At Birdie’s (Photos by Jana Birchum)
It’s easy to miss Birdie’s if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Located at the corner of 12th and Harvey streets, the gray and white building with “Grace Fellowship Baptist Church” in blue painted letters on the window facing 12th Street blends into the landscape. If you were to drive by at 6pm on a Friday or Saturday night, you’d wonder what was going on when you saw the dozens of people standing outside, walking around and drinking wine.
This indescribable building is home to one of Austin’s most popular restaurants, opened in July 2021 by chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and her husband, Arjav, who both have deep roots in the restaurant industry here in Austin. and in New York. Both a wine bar and an attentive café, Birdie’s offers a subtly changing menu of continental-inspired American cuisine that changes regularly, as well as a rich and varied wine list.
The first come, first served counter service model is the reason behind the lines outside. Diners who have to wait to place their order inside have the option of ordering from a limited selection of wines by the glass and a modest selection of beers and ciders. On my first visit, it was cool enough outside to warrant a glass of red wine while waiting for my friends to arrive. So I selected the 2020 Pinot Noir Presqu’ile from Santa Barbara County, California. Although I generally like a juicier pinot noir, this one balances the earth and tannins well with red fruits.
Because we arrived early (I was waiting outside when the doors opened at 4:30pm), we were able to order and be seated with minimal waiting. At the counter, the cashier explains the menu after asking about allergies or special diets, answers any questions, and recommends how many plates to order based on the size of your party. This transaction may take several minutes. This is where you also order your drinks, including glasses and bottles of wine. A companion of mine ordered a bottle of GD Vajra Dolcetto, which was given to him in a Birdie’s branded plastic tote bag to make it easier to carry the bottle to the table. (This was not a freebie; if customers don’t finish their bottles on the spot and don’t want to do so with their bare hands, the bags are available for $18.)
The menu is divided into small shareable snacks and small medium-sized plates, and two larger entree-sized plates. We ordered generously from the menu, selecting the olives, anchovy toast and panisse from the snack menu. The olives were plump and firm, with a strong oregano flavor; we would have preferred more chilli. The anchovy toast was presented in four small squares covered in butter and topped with the powerfully umami small fish; the butter helped keep the anchovies from overwhelming the palate, but I only needed a few bites to be satisfied. The panisses, long rectangular chickpea fritters, were crispy on the outside with a creamy center and generously topped with pecorino romano and served with small slices of lemon, which added a nice tartness and shine to the chewy bites.
In the menu of small plates, we chose the leeks with trout eggs and the cavatelli with turnip greens and lemon. The tender leeks were served on a bed of creamy sauce and carried a very pleasant smoky flavor that added dimension to an often overlooked vegetable. The absolute favorite of the night was the cavatelli pasta, which was light, buttery and creamy. My companions swooned at how faithful the dish was to its European origins. We wondered why it was served on a flat plate rather than in a bowl to keep the heat from dissipating, but that was a minor issue as we disappeared to the last noodle in record time.
We completed the main part of the meal with the minute steak, a modest portion (about 4 ounces) of steak served with mustard Hollandaise sauce and a few stalks of broccoli rabe. Can’t say I would recommend this dish. It wasn’t bad, per se, but the steak was a bit tough and just didn’t live up to the high bar set by the pasta.
For dessert, we shared the Heilala Vanilla Soft Serve Ice Cream and the Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie. The ice cream, drizzled with Agrumato (crushed olive oil with citrus), tasted like a grown-up Creamsicle and we couldn’t get enough. It paired beautifully with the lightly salted biscuit, which was large enough to satisfy the three of us. We left full and happy, especially since there was a long line outside the door when we left.
Toast with olives, strawberries and ricotta and panisse
I returned to Birdie’s a few weeks later with my wife, early enough on a weeknight to avoid waiting in a daunting line. This time I ordered a glass of sparkling Meinklang Frizzante Rosé “Prosa”, from Austria. This is an organic pinot noir rosé that is only very slightly sparkling and fruity.
As there were only two of us and the menu hadn’t changed much since my previous visit, we ordered in a more focused way, starting with the broccoli with pickled peppers and tonnato, and the toast with strawberries and the ricotta. The crisp, blanched broccoli was indeed a snack-sized portion, served in a small pool of tonnato, the popular Italian condiment made with tuna, anchovies, lemon juice, olive oil and mayonnaise or aioli. The strawberry and ricotta toast was delicious, almost like strawberry shortcake, topped with black pepper honey and tarragon.
Next came the simple salad, which was a heap of leaves and herbs, lightly seasoned with a white balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with tiny squares of brunoise white onion. Luckily he was tall, as he kept us busy during the long wait for the next dish, the campanelle pasta with garlic, tomato and basil, which was exceptional. The components combined into a margherita style sauce that was utterly irresistible; I wanted bread to absorb every last ounce of it. This was one of my favorite meals during my visits to Birdie’s.
The outdoor dining area at Birdie’s
After another excruciatingly long wait during which we questioned our memory of ordering it, we finally received our final dish, the Rockfish with Pea Shoots, Radish and Mustard. The fish, two small pieces served among a jungle of pea shoots and four curls of shaved French radish, was tasty, but by the time we received it we were so ready to go that it barely registered. .
We were so eager to leave because Birdie’s just isn’t a comfortable place to hang out for long, backless wooden cubes to sit on in the garden dining room with loud music. I’m not interested in yelling at Glen Campbell or the Velvet Underground over dinner, no matter how much I enjoy their music. (I haven’t had the opportunity to dine indoors, which is probably more conducive to hanging out.) While dining outside when it’s 115 degrees sounds horrible, the newly built patio enclosure will offer probably a respite from Austin’s unforgiving summer. Service was competent and generally attentive, with waiters dropping off food, refilling water glasses, and taking orders for wine and dessert, but not particularly warm or friendly.
I am concerned about accessibility at Birdie’s. I noticed that there was no seating at the front for those who had to wait their turn to order, which can take a while due to the bottleneck caused by the model counter service. Those with mobility issues that prevent them from standing for long periods of time or navigating the rocks of outdoor dining landscaping may be out of luck.
I wonder how accessible this neighborhood restaurant is to Rosewood residents, with a median income of around $44,177, while the cheapest glass of wine is $15 and dinner for two can be $100 $.
I also wonder how accessible Birdie’s is to Rosewood residents, with a median income of about $44,177, while the cheapest glass of wine is $15 and dinner for two (excluding drinks, but including taxes, tip and a 3% “health and wellness” fee) costs $100. According to a restaurant representative, about half of their customers are from the general neighborhood, but the number of cars (some of them very expensive) parked in nearby streets suggests that most customers when I visited weren’t walking. more for dinner. Every neighborhood should have a restaurant/bar/café that serves as a “local”, a comfortable gathering place for people nearby, but also welcomes people from across the city. When such a place offers delicious food at a reasonable price and tastefully selected wines, everyone wins. While Birdie’s comes close with its simple yet sophisticated menu, some people may find it misses the mark when it comes to convenience and certain physical and economic barriers to entry.
2944 E. 12th Ste. A
Fri.-Sat., 4:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.