Sunday, January 8, 2012

What Might Have Been

Mandola's Italian Market
4700 West Guadalupe
(near where Guadalupe joins Lamar)

There was a time when I would have gone to Austin for no reason, just to hang out there. Now, though, I have to have a reason. The reason I had this time was about as flimsy as they come, but it was good enough. The day promised to be just barely warm enough (eventually) to drop the top on the ol' roller skate, so I collected my sidekick from his house out in Loopland and we scooted up the road to the Big City.

Before going, though, I made a survey of the relevant pages on Urbanspoon, to pick a restaurant for lunch in that  increasingly unfamiliar land of New Age trend-whores. Mandola's was one of six I chose, and in the end it was the one we opted to sample, largely because its description reminded me of the Central Grocery, in New Orleans, an old Italian market on Decatur Street, in the Vieux Carré, that I used to visit in ancient times. I recalled the fantastic atmosphere of that place: the sounds of people speaking in French, Italian, English and Spanish, often within the same sentence; the exotic goods stacked high on tables and crammed into shelves; and most importantly the aromas. There is probably no finer memory for a prepubescent New Orleans boy than the spicy aromas of the Central Grocery. 

But I think there must be something wrong with me.

It's ironic, because my friend Rick has been complaining for weeks now about his sinus condition, what with the belated advent of our Mountain Cedar Allergy Season: but he walked into Mandola's Italian Market and was positively wrapped up in the jumble of smells. I, whose sinuses refuse to acknowledge mountain cedar or any other pollen, could smell ... nothing. Nothing at all. No oregano, no rosemary, no comino, no yeasty bread smells, no spaghetti sauce bubbling in the kitchen, no scent of onions and peppers and beef and sausage and cheese. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Mandola is located in one of those brand-spankin'-new mixed-use developments, combining ground-level commercial space with residential space above; the kind of development meant to evoke a time when there really weren't any isolated commercial areas, where whole cities were flats above shops. It's an attractive enough development in a sterile, out-of-the-catalogue way. Very nearly the same development, in different brick, was built across the road from the Quarry in San Antonio, and another permutation of it slouches along 281 near the big new golf resort. This one in Austin seems to be on a different scale, though; kind of like that reproduction of the Oval Office down at the LBJ Library, done ninety percent of actual size. The parking spaces seem tight, the roadways narrow, the doorways not quite as wide as in the Real World. In actuality, they're just as wide as anywhere else, so it must be something about the air in Austin that makes me feel so confined. Odd, that.

The place consists, essentially, of two rooms: a glass-walled dining room of distressed tables with no-frills (but comfortable) chairs, a drinks station and a wait-station; and a shop room, with a small bakery, gelateria, deli and market, and a counter where one orders to dine in. It all looks very nice. The shelves are stocked with things Italian; the breads are fresh, the gelato is home-made, the pastries are ... utterly, utterly gorgeous. There are a few tables in there, too, with no crowding. 

But no smells. Nothing.

I chose a small salad and lasagna, a good dish to evaluate an Italian restaurant on. I'm intimately familiar with lasagna through a lifetime's consumption, and I know what a good lasagna tastes like, and looks like, and feels like, and smells like. Rick ordered an appetizer of calamari and zucchini, and a chopped antipasto salad.

It was warm enough, by then, to have been a good day to dine al fresco, but all the outside tables were taken, and the people there had that look that says it would take heavy ordnance to dislodge them. Not wanting to make such a scene, we found a table in the main dining room and compared my sensory deprivation to Rick's overload. Before long, a waiter brought my salad and a basket of foccacia.

The salad, I will say, was good. The ingredients were perhaps as fresh as any can be, short of chowing down on them in the field. The dressing, a traditional oil-and-vinegar Italian, was tangy, and applied with a deft hand. There was enough of it to flavour every bite, but not so much that it pooled in the bowl or dribbled onto clothing and table. The bread, on the other hand, was a disappointment. It was barely adequately baked, and while light and spongy, as it should be, it seemed to lack any flavour at all. I suspect, though, that if I had invested the necessary time to assemble a plate of oil and spices for dipping, it would have been an altogether more pleasant accompaniment; as it was, it was just bread.

