January 29, 2015
By: Virginia B. Wood
The second episode of Bravo's Best New Restaurant aired Wednesday, Jan. 28, pitting Austin's highly regarded Swift's Attic against the Federal Food, Drink & Provisions from Miami. The competitors appeared to be evenly matched, but the Federal's signature "biskits" put them over the top.
Each restaurant was submitted to the same three challenges: a pressure test where 30 diners were seated at once on a busy Friday night, a mystery diner visit with hidden cameras, and a head-to-head dinner service in one of host Tom Colicchio's New York City restaurants.
The Federal was represented by the co-owners, general manager Aniece "Ani" Meinhold and executive chef Cesar Zapata. The couple met working in high-end hotels and invested their life savings in their first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
The Swift's Attic team of local heavy hitters featured on camera were co-owner and general manager C.K. Chin, executive chef Mat Clouser, and pastry chef Callie Speer. Footage of iconic Austin locations and the attractive interiors at Swift's provided an appealing backdrop to the portions of the segment filmed here.
It looked as though chef Zapata sabotaged himself and his staff when he insisted on rolling out five new menu items on the night of the pressure test. His cooks weren't sure exactly how to plate things and orders quickly began stacking up, causing long waits for food at every table.
Colicchio's voice over made it clear chef Zapata's stumble over his own ego had created a serious problem, but front of the house manager Meinhold jumped in and got things back on track, earning Colicchio's praise. Regardless of the wait times, it was clear the crowd and the judges were impressed with the food in the casual, funky eatery. The Federal's award-winning gigantic buttermilk and honey-glazed "biskits" elicited raves at every table.
The video of the Federal's mystery diner visit had both owners squirming as one of their servers sighed and rolled her eyes when asked for a clean glass and sat on the edge of a nearby table while attempting to describe one of the restaurant's drink options to the guests with the hidden camera. It was obvious they found her behavior mortifying and Meinhold made it clear she would address her service training protocols before the final challenge.
The number of diners in the pressure test didn't faze the Swift's staff who regularly deal with packed houses on weekend nights. The kitchen and dining room were working together like a finely-tuned machine when Colicchio pointed out that chef Clouser wasn't tasting things as he was cooking. Back out in the dining room, Colicchio picked up on the fact that several diners, including his judges, were complaining about the lack of seasoning in some of the dishes and one of the judges had been served an order of undercooked edamame.
Chin graciously addressed each problem with guests and the quality of his hospitality was noted by the judges. Though Speer said she feared a "dessert apocalypse," her locally renowned "Dinner and a Movie" creation with ice cream, caramelized popcorn, and root beer gelée wowed the crowd. Colicchio offered high praise for Speer's desserts, referring to them as "edgy and playful at the same time" and telling her not to change a thing.
The mystery diner video at Swift's revealed more issues with seasoning and created the impression that perhaps the food was being outshone by the warm hospitality and the attractive setting. Before the final dinner challenge, Colicchio encouraged chef Clouser to do more tasting and pay closer attention to seasoning his dishes.
Both crews presented a dinner service to a hand-picked group of New York culinary professionals and foodies. Chef Zapata stuck to some of his tried and true winners and Federal's menu seemed to attract more diners. Once again, the "biskits" were the selling point that had everybody talking.
Chef Clouser chose to serve an entree of Texas nilgai antelope, cooked sous vide, and Colicchio immediately questioned the wisdom of using that technique with such a lean game meat. Unfortunately, Colicchio and other diners found the texture mealy. The dish wasn't the winner it needed to be.
While Colicchio and his team had high praise for both restaurants, the Federal was ultimately chosen as the winner and will move on to the semi-finals later in the spring. The Feb. 4th episode will feature Austin's Restaurant Jezebel in a battle against another eatery with an alternative service model, The Church Key from Los Angeles.