The Rotten Bunch

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img_0395One of the things that the vegan and I enjoy most is discovering a rare gem within the dining world.  The discovery is even sweeter when the restaurant is off the beaten path or tucked away in the suburbs, far from the hustle and bustle of downtown.  We hit the mother lode last weekend when we visited The Rotten Bunch Wine Bar + Kitchen, in the Avery Ranch neighborhood of northwest Austin. The restaurant’s proprietors – Arik Skot Williams and Alan Thomas – take pride in delivering “great food, great wine, good value and no pretense”.   And they do all of this in a space that is approachable, laid-back and filled with employees that truly seem to enjoy their jobs.  To say I am a fan of The Rotten Bunch is an understatement.  Keep reading and you will soon understand why.

The restaurant opened about a year ago and the vegan and I had frequented it once prior to last Saturday.  We would have blogged about our initial visit but that was before Kellie and I set out upon our journey to discover dining harmony for carnivores and vegans.    I mention our first visit because, unbeknownst to the vegan and I, that is where our second visit to The Rotten Bunch begins. . . . .

When we arrived at the restaurant last Saturday evening, without a reservation on the books, the place was busy but not packed, and we opted for a seat at the bar.  Kellie and I often choose bar seating because it affords us a better chance to visit with our server, take pictures of our meals for our posts, and get a better view of the operation without disturbing other guests.  As we took our seats we were greeted by a friendly server named Jen.  This is where the magic of The Rotten Bunch begins.  Jen welcomed us as a server normally does and then, with a look of recognition on her face, she flashed a giant smile and said “I’m so glad ya’ll came back to see us”.   I figured this was a remark that she makes to nearly every table she sees, in an attempt to make her guests feel welcome and appreciated.  In fact, that wasn’t the case whatsoever.  She actually remembered us from the first visit so many months ago, and went on to remind us about the slight mishap we encountered with the appetizer (Brussels sprouts & fingerlings)  coming out after our entrees had arrived.  At my realization that she not only recognized us, but actually recalled the smallest details of our experience, (which Kellie and I had totally forgotten) I was amazed!  Talk about making a guest feel welcome and appreciated!   Jen knocked it out of the park and set the tone for what was certain to be a memorable second visit.

In addition to apparently having the memory of an elephant, our server also possessed significant wine selecting skills.  She asked a couple questions about my preference in wine, and made a suggestion that I was skeptical about at first.  She offered a tasting pour, and I was hooked at the first sip.  I believe it was a Pinot/Syrah blend, and it was FANTASTIC!!    Like our first visit, Kellie and I chose the Brussels sprouts and fingerling appetizer to start our meal.  Bear in mind that, since we share the appetizer, the dish is devoid of butter, bacon, cheese, etc.  In other words, I didn’t really expect to enjoy the appetizer all that much because none of the wonderful carnivorous tastes that I enjoy were present.   I was floored at how tasty the vegan friendly dish was.  I honestly think I enjoyed it more than the vegan at the table.

My entrée was off the specials board and was simply a 5oz filet coupled with mashed potatoes and asparagus.   I believe it was offered with a truffle oil topping but I despise all things truffle, so I opted for a “naked” steak cooked medium.  I specifically chose this dish because I wanted to test the chef to see if he could deliver a quality cut of beef cooked perfectly, and not masked with flavors from a sauce of any sort.  The chef delivered the best tasting steak that I have eaten in quite some time.  It was cooked EXACTLY as I had asked, and was tender enough for me to cut it with a butter knife (which I actually did).  I didn’t even have to add salt and pepper.  The accompaniments were wonderful, especially the mashed potatoes.  Another call out for Jen’s wine selection; it paired perfectly with the beef.

And finally, the ever present question about carnivores and vegans dining in harmony.  Obviously the carnivore side of this coin is an easy and anticipated positive note.  The difficulty lies on the vegan side.  While  The Rotten Bunch sufficiently accommodated the vegan’s dietary needs on this visit, the vegan friendly options, without the need to custom order, are few (There was only 1).  This is always the case, as the ratio of vegans to carnivores is so significantly skewed to the carnivores favor.  I would challenge The Rotten Bunch to add a second vegan friendly dish on the standard menu.  I am confident that the Austin vegan community would welcome the modification and it would result not only in repeat business but in a positive word of mouth recommendation amongst the plant eaters in the area.    All that being said, this dining experience was better than most, in every regard.  This carnivore awards The Rotten Bunch with four cow faces and the sincerest of thanks for a quality dining experience.

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Last weekend was fairly dreary and as the reality of January set in, the weekend was a welcome distraction.  Looking forward however, we realized we have so many places to eat and so little time so we decided to review a place nearby, one we had once visited prior to our blogging days.  This Cedar Park restaurant, The Rotten Bunch, is one to which we often refer using several pet names – “The Hateful Grape”, “The Naughty Vine”, etc.  I suppose it’s because we are getting older (Happy Birthday Carnivore!) and just can’t remember sometimes so we play it up as cute so as not to highlight this fact!  That said, it deserves remembering as we had a wonderful experience.

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We were seated by the bar and our server/bartender (Jennifer) remembered us immediately as she had been our prior server.  What a memory!  She discussed some wines with us and even brought us a sample as we perused the menu.  Having had the vegan discussion with her last time, I knew what I wanted to order.  To start, we ordered the Brussels sprouts and fingerlings sans reggiano.  The carnivore and I agree that Brussels are pretty much the best and order them frequently.  These Brussels are served with a creamy toasted walnut puree and sweet golden raisins which balance sweet and savory beautifully.  The fingerling potatoes added a hearty and starchy quality that pleased us both as well.  In fact Larry had to double check that he was allowed to eat this since I often get first dibs on the veggies and I almost told him no!

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For my main course I ordered smoked chickpeas and kale which I am proud to announce is vegan as is!  I love that.  I can’t speak for all vegans but honestly I really hate “special ordering”.  While I do it and am not shy about asking for what I want, I hate the judgement that frankly often comes from my dining companions.  That said, I must commend my carnivore as he has NEVER made me feel this way.  In fact he will often speak up for me and advocate for my needs when I don’t.  Anyways back to the food.  I happen to love chickpeas any way shape and form but these were cooked to the perfect consistency in olive oil and seasoned well with paprika and garlic.  My proof?  Larry was not offended by my scent after and he’s not one to hide his anti-garlic stance!  Also I am not a kale fan (gasp!).  Have I mentioned this before?  It just doesn’t do it for me.  Perhaps I don’t know how to make it well.  The only times I enjoy it is when a restaurant cooks it well for me.  This chef managed to do just that.  Also it was just enough kale without overwhelming the dish.  So I thank you, Rotten Bunch, for helping this vegan eat her greens!  And protein.

I rate the Rotten Bunch four rutabagas.  This was tough for me as I waffled between three and four.  I would love it if Rotten Bunch could add a few more items for me but the service and possibly the wine ultimately pushed them to four.  But please consider my request as I know we will be back!

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