Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Blue Frog Grill - Guest Review

Things are hopping in Marshall

by Jeanne Damoff author of You and Me, Sister

On the corner of West Austin and North Washington, in the heart of Marshall, Texas, a jaunty blue frog in tuxedo and top hat grins at passersby. He has every reason to be happy. He stands guard over a treasure.

Innovation isn’t easy in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and no one minds stating his mind. It takes a brave soul to venture out, introduce old ideas in a new way, and patiently explain what and why, while trying to attract clientele. But when it works, everyone wins.

Among the visionaries helping bring downtown Marshall back to life, Shawne Somerford has to be one of the most energetic, creative, and fun. The Blue Frog Grill makes the fourth restaurant she’s launched within a two-block area, all of them occupying old buildings and incorporating original architecture into the design. Shiny hard-wood floors, ancient brick, and elaborate crown mold set a back drop for modern elements like shiny chrome lights, wi-fi, and—best of all—a fabulous menu emphasizing ingredients from local farmers and sustainability.

Brown paper table-cloths allow patrons to leave messages or artwork behind. One large round table near the front window is called “the community table”—reserved for people who come in alone but would prefer to enjoy conversation with their meal.

George, Jacob, and I dropped in for lunch today. We’ve lived here for fifteen years—new-comers compared to the royal families who’ve been around since before the civil war, but long enough to know we’d see familiar faces. Sure enough, Rebekah, the hostess who greeted us, grew up with our kids. Our waitress, Olivia, attends our church. Her father, Nate, plays with me in the praise band, and will be performing jazz piano at the Blue Frog on News Years Eve.

That’s another cool thing. Live music. Often it’s provided by Grady Lee, local Texas folk singer-songwriter and owner of a nearby B&B, High Cotton Inn. Today, however, a regular table occupied the small corner stage to best accommodate the lunch crowd. As I made my way around the restaurant taking photographs, I stopped at that table to visit with Frank Strauss, chairman of the Twelve-Way Foundation, and his wife, Bonnie, a lovely woman who works tirelessly for the Michelson Museum of Art a few blocks away. I also chatted with Chrys, a friend from church, and her daughter, Ginni, who were seated near the counter where wait staff picked up orders, and where I snagged some shots of the executive chef at work.

Chef Brett Spivy apprenticed under Giuseppe Brucia, a chef in Shreveport, Louisiana, which explains the Cajun slant to some of the recipes. Which brings me to the food. Which is amazing.

George ordered the special: BBQ brisket, creamy potatoes, and green beans. I asked him to describe the sauce, and he had a hard time finding the right words—only managing between healthy bites to say it wasn’t like anything off a grocery-store shelf and that it was very good. So I was forced to try a bite. (The sacrifices we make for journalism.) He was right. Delicious. Different. Slightly indescribable. Later when the chef made rounds of the tables, we found out why.

Jacob ordered “Dogs on the Grill,” a ¼ lb. kosher beef hot dog loaded with chili, bacon, “krispy kraut,” cheese, mustard, slaw, and/or peppers. I didn’t taste it, but Jacob gave it thumbs up. (It’s not polite to talk with your mouth full.)

I ordered the Rueben. I’m actually a bit of a Rueben snob, and this one didn’t let me down. But, as much as I love a good Rueben, I have to say the russet fries stole my heart. When Chef Spivy came by our table, I asked him why they’re so tasty. For starters, they use real potatoes, sliced fresh in their own kitchen. Then they dip them in a mixture of flour, garlic powder, cayenne, fresh cracked pepper, and kosher salt. I’m about as anti-junk-food as a girl can get, and I couldn’t stop eating those fries. (Next time, though, I think I’m going to go for the sweet potato fries. Olivia said they’re her favorite item on the whole menu.)

As an environmental biologist, George was particularly interested in the philosophy of sustainability, so he asked Chef Spivy about their methods. They begin by buying as much as possible from local farmers and vendors within a 30-mile range. This cuts down on energy used for transport, ensures freshness, and also supports the local economy. They buy their dairy products from a farmer in Gladewater, and a lot of their produce comes from an organic, hydroponics farmer in Winnsboro. Less than 12% of their supplies come from farther than 90 miles away, and that’s usually tropical fruit or other items that can’t be grown in this region.

