January 2, 2017
"Here's what I made, I hope you like it." In a nutshell, this is the business model of The Hightower, as told by our bartender. Just beyond where the interstate carves into East 7th st., in Austin, The Hightower is something of a neighborhood spot that delivers creative, yet simple food and possesses a bar program that holds its own weight. For that, it is considered a well-kept secret by those familiar.
The space is open, its walls doused in an olive green and cast with dim light. When walking through the front doors, one is given a direct view into the kitchen. A long bar occupies one side of the building; its giant mirror acting like a vanity for an etched vintage look, while a host of tables wrap the opposite wall and are sprinkled throughout.
Having arrived shortly after the break of happy hour, my eating partner and I had free reign over what was a relatively sparse dining area but chose the bar. This also meant an opportunity for conversation and nearly undivided attention from our bartender. The bartender's first quip was one that tied his name to Batman, as the sidekick; a choice of words that built into a double meaning as we compared his strengths with those of his counterpart, the kitchen.
After starting us out with a pair of cocktails, one O.M.D. ($7) and one Kinaloupe ($7), Robin ran through the high points of the menu, suggesting items like the daily Bar Snack ($5), Smoked Catfish Spread ($6.50) and the Salmon Crudo ($8). We bit on all three. (Prices listed reflect happy hour).
The Kinaloupe uses vodka and (take a wild guess) cantaloupe, as well as the herbal aperitif Kina. Sporting a summer freshness, the cocktail was filled with round fruit flavors and a touch of cucumber from the garnish; it felt like a drink that required sun screen and flip flops. We were told to stir the O.M.D., which in fact enhanced the profile as the bitter elements from the Campari and gin were able to fuse with the serene subtleties of the clementine. Robin shared his motif behind the O.M.D., claiming that the scent and taste of a clementine is believed to evoke happiness. You couldn't buy a frown for this corner of the bar.
A leisurely pace for the kitchen lead to quick times for our dishes, while Robin was strategic with his staggering. First up was the Bar Snack, a surprisingly light dish composed of fried balls of pork rillette, with pickles and cheddar wedges on the side. Next to that was the Salmon Crudo; a cut of raw salmon over a sea of gazpacho verde (a tomatillo base) and topped with an herb remedy and crushed cashews. By this time we were also both equipped with one version of each cocktail.
Pronounced notes of cantaloupe effectively cut into the brightness of the salmon, while notes of dill and lime each worked themselves into the herbal complexity offered from the Kina. Of the bunch, this was the best pairing.
While more aggressive in nature, the O.M.D. was still refreshing and crisp, which helped to balance out the sensory overload of meat and smoke that was to come. The Smoked Catfish Spread was served with rye hushpuppies and a smear of caper jam along the rim; the combination ushering in memories of Friday fish dinners. Though in combining just one spoonful of the salty, smoked spread with a hunk of fried dough and dollop of jam made for an even more peculiar flavor association: the taste of hot dogs.
If I had in fact tasted this dish blind, I may have guessed Oscar Mayer (United States, 2016). That's no disrespect to hot dogs, or my deductive reasoning skills, but this unshakable parallel ultimately left a peculiarly modest ceiling on the catfish spread.
To our surprise, a bowl of Brussels Sprouts ($5.50) arrived; a courteous gesture by our bartender which came tied with the distinction of 'must try' (a nod from our bar neighbor). Dressed with house-made peanut butter sauce - the honey added to what was a liquid consistency - and topped with nuts, these sprouts were unlike anything else. Honey toned the blaze of chili and spritz of lemon, while a nutty punch hummed along to bring to life the flavors of roasted vegetables. For less than $6, this dish drives a hard bargain as one of the better happy hour snacks around town.
Approachable and unpretentious, the food and service put out that same neighborhood vibe that was felt walking in the door. It did seem like a place where "you can come for happy hour on Tuesday and still afford to come back for dinner on Friday," as Robin claimed.
Proving to be the worth the wait, our Pork Jowl ($16) concluded the meal. Suggested for its place in the identity of the The Hightower, we soon found out why. The black bowl of heaping rice laid bed to a mound of pickled onions, a halved avocado with slight char, sliced cucumbers, hunks of seared pork jowl (pig cheeks), and a cooked egg yolk nestled in place with micro-greens; at that juncture they were just showing off. The idea was to stir everything together: allow the yolk and avocado to form a creamy base and let the pig sing. Slabs of jowl, their seared edges and graceful lines of fat, made each bite a salty sensation, while influence from the fresh herbs and cucumber kept the palate amused.
Before the meal was through, we were offered by our bar neighbor a share of dessert (by now we figure he's a regular). S'more Fried Pie (not pictured), this is one item that shouldn't need much explanation. It was simple and decadent, while its resistance from going too far in one direction was impressive. As with any dish that truly resonates beyond the next time you get hungry again, this dessert struck a sense of place; fond memories of gooey snacks over the campfire were rekindled. An added touch of Maldon salt, moreover, was key in making the flavors in this transportive dish truly pop.
In a town saturated with sleek, modern restaurants that deploy innovative small plates and as equally of sophisticated cocktail programs, The Hightower provides a comparable experience at an affordable rate. Their take on Texan cuisine and choice to locally source their ingredients makes them worth revisiting, and perhaps even frequenting.
Ate: Bar Snacks, Smoked Catfish Spread, Brussels Sprouts, Salmon Crudo, Pork Jowl
Drank: Kinaloupe, O.M.D.
1209 E 7th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: 4 & 1/2 Pork Jowl