Hello everyone! Please allow me to begin this post with a very bold statement. The absolute best dining experience for vegans and carnivores eating together, in Austin Texas, can be had at Barley Swine. I have looked forward to writing this post since my vegan counterpart and I embarked on our endeavor to discover where vegans and carnivores can best dine in harmony. In order to do this post justice, I feel obliged to share some history as to how I came to know and love Barley Swine. I became aware of this fine establishment when my fair vegan friend and I drove past it one rainy Sunday this past April, and I fortuitously asked about its unique name. It is located near her home, and she was familiar with the restaurant but had never eaten there. She excitedly told me that it was farm to table cuisine and that the chef would make special accommodations for plant eaters like herself. When I pressed her as to how she could be so excited about a restaurant so near her home, but had never eaten there, she bemoaned the fact that it is “on the more expensive side” and was probably only viable for special occasions. I tucked that little nugget away in my mind and made a reservation for her birthday meal the following August. She was right. It was spectacular! And yes, it was also on the more expensive side. It is important to note that it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are fabulous offerings that don’t break the bank but we both believe in indulging from time to time.
That brings us up to date with the history, so now I can share the details of our dining experience this past Saturday night. It wasn’t a special occasion but we had enjoyed our last Barley Swine outing so much that I was more than willing to drop the 4 bills necessary to enjoy the special tasting menu and the beverage pairings all over again. This meal is like none other. It consists of 10 courses of expertly prepared dishes. Each one more tasty and decadent than the rest. Couple the exquisite food with wine and/or beer selected to complement the tastes of each individual dish, and the flavors are nearly more than one person can stand. I was again blown away from beginning to end.
As the tasting menu changes daily, I won’t bother detailing every plate. It is unlikely that they will be replicated on any two visits to the restaurant. I will however share a few of the highlights.
The first offering was nothing more than an amuse-bouche of sweet potato, goat cheese and a flute of sparkling wine. I could have made a meal out of this dish alone but I opted not to ask for seconds though my inner 8 year old self truly wanted to. It amazes me the flavor that a quality chef can pack into two quarter sized portions.
The second plate was slightly larger and consisted of Mushroom tempura and a thimble of custard. I’m not a fan of fungus in general but the Mushroom tempura was out of this world. This is a testament to the talent of the chef(s) at Barley Swine.
My absolute favorite dish was the sixth in the series of ten. The dish was Smoked pork shoulder, sweet potato, and apple. I don’t know who thought to blend these ingredients but it was a hit! Honestly, they had me at Smoked pork shoulder but the sweetness of the apple really added a distinct flavor that I never expected. It wasn’t subtle. It was so dynamic that I again found myself saddened when I devoured the last morsel of the course.
A close second favorite was dish number seven. Dry Aged Akaushi ribeye, bone marrow hash. I have always been a sucker for bone marrow. That is to say that I would pick up a cow’s femur and dig the bone marrow out of it with my index finger if I didn’t think the vegan would pass out in disgust. The hash certainly didn’t disappoint. It was flavorful and rich like I would expect the bone marrow to render.
The meal ended with a dessert plate of a chocolate ice cream sandwich, honeycomb, pecan. We’re not talking a silly store bought ice cream sandwich. This was homemade and was quite possibly the best finish to the meal that I could have hoped for. I have no doubt that the chef took that pairing into consideration as well.
Perhaps equally amazing to the meal that I enjoyed was the hospitality and accommodating spirit that Barley Swine employs for its patrons with dietary restrictions. I cannot stress enough how incredibly wonderful they are about preparing vegan specific plates with the same flair and panache as the carnivorous options. My vegan cohort went on and on about how wonderful every dish was as well. They even tailor the wine and beer pairings specifically for her vegan meal, so it really was a unique dining experience for each of us. You may notice that I refrained from mentioning the wait staff by name in this post. The reason for this is because they seem to employ a true “community serving method” inasmuch as no one individual attends to a table’s needs. It is more a matter of whomever is available, and smiling at any given moment, delivers plates and attends to the table’s needs throughout the meal. We must’ve had 7 different people come by and give information about the various dishes and beverages. I will call out Robert, the bartender, specifically because we were seated at the bar for our meal. Robert did much more than merely pour our drinks. He provided insight into the pairings and various flavors that each complemented. He also generously allowed us to sample multiple beverages of interest while we sat enjoying the atmosphere and watching the kitchen staff work their magic.
If I haven’t done a good enough job communicating how much we enjoy Barley Swine, let me be perfectly clear – It is AWESOME and truly an Austin gem. Highly recommended by this carnivore! I am rating this past experience with a perfect 5 cow faces. I had originally thought it would be limited to 4 1/2 because I wasn’t exactly “full” when we finished our meal. In retrospect, the fact that I didn’t feel overly stuffed is actually a plus. This is the very first perfect score that I have ever awarded an eatery. I suspect it will be a long search for another establishment worthy of 5 cow faces. Try Barley Swine. Like me, you will surely be impressed!
For my birthday this summer, BHCHV (before Him Carnivore Her Vegan), the Carnivore treated me to an exquisite meal. In the early discussions of blogging we decided we would surely return to enjoy yet another amazing experience as well as review barley SWINE. Since the prior experience was a 10 course tasting meal, we went for that once again. OH MY! This is gonna be an epic post.