When George asked what they do with potato peels or other organic refuse, we learned the secret of the BBQ sauce. Spivy uses beef bones and vegetable matter to make demi-glace that is reduced to stock for making brown sauces. Long simmering of combined flavors produces fabulous sauces while conserving resources. Any excess food is donated to places like the HiWay 80 Mission in Longview or the Twelve-Way Foundation.

We also visited with Shawne, the general manager, and she explained that they buy organic foods as much as possible and use environmentally friendly cleaning products. It’s all part of their over-all vision – hearkening to life in these parts decades ago, a way of life that has passed from public consciousness in this era where the reach of mega farms and the international shipping of foods extends even to small-town East Texas. But she says it’s worth the extra work and expense to remain true to the vision and to help educate others in sustainability. She’s even started a blog in her “spare” time to promote the restaurant and its philosophy.

The Blue Frog Grill just opened in September, so you could say it’s still in its tadpole stage. They’ve recently begun serving a Saturday morning, New Orleans-style brunch, complete with Eggs Benedict, Omelets, Sweet Cream Waffles, Smoked Salmon, Garlic Cheese Grits, House-made Sweets, and more. After the New Year, Chef Spivy plans to start cooking classes, and the pastry chef, Deon, will offer lessons as well.

After we paid our bill, Olivia brought us the customary complimentary cookies, hot from the oven. Chopped candy bars and nuts, baked into chewy dough. Mmmm. Shawne was so encouraged by our interest, she gave us a fresh, hot loaf of Chef Deon’s sourdough bread. It’s sitting beside me on the table right now, and I can smell the fabulous aroma even through the wrapper. As full as I am from lunch, I’m thinking a slice of warm, crusty sourdough with a cup of coffee might be just the right reward for typing up this review.

If you’re ever in Marshall, give me a call and we’ll do lunch. I know the perfect place, and I’ll be looking for every excuse to go back.

Jeanne's Blue Frog Grill Photos

Note: Two Eating Fred, Texas reviewers have novels set in Marshall, TX. Escape from Fred by the blog host is set in Marshall in the mid 1970s. Finding Hollywood Nobody by guest reviewer Lisa Samson is set in present-day Marshall, TX.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lamberts Redux

Late-breaking update: When The Woman headed south after work for an orgy of shopping at the outlet malls with The Good Daughter, I threaded my way down Lamar to Lamberts to see GloverTango. I was in for a rare night. It was like stepping into a parallel universe. You may not realize that there is a Tango Underground lurking in Austin. Well, wake up and smell the bandoneĆ³n. Tango enthusiasts descend on Lamberts every Thursday night and it is well worth the time and expense to experience it at least once. I pulled out my journal and scribbled down some notes:

I have stumbled onto the Austin Tango Underground. In the bar upstairs from the gourmet BBQ joint (there's an oxymoron) a slender man with a peg-leg, wearing shorts(!), a black turtleneck sweater with the sleeves pushed up to reveal a second skin of tattoos solid to the wrist, hair slicked back, sits at a piano with his back to us. A blonde woman in black jacket, slacks and boots plays violin. They play classic tango.

Couples of every age dance in slow, deliberate and impassioned movements the foreordained steps of the tango. Some are obviously celebrities for their apparent skill and grace, regarded reverentially by other dancers as they command the floor. An older man, dark hair and mustache (dyed?) dances with an impossibly tall, slender and lithesome woman less than half his age. She seems to posses the grace of a gazelle and the stature of a giraffe. She could rest her chin on the top of his head, but she defers.

The first clue that the game was afoot revealed itself in a small thing. The elderly man next to me (who looked like Chris Elliot's much older brother) pulled a pair of beige stiletto heels from a black bag and gave them to his wife, who removed the black sensible heels that matched her dress, and exchanged them. He also changed his shoes. The moment the music began, they were on the dance floor.

