City’s eater­ies, farm give rea­sons to stay for day

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Odam

Editors Note: This is the first in an oc­ca­sional se­ries about the Cen­tral Texas food scene out­side of Austin.

Wim­Ber­LeY — the rich, vis­cous voice — like Blue Bell Home­made Vanilla driz­zled with lo­cal honey — tempted me with fried chicken. Ken Kim­mons was mak­ing one of his reg­u­lar loud­speaker an­nounce­ments from the deli at Brook­shire Broth­ers in wim­ber­ley. i at­tempted to tune him out as i ping­ponged through the flu­o­res­cent-lighted pro­duce sec­tion. the best fried chicken in town would have to wait for an­other visit. i needed arugula.

A decade ago, a request for the bit­ter, spicy greens might have been met with quizzi­cal stares. on this day, how­ever, i got more than a shrug of the shoul­ders. when ap­prised of my hunt, one of Brook­shire’s pro­duce sec­tion em­ploy­ees told me the gro­cer was fresh out. then, with a glim­mer of know­ing ex­cite­ment in his eyes, he asked, “do you know Kath­leen over at eieio farms?”

So, with the sun in quick de­scent, we made our way down the me­an­der­ing Green Acres drive be­fore pulling to the side of the road to make the call. Af­ter a

few rings, a breath­less but cheer­ful voice an­swered.

“This might seem like a weird request,” I said ten­ta­tively, “but I was told you may have some arugula to sell.”

Kath­leen Mooney could see me from her porch, she told me, and then di­rected me to turn around and head up her drive­way.

The ef­fer­ves­cent Mooney, hands caked with dirt from the day’s work, greeted us warmly like old friends and showed us to her row of arugula while hap­pily of­fer­ing an­swers to all the ques­tions I had and some I hadn’t.

Mooney ex­plained how her de­sire to pro­vide her young son, Max, a healthy and sus­tain­able up­bring­ing landed them in this “lit­tle patch of heaven called Wim­ber­ley” af­ter stints man­ag­ing Es­ther’s Fol­lies and later own­ing the MillerCrock­ett House Bed & Break­fast in Austin.

Now, in her fourth sea­son, Mooney — who ad­mits to be­ing blessed with the help of friends and neigh­bors — has three goats, 75 chick­ens, a slew of or­ganic veg­eta­bles and re­cently planted four Asian pear trees, three ap­ple trees and more than four dozen black­berry bushes to go with her grow­ing se­lec­tion of fruits. Cen­tral Tex­ans can buy weekly bas­kets from Mooney that con­tain her sea­sonal pro­duce and eggs; go to www.eieio­farm.word­ for more.

“Peo­ple want to know where their food comes from,” said Mooney, who takes great pride in her role of ed­u­ca­tor. “And Wim­ber­ley has just been tremen­dously sup­port­ive.”

As the glow of a full moon out­lined the twi­light, we be­gan to pluck our evening’s salad from her field and Kath­leen and Max fi­nally left for their own din­ner. They were 90 min­utes late and headed just down the road to The Lean­ing Pear Café & Eatery, an oc­ca­sional cus­tomer of Mooney’s and an­other com­mu­nity ad­vo­cate for fresh and lo­cal foods. Set on an 11-acre piece of prop­erty that hugs Cy­press Creek, just a few ca­noe pad­dle strokes from the vil­lage square, The Lean­ing Pear looks like an old Tus­can farm­house, fit­ting for own­ers Rachel and Matthew Buchanan, who met while study­ing near Florence, Italy.

The cou­ple re­turned to sa­vor the fla­vors of Italy for a year be­fore Matthew Buchanan at­tended the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica in New York. Upon grad­u­at­ing, the Buchanans worked at the Inn Above Onion Creek in Kyle (where they were mar­ried), with Matthew Buchanan work­ing in the kitchen and Rachel Buchanan help­ing on the op­er­a­tional end. Their time at the Inn reaf­firmed their de­sire to open a res­tau­rant, and the pair moved to Wim­ber­ley.

De­spite the bur­geon­ing res­tau­rant scene in nearby Austin, they wanted to be in the Hill Coun­try. “Our heart­strings just con­tin­ued to pull us in this di­rec­tion,” Rachel Buchanan said.