First let me say that barley SWINE does not appear at a glance to be vegan-friendly. Let me assure you my vegan friends – this is far from the truth! You do however, need to plan a bit for this experience. This includes making reservations and letting them know you, a vegan, will attend. They will improvise on the fly but having also done that on a happy hour whim, I can tell you that while it is still wonderful, you want to give them a real chance to wow you.
Also, before I launch into the detailed descriptions of each course, let me also mention that barley SWINE offers a beverage pairing to go with the tasting. It can add up to a pricey meal but let me assure you – It is worth it! They really know what they are doing here and many times we were brought a beverage that we knew we would never choose, even claim to dislike, and yet it perfectly complimented the course. And really, you can’t get that many drinks for the price anywhere else anyways so it’s actually a deal. Just bring a designated driver if you are a lightweight like me.
Okay time to talk deliciousness. I love that barley SWINE has the tasting courses printed out on a card for you so you can read and anticipate what’s in store. Also while Robert was our main server/bartender, all of the staff work together to bring the food. Robert started us with champagne and my amuse bouche was “Wheat cracker, avocado”. Sound plain? Not in the slightest. How in the world they packed so much flavor into that bugle shaped cracker is beyond me. It immediately set the tone and let my taste buds know I was in for a treat. And of course the champagne was the perfect complement, lifting the creaminess of the avocado off my tongue, readying me for round two.
Speaking of round two, I can’t wait to read my dining partner’s review as this was a mushroom round. I happen to love them but he disagrees. This mushroom tempura, however, would charm even the staunchest of mushroom-wary diners. It was perfectly fried, coated evenly and goldilocks-style – not too much and not too little, just right. They even came with a little rosemary handle that we could use to dip. I had a mushroom “tea” to dip mine in. Yum!
Next, round three was simply “Tomato, almond, olive oil”. This title was the most descriptive as it was exactly that. Honestly this was probably my least favorite course but that said, its simplicity was still more amazing than most food I eat on a daily basis. It was like a perfectly seasoned salad, er without any greens.
Round four for me was an “Ember squash” which I believe might have been butternut or acorn, something orange. The ember part was a charred edge that brought out all the flavors of the spice rub. Perhaps that was mesquite as “mesquite beans” were mentioned. Whatever it was it was smoky and amazing with crunchy toasted seeds to accompany. Honestly when I am eating this level of food, I often don’t even know what I’m eating and frankly don’t care because I just want to keep eating it.
Next, another mushroom round, oyster this time and yet again, thrilling. In fact, I feel I need to start consulting my thesaurus to come up with other adjectives. Siri help! These mushrooms had the meatiest quality, almost like bacon, which really sated me. The flavor was enhanced with a Trinidad pepper of which I knew nothing prior but am now a fan!
Reaching the halfway point, a bit tipsy and a lot happy, I welcomed my next course – the zucchini flower, apple, field pea spread. This round wins the prize for presentation. Check it out. Isn’t it pretty? After admiring it I enthusiastically dug in and was pleased to discover the taste was as good as the presentation. Clearly the chef understands flavor profiles and how they complement one another because again my mouth enjoyed the balanced combination of savory, sweet and crunch.
Apparently at this halfway point it was also time for a palate cleanser. We received two test tubes with an odd liquid/bead shot inside. It was vinegary and yet tasty and our palates were ready once again.
Finally we reach my favorite round – “Rice crepe, shitake, cabbage”. Two tiny crepes alongside a broth arrive and already I’m excited as I love food I can dip. I reach for a crepe and dip it in the broth and take a bite. At this point I believe I said “I want to bathe in this and then clean myself like a cat”! I told you I was tipsy! But seriously this broth was unbelievable. I made such a fuss that Robert had to go tell one of the staff, Bradley, whose friend/dining partner was vegan. I don’t know what more I can say other than I need more of that broth, even though I drank the rest after my crepes were long gone. I wouldn’t let Robert take it away until I consumed every last drop.
Three more to go and the last savory dish was okra and shishito relleno. The okra was charred and crunchy which really brought out the flavor unlike the typical fried versions. And I always love a good shishito pepper but this one was relleno which was accompanied by a mustard-like sauce which just enhanced it that much more. And what a plan to finish with a bit of spice right before the sweet treats!
Dessert one was “Apple, lemon grass, koji rice pudding”. Again at this point the food is so elevated I wasn’t sure what I was eating but it was amazing. The fruity portion was light and sweet and the pudding was creamy and delicate. The crunchy topping pulled it all together.
Dessert two was almost like a palate cleanser as well – cucumber sorbet with toasted almond. Full disclosure here – the other bartender, Kacie, asked if I was okay with honey. I admitted that I was and she included the main tasting course portion of honey comb in this dessert. I know we vegans have differing views on honey and mine happens to be just that – I don’t typically seek it out but it doesn’t bother me. I hope I don’t offend anyone but remember we are practicing acceptance and harmony here!
And finally we reached the end. Actually (not pictured) they secretly bring you a little baked goodie from the kitchen out with your bill. Perhaps to soften the blow of the expense of the meal. No doubt, it is pricey but frankly is completely worth it. No I didn’t actually pay as I’m lucky to have a generous carnivore. I’m not sure I deserve it….wait, yes I do! I’m also very appreciative.
Anyways hopefully you are understanding why I give barley SWINE my first ever five rutabaga rating. There are few meals I would be this excited about and so you should take this seriously. My only suggestion to barley SWINE would be – how about some vegan options on the everyday menus? Perhaps if all you vegans start going they will. You won’t regret it.