas’s Mexican, Germanic, and Southern American heritage. Since animal protein is a big deal at Dai Due—there is a butcher shop up front, by the way, in case you want to do a little shopping—it makes sense to start with charcuterie. The cold meat board offers variety; it is a pretty spread with thin-sliced ham and roast beef, plus several sausages: summer, bierwurst, and a fine liverwurst. While all the selections were carefully crafted, I found myself wanting stronger seasonings and especially more salt. The accompaniments were great, though, like house-pickled figs. If I had a favorite, it was the deeply flavored black-walnut chutney that comes with the venison pâté. Smooth, not chunky, it was made from early-season walnuts poached in a simple syrup and then spiked with bay leaf and lemon peel. “It comes out tasting like it has cinnamon and allspice,” says Griffiths, sounding a bit mystified. It reminded me of a fine Oaxacan mole.
Another shareable starter was the small cast-iron pan of grilled cremini mushrooms, served in a delicious heap with pancetta, roasted shallots, and the yolk of a duck egg (pictured). Swished together, they were drippy and great spooned onto slices of grilled baguette (which needed only a bit of butter or olive oil to bring out their flavor). We were intrigued by the description of another appetizer, the bacon and roasted-duck-bone broth blended with vegetable miso (made in-house from purple hull peas), but a too-tart edge threw it out of kilter.
If I were offering a newcomer suggestions on entrées, I would have to confess that I have a caveat about the grilled meats. Tenderness—rather, lack thereof—was an issue with the three we tried. The sliced duck breast was a challenge to cut, though we quite liked the plum compote and pickled summer fruit that came with it. Similarly, the London broil tampiqueña was somewhat redeemed by its zesty chile marinade and Salvadoran curtido (coleslaw). But not even a spunky Italian verde sauce, with lemon and curly cress, was enough to distract us from the tasty but pretty much unchewable slices of red-deer chop.
Instead, I would recommend the lovely grilled whole pompano. Even though it had been cooked nearly well done, it stayed quite tender and moist. Our waiter scraped the flesh off the upper side and mixed it with the deep-green accompanying chimichurri-style sauce made from carrot tops, garlic, and oregano. Then he adroitly flipped the fish and fileted the lower side. My other recommendation would be a resolutely nose-to-tail creation: the butter bean stew with blood sausage. Two friends gave me a “you must be insane” look when I ordered it, but another declared it her favorite part of the meal. Blended with bread crumbs, cream, onion, and guajillo chiles, the sausage was mild, with a subtly sweet meaty flavor.
Thankfully, neither noses nor tails were involved in the simple, homey dessert menu from pastry chef Abby Love. In fact, with the exception of a few combinations, like canary melon with yogurt and poppy seeds, many of the sweets could have been on my family’s Texas table when I was growing up. By far our favorites were the two custards, the fig version, smooth as silk, and the fantastic corn-infused crème brûlée, which tasted like the last breath of summer. I enjoyed the filling of the rustic apple pie but not its coarse, dense crust. The sorbets, though—both the crunchy, granita-like watermelon-lime and the Martian-orchid-colored prickly pear—were just what they should be: a little something sweet and light to finish off a hearty meal.
At the end of the evening, the people sitting next to us leaned over to ask how we liked everything. We chatted and, of course, got to talking about the old supper-club days. I had the feeling that exchanges like this happen often. Griffiths had said to me, “We really want this to be a neighborhood restaurant.” I think he’s achieved that goal. It’s just that his neighborhood is citywide.
2406 Manor Rd, Austin
B, L & D Tue–Sun. $$–$$$
Opened August 19, 2014