The other dishes we ordered arrived all at once. We shared the calamari and zucchini, which filled a dinner sized plate. The calamari was expertly done, avoiding that rubbery texture that is so often the fate of fried squid, and the zucchini was coated in the same lightly seasoned batter. The marinara sauce that accompanied the dish, though, was a letdown, being entirely too bland to be of use except as (unnecessary) moisturizer.

What's that mean?
Sadly, that same bland marinara sauce covered my lasagna. Because of my seeming insensitivity to aroma, I had Rick confirm that it had, essentially, no aroma. It was tomato sauce with a little parsley in it; I could taste no other seasoning. This was particularly sad because, otherwise, the lasagna would have been excellent: a good-sized portion, with plenty of tasty meat and cheese in layers with perfectly cooked pasta.

Rick's salad was the best of the dishes we ordered. It had plenty of that same crispy Romaine lettuce, with two meats, two kinds of cheese, three kinds of beans, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, pickled onions and peppers, and diced heart of palm, all covered with an excellent creamy dressing. If I were rating only that, Mandola's Italian Market would qualify for a bold-faced listing in my index. As it is, though, it gets the equivalent of a C.
Mandola's Italian Market on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Local Best

Chess Club Cafe
1020 Highway 281 South
Blanco, Texas

Being the best place to eat in a little town like Blanco isn't all that tough. Oh, I know: there are places there that have their partisans, restaurants that show the occasional whiff of flair in concept, menu or preparation, or maybe just a place that made you feel particularly welcome one day. But by and large, Blanco, like most small American towns, get by with a handful of ordinary cafés and diners, maybe a fast-food franchise or three, and a beer hall that sells burgers and nachos and calls itself a grill. Sometimes they add an "e" to the end to make it seem classier, but it's still a bar and grill.

For unpretentious little Blanco, population 2,205, the culinary bar was raised just a skosh when the Chess Club Cafe opened a couple of years ago. Out on the south end of town, nestled in between the Dollar General store and one of the newer fast-food places, its laid-back blue-and-white hand-painted sign can barely compete with the vibrant reds and yellows of its neighbours; and being set well back from the road, under the spread of a couple of ancient oak trees, it hardly is a place that leaps out at passing travelers.

The major distinction of the Chess Club is that they do all their own food preparation, from the mayonnaise to the pastries. Better still, they actually do a good job at it.

This visit was just a coffee break, but even so it was extraordinary. The coffee was strong; not a characteristic calculated to recommend it to me, but unlike the high-octane brew at most Starbucks-era coffee shops, this managed strength without the acidic bitterness that Seattle-style coffees cherish. It was, even in its powerful state, understated.

To accompany that, we asked for a random selection of pastries. Our waitress gave us an apple danish, a cheese danish, a cinnamon roll and a peanut-butter brownie.

I'm not wild about cinnamon rolls, but this one was better than most. Rather than trying for the steroidal size that is a selling point in some restaurants back in town, Chess Club has gone for quality, and attained it. The roll was light, the dough was yeasty, and the icing was sweet without being cloying. The overall effect was much like I remember cinnamon rolls in the era before they were a trend.

What's that mean?
The peanut-butter brownie was tasty, too, with a mild peanut-butter flavour, and a light drizzle of chocolate icing; but it had an uneven texture. The ends were just about as they should have been, but the middle part seemed to be retaining a little water. That flaw, though, wasn't significant enough to seriously overcome the overall quality of the thing.

The danishes were exquisite. Both had a light puff-pastry shell folded around truly outstanding fillings and drizzled with sugar. The apple filling was marvelously seasoned with cinammon and, I believe nutmeg, and had a fine consistency. The cream cheese filling was perhaps the best I have tasted in many years. Just writing this a day later makes me want another.

And all this was less than ten bucks. You just can't beat that.
Chess Club Cafe on Urbanspoon