Gardner: Good Food, Mostly Plants

Originally published in Austin Monthly, February 2015 Issue

GARDNER SERVES UP A VEGETABLE-FOCUSED MENU THAT’S ANYTHING BUT GARDEN VARIETY

“Eat your vegetables.” It’s a parent’s perennial plea. And kids hear it like a threat: Your vegetables, or else. What did veggies ever do to deserve that? From Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted edict—“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”—to Meatless Mondays, why do so many of us need to be convinced that eating vegetables is a smart idea? A plant-based diet is good for your health and the environment. Yeah, yeah. Now pass the pork.

Here in Austin, another argument has been made that vegetables deserve the starring role on your dinner plate with the opening of Gardner, the second venture by Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart, the team behind Mueller-area favorite Contigo. Neither vegetarian nor of the earth-mother ilk, Gardner is an elegant, refined establishment that’s “vegetable forward.” Almost every item on the menu is built around seasonal vegetables. 

Oh, there is meat to be had at Gardner. But it’s used sparingly, more like a condiment. Take one of the tiniest dishes, broccoli, from the snacks portion of the four-part menu, which also includes first and seconds, followed by a cheese/dessert course. It’s a singular smoky stalk of charred broccoli, dusted with pork salt and served with a bit of béarnaise for dipping. The pork salt isn’t salt at all. It’s coppa, a salt-cured, air-dried salume made from pork neck, that’s been frozen with liquid nitrogen and blended to render it powdered. Broccoli never had it so good. 

Snacks such as these prepare your palate for the kind of culinary experience you’ll get at Gardner. There are also subtly layered flavors, a fondness for the sour note and lots of textural contrast. Even the decor echoes this latter element. With its unadorned walls and earthy palette, the dining room seems spare and simple. Then you notice the glossy polish of the concrete floor and walls, the grain of the wood furniture and the wabi-sabi stoneware water pitchers. It’s a gorgeous space, though without many soft surfaces to absorb the sound, it can get loud at the height of dinner service.

And this is how those elements play out on the plate: In parsnip, a second course, one large root is roasted in beef fat to lend smokiness to its naturally floral sweetness, then drizzled with brown butter and topped with a mix of smoked and fried beech mushrooms (the textural contrast) and capers (the sour note). The first-course okra, too, demonstrates the multi-textured veg, with some pods roasted and some fried, and it has the sour punch of crème frâiche and a meat condiment of pork back fat, frozen in liquid nitrogen then powdered. Though I'm unreasonably fond of okra, this was the most disappointing dish I tried. The okra itself was too salty and the powdered pork fat meant for dipping seemed to sit on top of the bite rather than augment it.

Some of the most successful dishes—all quite excellent—were the mackerel, a first course of the lightly tart fish studded with pickled huckleberries, marigold flowers and a fennel-apple puree; a bowl of tender buckwheat noodles, delicately flavored with orange, mixed with an egg yolk to make a creamy sauce and topped with slivers of fresh Swiss chard; and the cabbage, a full quarter of a head, braised in sour Flemish ale and served atop duck confit. I also tried the root vegetables, a variety of seasonal choices each prepared in the way that best brings out its particular flavor and served together in a sour fermented mushroom broth. The treatment of these humble bulbs and tubers and the combination of flavors was wonderfully unusual, fully satisfying and surprisingly beautiful looking. This was my favorite savory dish (and one of the few fully vegetarian ones) of the nine I sampled over my two visits. 

I have two minor gripes with Gardner: On my first visit, I confess I was disappointed when the main part of our meal was over. I wanted more: food, because I was still hungry, and experience, because I wasn’t quite ready for the night to end. But lingering over the cheese course mitigated my disappointment. And while all of the dishes we tried were expertly executed with compelling flavors, many registered as somewhat impersonal. Diners don’t usually mind their dish being a showcase, so long as they can connect with it somehow. 

I have no such issues with Gardner’s desserts, which are truly exceptional. Take the carrot, which starts with a smear of tangy-sweet buttermilk sarsaparilla cream that’s then topped with refreshing, citrus-flavored carrot cake crumbles that consist of freshly grated carrots more than cake. It also came with a little quenelle of carrot sorbet scattered with carrot-leaf granita, both of which also somehow taste more carroty than carrots themselves. So too with the hay, an abstract take on the peanut butter and jelly combination, where apples are smoked over hay and some of the hay ash is added to the hazelnut cake to give it a nice smoky element. Both are paired with apple gelee, shards of a wonderful apple meringue and a lovely hay ice cream, slightly tannic and grassy in a way that recalls green tea. Both desserts are irreverent takes on familiar favorites that surprise and delight while still managing to show off Pastry Chef Steven Cak’s technical proficiency. 

On the whole, Gardner makes a compelling argument for putting vegetables at center stage. One of my dining companions declared that it’s just the way she’d prefer to eat. But not everyone’s going to be convinced: On my second visit, three of the four diners at the table next to us were eating the beef. It’s an excellent dry-aged steak from nearby Salt & Time, served with sweet potatoes smoked over juniper branches, so who can blame them, really. Yes, it’s a traditional, meat-forward dish. And yes, it’s very good. Perhaps so good that it overshadows the vegetable-forward approach Gardner is going for in the first place.