When I read that GloverTango performed the music of Argentina and then saw the man on stage, my mind filled with visions of the grandson of Third Reich henchmen on the lam from rogue Nazi hunters. The truth is more prosaic, but the music and the crowd are unforgettable.

This time around I got the BBQ platter, brisket. It was exceptionally nice and the brisket was lean and smoky. I also tried the wild boar ribs. Small, but phenomenal.

Do you have enough reasons to go to Lamberts, now? Sheesh, just pick a night. Something cool is bound to be going down.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Austin Java - Podcast

It's good all over

Ian and The Wunderfool lounge on the back deck of the original Austin Java location and chase multiple conversational rabbits, attempting, with moderate success, to link them back to Austin Java.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


A century ago, eating local was pretty much the only choice you had. Now it is a conscious decision. If you don't deliberately eat local, you're eating stuff from everywhere but local. And I don't mean just from a highly-automated industrial megafarm in another state. I mean from another hemisphere.

You may remember Lisa's review of Al's Bar, or Will's review of Stella's Kentucky Deli where he said:

The average food item travels 1,546 miles to get to your grocery store. The average food item at Stella's travels about 15 miles. And you can taste the difference.

or my reviews of places like Kerbey Lane where I mentioned:

The thing at Kerbey Lane is the ingredients. The pesticide-free, vine-ripened tomatoes, squash, okra, spinach, strawberries, field greens and more are locally grown at the Lamar farm, picked fresh and then taken for a short drive to the cafe. By the time you eat them, they are still quivering from the shock of being separated from the parent plant and are wondering where they are. And, as anyone who eats really fresh veggies knows, that makes all the difference.

Edible Austin, a community-based quarterly publication that promotes the abundance of local foods, season by season, is launching Eat Local Week, not only to promote local food producers, but to benefit Urban Roots, an organization that uses sustainable agriculture as a means to effect lasting change for youth participants, and to nourish East Austin residents who currently have limited access to healthy foods.

Yes, little Jimmy, this is how you can become a online foodie blogger. Cut and paste text from other websites to create a 60+ word sentence that sounds like it came from a Dilbert mission statement generator.

The nice thing is that a ton of Austin restaurants are participating, including many that have been reviewed here, like the Alamo Drafthouse, Iron Cactus, NXNW, the Satay Restaurant and, yes, Kerbey Lane. And also places I've been but haven't had time to review, yet, like Guero's Taco Bar, Z'Tejas and Teo. And places I've tried to go, but didn't have time for the wait, like the Eastside Cafe. They all have specials featuring locally grown ingredients. I'm going to do my best to hit several, if I can fit them in among all the holiday hilarity going down at Casa Wunderfool.

Also, a dozen markets, farmers and otherwise, are participating. I know whereof I speak regarding farmers markets, as back in the day as a youth in Fred, Texas, I worked on a truck farm, picking all manner of fresh produce, including corn, okra, watermelon, tomatoes (Which often disintegrated into tomato fights when we discovered rotten ones. My strategy was to stockpile the rotten ones as I found them. Then, when the inevitable first strike came from one of my companions, I could respond with overwhelming fire power.), purple hull and silver hull crowders, and butter beans (which paid by the hour, not the usual $0.05/pound rate for picking, since they were so small). I did my share of reaching down into the plants and brushing up against a bull nettle hidden in the rows. Wikipedia talks about various anti-itch treatments, but they don't mention the one commonly advocated in the fields in Fred, that of urinating on the affected area. I never tried it myself, preferring to just tough it out.

But, back to the farmers market. Sometimes we would accompany the farmer's family to the market in Beaumont and help sell the stuff we'd picked all week. Lots of interesting things to see (and eat) at a farmers market!

So, if you're in the area this week, check it out and tell me how it went. If not, check out a farmer's market in your area, or a restaurant that features locally grown food. They're not that hard to find. They are becoming more popular by the minute because fresh veggies just plain taste better.

