It’s strange to think that it’s been ten years since I first visited Foreign & Domestic. In 2010, it was a trendy new restaurant in the booming North Loop area in north-central Austin. It had a dynamic (sometimes fiery) Chef/owner, was getting noticed by some important out of town food critics, and had amazing, inventive food in what had been a relatively quiet residential neighborhood. A lucky few could actually walk from their cozy homes and get fantastic food from a skilled team of chefs without a car trip downtown.
Ten years on, F&D veteran Chef Nathan Lemley and Chef Sarah Heard now own the special little restaurant, and it’s still amazing. In September of 2007, original owner, Chef Ned Elliot, decided to move onto other projects, and the pair decided to take the plunge.
A common thread in F&D’s history is chefs that have a strong family connection with food. Ned Elliott wasn’t driven by a need to surprise (or sometimes shock) with unique proteins; he grew up on a farm where every part of the animal was used. Chef Nathan grew up in a family that ate dinner together every night of the week, making food a big part of his life. Chef Sarah grew up watching her mom and grandmother cook from scratch, developing her taste for well-crafted food.
The two new owners were ideally suited to carry on the F&D legacy.
Chefs Nathan and Sarah met at Parkside, a popular 6th street restaurant which had the unique distinction of being the only high-quality restaurant in a very long stretch of bars in Austin’s original party street.
Both chefs Nathan and Sarah credit Parkside’s Chef Shawn Cirkiel as having had a strong influence on their development. Cirkeil’s guidance in cooking philosophy, cohesive menus and atmosphere, and even management style can be seen at F&D.
Generally, little has changed from the original restaurant. Their focus is still; providing a comfortable atmosphere, making creative farm-to-table food, and having friendly, attentive service.
Though the North Loop area is not as crowded as it once was, the restaurant has a very loyal neighborhood and foodie following.
It’s forty-seven-seat capacity usually warrants a reservation, with patio seating being most popular as the weather cools off.
I took advantage of two recent cool spells to enjoy an early dinner and confirmed why this is still a well-loved Austin dining spot.
We started our dinner with one of our favorite menu items from F&D’s early days, the Gruyere & black pepper popovers. These are very large, airy bread rolls baked a deep golden brown and topped with shaved gruyere cheese. They come with a side of “charred onion butter,” literally blackened onion, powdered and blended into a creamy, spreadable butter. For bread lovers – this is one of the best things you will find anywhere.
I had the luck of having a good long conversation with Chef Sarah a few weeks ago, and I explained that their menu was always tricky for me. Everything sounds good, so many great combinations of favorite things, from heirloom tomatoes, Texas peaches, gnocchi to excellent meats, and fish. It all tied back to the fact that she and Chef Nathan tend to feature what they love too.
We paired our popovers with two salads – the first was beautiful wedges of tomatoes on a bed of soft chèvre, tossed with a light vinaigrette, chopped hazelnuts, and mint marigold leaves (think tarragon.) The second was sliced Texas peaches with ricotta, candied pecans in a smoked pecan vinaigrette. Both salads had great flavor combinations and were only made better by well-buttered chunks of popover.
I’m a massive fan of pork, so the large Berkshire pork chop was a must. The perfectly tender pork chop was served on succotash, but this stuff was a far cry from the canned offense that would haunt you as a kid. Here it’s a flavorful mixture of diced zucchini, tomato, fresh corn, onions, and herbs. It has a familiar grandma’s home cooking flavor that was just a joy to eat.
Over the last couple of years, one sweet dish has really stood out and has been kept on the menu in various seasonal forms. Chef Sarah’s Buttermilk pie started as something she liked to make for Nathan. The strawberry version debuted on Valentine’s Day and has since been followed by a blackberry and cardamom version, one topped with grilled peaches, and a winter molasses version that I’m looking forward to trying someday.
For the end of our meal, we ordered the Blackberry Buttermilk pie and the Olive Oil Cake, which came with a peach-ginger and chèvre ice cream, plus a few marigold mint leaves sprinkled on top.
To me, F&D’s buttermilk pie has endured because though sweet, it’s well balanced with lemon zest and other flavors that moderate the impact of the sugar.
Our second dessert, Olive Oil Cake, is an ancient style of pastry traditional to areas that grow olives like Italy and Spain, and Greece. Although relatively new to the US, where cakes have primarily used neutral vegetable oils, olive oil works because it provides moisture and richness without calling too much attention to itself. F&D’s version is rich and complex and terrific with the unique ice cream.
Since I’m a creature of habit, I had much the same meal a few weeks later but took along a chef friend for company. One pleasant surprise is that on Tuesdays, F&D features fresh oysters. We reserved a dozen of the New Hampshire ‘Fat Dogs’ and were sad we hadn’t reserved a spare. The oysters had a very mild brine and had a great flavor on their own. (Paired with a cold Premier Cru Chablis – Tuesday maybe the new go-to night)
With so much food variety, it can be hard to choose a bottle of wine that covers all the bases; happily, F&D’s menu features ten wines by the glass and sports sixty-eight labels by the bottle.
Their wine program leans toward biodynamic/natural small production wines.
The list is mostly Spain, France, and Italy, but with many eclectic offerings like Basque Txakoli, Jacquère from Savoy, Sardinian Vermentino, and Spanish Bobal. There’s even a sprinkling of Texas favorites from William Chris, C.L. Butaud, and the smaller Southold Farm & Cellar.
For beer lovers, the drinks list is rounded nicely with a variety of local artisan pilsners, IPAs, and stouts in standard and larger formats. There is even a couple of Italian and French ciders available.
On a final note, Covid has undoubtedly changed the landscape of our dining experiences. Many places have limited menus, others having suffered the loss of chefs, don’t seem quite the same. Also, sadly, many restaurants will never return.
Given that hardship, it seems particularly important to support small restaurants that have managed to maintain their food quality and, in doing so, maintained our quality of life.
Foreign & Domestic is at 306 E 53rd St, Austin, TX 78751
By Richard Arebalo
OTL Features Editor