Thursday, September 1, 2011
On NDAs, relaunches, and stunning baklava
Just got back home after attending the relaunch portion of El Greco, a charming Greek cafe on Guadalupe just across the street from Wheatsville. The restaurant will be featured on an upcoming ep of Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay.
I signed a special NDA for critics (no, I'm not a cricket, just a blogger with a day job) and there are guidelines I must follow: one is I'm not allowed to blog about the production element of the show until after it airs, and I wasn't allowed to take any photos - it was very hard to resist. I did stuff the menu into my purse. So I'll save the production aspect of my dining experience for a later post (the season debuts September 23, but who knows when or even if the El Greco ep will air).
Best thing first: the baklava. Layers of phyllo, ground walnuts, butter, and honey. Crisp, sweet, light yet rich, airy yet substantial. It's not traditional in that it isn't layers of pastry cut into a rectangle; instead, the filling is placed on sheets of dough that are then rolled like a cigar, then twisted into a round, cinnamon-roll-esque shape. Apparently the baklava was round on El Greco's older menu, but out waiter assured me the recipe is new.
Tie for best menu item we tried: grilled octopus. We got to share a whole tentacle, perfectly grilled on the outside, tender with just the right amount of chewiness within, flavored with fennel, and served on a bed of tatziki alongside tangy pickled vegetables.
I'm not sure how new the grill element for El Greco is, but many menu items are char-grilled - if you like that sort of thing.
My husband got a lamb shoulder pita sandwich, which he loved. His favorite element besides the tender lamb were the roasted tomatoes - I'm guessing they were oven-roasted on a low heat, and they were fab.
I love an open kitchen, and if you get a seat in the banquette, you can watch the chefs work all night.
Decor is lovely. Very open and airy, classically painted with silhouettes of Greek marble busts, and horizontal stripes in the colors of the Greek flag. There are even tiled roofs over little nooks in the restaurant, covering the beverage station and atop the hallway to the restrooms.
The owner is a charming lady and I loved her pale nude shift dress, making her look like an extra in Mad Men. She started off with a smile, but wilted a bit during service and stressed out over turning tables a bit. I really hope she gets what she wanted out of this experience.
Flaws: I sent back the lemon chicken orzo soup, which was cream-based and not light and lemony as I had wanted it to be. The chicken was roasted nicely and tasted home-made, but I don't think even on the coldest winter day I would have enjoyed that soup. It was drizzled with a lemon infused oil, but still not lemony-tasting, and too heavy - like the gravy in a chicken pot pie. Come to think of it, top that soup with a thyme-infused phyllo crust and I might try it again - in January. And our server removed it from the check, so that's cool.
My husband's sandwich came without fries, and I saw other sandwiches leave the kitchen without fries. The menu (pictured above) says that sandwiches come with a side of fries.
We weren't the first people seated, but were given the old wine list which made pairing suggestions based on the old menu. I mentioned it to our server and they switched to the new wine list.
The kitchen was slow and the service awkward. I think one good server could work the room by themselves - there was a ten-top, or one table that could seat parties of 6 or more, and several two-tops and four-tops. But I saw many people waiting for their food for ages, and not having their plates cleared promptly. I even saw a table open their own bottle of wine to take some stress off the server.
I'll have to wait til the show airs to learn how much trouble El Greco was in. For a restaurant to call Kitchen Nightmares typically means substantial debt and a dwindling client base. And the 123 Yelp reviews for El Greco average out to three stars - which isn't a total disaster, but far from great, and a low score for a town as fiercely loyal as Austin.
I can say what I hope happens for El Greco, and what I hope for all good restaurants in Austin, especially those within sight of Wheatsville: I hope that El Greco makes the choice to make fresh food and to buy produce that is locally grown. Wheatsville has a list of their local purveyors, which shows that there are many farms less than 20 miles from their store, and thus El Greco. There is no reason to buy produce from Sysco. That would be like opening a boutique and stocking it with cheap stuff from Wal-Mart.
So my El Greco/Kitchen Nightmare dining experience was good, but left me with many questions. Like, where do they get their olive oil? And their tomatoes, and their lamb? Knowing that a restaurant has made the choice to support local farms and use fresh ingredients to create their dishes makes me want to return. So tell me! Where does El Greco get their tomatoes? And please, how are they roasted?