The Buchanans opened The Lean­ing Pear — the name play­ing off the two of them and their love of fresh food — in March 2007 in the ren­o­vated 19th-cen­tury build­ing that had been in Rachel’s fam­ily for sev­eral decades.

The cou­ple fo­cuses on pro­vid­ing farm­ers-mar­ket-driven soups, sal­ads and daily spe­cials with an em­pha­sis on fresh, sea­sonal and lo­cal food. “We try and ex­pand peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what a soup and sandwich place should be,” Matthew said.

A peach and arugula salad ($8.25) of­fered re­cently is in­dica­tive of the cou­ple’s mis­sion. Fred­er­icks­burg peaches with ripe, crack­ling skin were served atop verdant and fla­vor­ful greens that of­fered sur­prises in each bite, with ci­lantro, basil and mint all mix­ing to­gether to pro­vide bursts of their unique fla­vors.

The Buchanans have not been hes­i­tant to in­tro­duce new fla­vors to their loyal cus­tomers. A chilled potato soup ($4) with a per­fect bal­ance of cream punc­tu­ated by bright fresh dill and the crunch of chopped chives was likely not seen in Wim­ber­ley be­fore the Pear opened.

“The ed­u­ca­tion is part of the fun,” Matthew Buchanan said. “It’s fun to share new things with our cus­tomers when we can.”

None of which is to say that this up­scale rus­tic res­tau­rant shies away from more tra­di­tional fare — the corned beef Reuben ($8) is a Texas twist on a New York stan­dard with house-cured brisket topped with pun­gent sauer­kraut, smoth­ered in Swiss cheese and served on a hearty mar­bled rye that you can hear crunch from the other side of the small res­tau­rant.

Be­cause of its size, The Lean­ing Pear has mainly fo­cused on lunch, with din­ner be­ing served on Fri­days and Satur­days (they are closed Tues­days). That might change in the com­ing months. The Buchanans hope to break ground within the next year on a big­ger res­tau­rant on their prop­erty. The larger space would al­low them to add their daily spe­cials to an ex­panded en­trée menu, ex­tend their hours to in­clude lunch and din­ner and con­tinue to cel­e­brate lo­cal fla­vors.

“We serve hon­est food,” Rachel Buchanan said. “Wim­ber­ley is a di­verse lit­tle ham­let with some so­phis­ti­cated palates out there, yet is also a place where a sim­ple life­style and gen­uine hos­pi­tal­ity are ap­pre­ci­ated. Our goal is to cater to our fel­low vil­lagers; any­body else that wants to come and dine with us is ic­ing.” Though the Buchanans might be new faces of the lo­cal food move­ment in town, they fol­low in the steps of the self-taught Linda Allen, who was a trail­blazer in bring­ing fresh fla­vors to Wim­ber­ley. Allen un­der­stands the spe­cial his­tory of Wim­ber­ley and its peo­ple, and holds dear to her heart the town that is wo­ven to­gether by rivers and streams.

Grow­ing up pri­mar­ily in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, Allen vis­ited Wim­ber­ley, where her fam­ily has owned prop­erty since 1919, ev­ery sum­mer for as long as she can re­mem­ber.

“Wim­ber­ley has al­ways been a con­sis­tent me­mory,” Allen said re­cently.

Fol­low­ing grad­u­ate school for cre­ative writ­ing, Allen per­ma­nently moved to the sleepy Texas town in 1980, and a decade later she be­gan a cater­ing busi­ness. Af­ter 15 years of serv­ing food to ev­ery lo­cal civic club imag­in­able and for ev­ery kind of oc­ca­sion, Allen and her part­ner Jimmy Ash de­cided to ex­pand their busi­ness to in­clude a pre­pared-foods sit-down res­tau­rant that also of­fers take-away ser­vice (the eatery is closed Sun­days).

Lo­cated in an old house set be­neath a mas­sive, sweep­ing oak tree, Linda’s Fine Foods serves as the ex­tended din­ing room for the Wim­ber­ley com­mu­nity. The hodge­podge of mis­matched ta­bles and chairs, along with the food served on a col­lec­tion of dishes ac­cu­mu­lated through the years, lend the res­tau­rant the feel of an ex­tended fam­ily meal dur­ing the hol­i­days.