Monday, December 03, 2007


BBQ and Jams, baby!


I'd made a few trips to Lamberts before to get my porterdavis fix, but that was for the 10:30 set. (Which around here means after 11:00.) Consequently I had only sampled the beers on tap. Then I had occasion to email Dick Gimble about a songwriting project and he mentioned that his daughter, Emily, was in Austin, rocking the citizens in a jazz combo called the Jitterbug Vipers for the Tuesday night 6:30 set at Lamberts. I got the email on a Tuesday (rush hour date night), so I picked up The Woman after work and we slithered through the traffic-clogged metropolis along Lamar, cutting over to Guadalupe on MLK when the going got rough.

We were settled on the second floor of Lamberts by 6:15. I wasn't shocked to see the stage completely bare. If the band showed up before 6:40 for the 6:30 set, they would probably be arrested for disturbing the peace. True to form for this town, they began trickling in about the time we ordered our appetizer and started playing about the time we got our entree, close to 7:30. That's no reflection on the band. It's just the rule.

But we'll get to the band later. Let's talk about the food.

When you think BBQ, you probably think pricier than a burger or TexMex, but cheaper than a steak house. You'll have to re-think your parameters for Lamberts. First off, there's a full menu, with appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. That's the first clue you're not in a typical BBQ joint. Well, actually, the first clue should hit about the time you step into the 130+ year old building, restored at the turn of the millennium to its 1873 splendor. The second clue is when you discover three chefs are running the place.

The appetizers run $6 to $16, salads $8 to $12, and entrees $10 to $28. Since we were there for the music, we were restricted to the bar menu, which includes the appetizers, Frito Pie, the Hanger Steak, two sandwiches, and a BBQ plate, ranging from $6 to $16.

We decided to declare a celebration for The Woman's promotion and threw caution out the barred windows. We ordered the high-end appetizer, House Made Charcuteries and Local Artisan Cheeses at $16. What arrived was a work of art: a Lincoln-log house of grilled sourdough surrounded by four cheeses and four types of pate - foie gras, pork, salmon and rabbit. It was accompanied by honey, a mustard mixture, pickles, olives and capers. It was a new experience for both of us and we experimented with various combinations, probably violating every epicurean rule in existence. It was great and I'd get it again in a minute, but it was a lot of appetizer for two people. I'd like to see a cheese-only option on the menu.

The Woman followed with the Smoked Natural Beef Salpicon, which is basically the fanciest soft tacos you'll ever eat. They were incredible, worth every penny of the $11. I went for the Oak Grilled Harris Ranch Natural Hanger Steak. It looked like a shake roof after a hurricane and tasted great. It came with Fried Egg in the Hole, which was a donut-shaped piece of Texas Toast with a fried egg in the center, grilled onions, half an avocado and sliced tomato. The combination suited me down to the ground.

We took our time and grooved out to the music when we were done, leaving plenty of time to get to dessert. The Jitterbug Vipers were cranking out the tunes like a well-oiled machine, mainly jazz classics. Emily's voice struck me as all the good parts of Billie Holiday meets Nora Jones. Her piano playing was effortless and sublime. Francie was on upright bass, grinning behind opaque shades, barefoot and rocking from one foot to the other on the beat. Slim Richey on guitar reminded me of Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural cartoon from the 60s. In straw hat, Blues Brother shades, Hawaiian shirt and what looked like Rockport spats, he won the natty dresser award for 2007. He's one mean picker. Jon played some soulful sax. I could have listened all night, but The Woman was going to turn into a pumpkin, so we ordered dessert.

She got the Fried Blackberry Pie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. It didn't look that impressive, but the first bite removed all doubt. It was excellent. We fought over each bite, I snagged a Viper's CD for $10 and we hit the road.

We didn't even touch the main menu. Another day, although with the attraction of live music on the second floor, I don't know if I'll ever want to stay downstairs to try it out, even thought it's bound to be wonderful. This is high-star-count dining, folks, regardless of the BBQ designation. Plan on going, soon.