That com­mu­nal vibe is pro­vided a sound­track on week­ends by bands booked by Ash (a tal­ented mu­si­cian in his own right) per­form­ing on the res­tau­rant’s front porch. Af­ter de­mands for a re­peat per­for­mance of Linda’s Ca­jun cook­ing skills, the res­tau­rant also de­cided to cel­e­brate Mardi Gras year round, with the sec­ond Tues­day of each month tak­ing on a New Or­leans vibe with zy­deco mu­sic, craw­fish pie and what Ash calls “the best gumbo this side of the Mis­sis­sippi.”

With a menu that changes weekly, ex­cept­ing a few stan­dard items, Allen says she is al­ways dream­ing up new recipes to add to her grow­ing col­lec­tion of per­son­al­ized com­fort food.

“We like to try and keep it cre­ative and chal­leng­ing. We make fresh food with real in­gre­di­ents and try and buy lo­cally when we can,” said Allen, who speaks with a preter­nat­u­ral calm­ness, slowly choos­ing her words, as one would ex­pect from a poet and writer.

On any given week the menu will boast an eclec­tic range of dishes from tra­di­tional coun­try fla­vors to Asian-in­spired dishes. A deep pink, sweet mus­tard-glazed wild sock­eye salmon ($9.99) is moist, meaty and car­ries sub­tle notes of sweet­ness that are tem­pered by the coarsegrained mus­tard. The re­fresh­ing shrimp salad ($7.99) fea­tures moist, plump shrimp in a light cit­rus-dill dress­ing wrapped in a tex­tu­ral patch­work that is at once crunchy and soft thanks to cel­ery, red onions and hard-boiled eggs. The ex­pertly ex­e­cuted King Ranch chicken ($6.75) leaves no doubt that Allen’s cu­ri­ous spirit is rooted in Texas soil, and the in­com­pa­ra­ble carrot cake, made from her mother’s recipe, em­bod­ies the heart she puts into her cook­ing that ex­tends from the kitchen to her re­la­tion­ship with her cus­tomers in the town that she says al­ways has felt like home.

“Wim­ber­ley is a real eclec­tic com­mu­nity and it’s grow­ing and so is its in­ter­est in food,” Allen said. “We get a real cross-sec­tion of the com­mu­nity — from con­struc­tion work­ers to re­tired doc­tors — and I re­ally en­joy mak­ing friends with my cus­tomers.”

A visit to this au­then­tic town of down-toearth peo­ple that moves at the pace of a Wil­lie Nel­son bal­lad re­in­forces the un­der­stand­ing that we are all con­nected to the land, and that a love of food and com­mu­nity is as pure and nat­u­ral as the Blanco River.

Al­berto Martínez pho­tos

Peach and arugula herb salad ($8.25) from the Lean­ing Pear is made with Fred­er­icks­burg peaches, greens, ci­lantro, basil and mint. The res­tau­rant is just one of the din­ing op­tions in Wim­ber­ley.

Kath­leen Mooney sells eggs from her chick­ens and veg­eta­bles she grows at her EIEIO farm. Peo­ple can buy a weekly bas­ket from her.

The Lean­ing Pear spe­cial­izes in soups, sal­ads and daily spe­cials that fea­ture lo­cally grown foods.

At Linda’s Fine Foods, a Viet­namese noo­dle salad is one of Linda Allen’s Asian-in­spired of­fer­ings. She also does Ca­jun and down-home style food.

Al­berto Martínez

Sweet mus­tard-glazed salmon ($9.99) mixes the sweet­ness of the meat with spice of coarse-grained mus­tard at Linda’s Fine Food.

Linda’s Fine Foods is a com­fort­able spot to eat with out­door din­ing on pic­nic ta­bles. In­side the dé­cor is an eclec­tic mix of ta­bles and chairs. Allen has been a caterer in Wim­ber­ley since the 1990s. The res­tau­rant came 15 years into her cater­ing busi­ness.

The corned beef Reuben ($8) from the Lean­ing Pear blends the idea of a New York Reuben with Texas fla­vor of brisket. Own­ers Rachel and Matthew Buchanan opened the res­tau­rant in March 2007 in a farm­house that has been in her fam­ily for decades.

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