Let me let you in on a secret, Chef Andrew Curren is something of a genius. He is a chameleon chef capable organically combining local and seasonal products across a wide variety of culture – and well at that. What’s more, he is a cool dude with meticulous attention to detail. The executive chef of the ELM Restaurant Group goes to each of his restaurants daily (foresight is a gift, he walks to everything). The man knows how to harness and execute creative culinary imagination, served up with a hefty side of personality brimming with calculation and enthusiasm.
You know Curren from 24 Diner, Easy Tiger and Arro, and this spring he migrated into the cuisine of another European country with his characteristic ease. ELM Restaurant Group brings its usual whimsy and charm to the historic Starr Building on Sixth Street Downtown, with floor-to-ceiling windows with bright-yellow and forest-green accents as well as vintage furniture and other carefully chosen details. It’s easy to see the similarities through the drastically different concepts: expertly sourced beer and wine, great cocktails, commitment to quality, focus on local and seasonal ingredients, stout dedication authenticity and honest representation of the culture. Everything prior to Italic was practice, albeit practice that yielded incredibly successful outcomes. What is unusual is the story behind Italic.
Italic was actually born in Italy, 15 years ago. Now-Master Sommelier Craig Collins and Curren were roommates participating in a collegiate study-abroad program in Tuscany. Craig was already enamored with the wine industry after a stint at a Texas winery, but Curren (studying to become a veterinarian) fell in love with the Italian emphasis on food, wine and culture. Both left Italy knowing that they had truly found their calling. The paths were set – all that needed to happen was to walk down it.
Upon their return, Curren enrolled in the Culinary Institute in America in New York. He graduated valedictorian of his class and spent the next few years working in renowned kitchens in NYC.
“I called the wrong brother, told him I wanted to explore culinary worlds,” jokes Curren. “He said go for it.” Thus, with copious support, he obliged.
In 2009, when he moved to Austin from NYC – with no job – leaving behind all possessions that would not fit into he and Mary Catherine’s minivan, he wanted to work up.
“Executive Chef wasn’t what I was after, I wanted to work up and learn from these guys in Austin – guys like Jesse Griffiths – doing awesome things,” Curren recalls.
That wasn’t in the cards. Chronic joblessness parlayed into what turned out to be the road to his dreams. Enter ELM restaurant group.
Approached for executive chefdom at the group’s first cult favorite concept, 24 Diner, Curren compromised a decades-long dream to cook rustic Italian food and instead offered fresh, local and seasonal diner food (including a contender for best chicken and waffles in town). Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden was an outlet to unleash his love for the corned beef, pastrami and sausages that he loved in New York, perfectly paired with a stellar beer selection and flour-dusted loaves of heaven courtesy of David Norman – the baker of perfection. The French-centric Arro opened shortly after and once again Curren used his affinity for local and seasonal to generate authentic cuisine alongside exceptional beer and wine selections. With three successful ventures under his belt, versatility proven, Curren finally was able enliven the muse that inspired him to cook decades prior: Italic.
“All of our restaurants have to make the other better and this is my chance to take diverse concepts and tie them through shared commonalities. We wanted an Italian restaurant that’s high energy, but not fussy. The backbone of Italic is simplicity. The focus is on quality; most dishes have five ingredients or less and our cocktails are to the point and delicious. This is [finally] my opportunity to cook the rustic Italian food that I fell in love with,” says Curren. “Affordable, approachable and exceptionally simple.”
Exceptional and simple. Robust and rustic. Refined and Laid back. All antonyms fit the juxtaposed Italic concept. It kind of feels like Tuscany was transported into a urban warehouse district. The mid-century space, filled with natural light to highlight the outdoor appeal of rustic food (what, you didn’t think people eat indoors in the Italian countryside do you), was the first one of Curren’s to utilize the legendary services of Furman + Keil, along with the trusted finesse of interior designer Veronica Koltuniak. The space is designed to lead to the pizza oven, where magic happens on grand scales (the pizza oven cooks chicken, pork and steak in addition to pizza). It’s laid back and social, just like Italy. The energy buzzes around you
Speaking of pizza…let’s get to the food, because Curren’s good at making it.
What to Eat
Pizza dough, homemade pizza dough, is a thing of beauty. It’s both a hobby and a feat. It’s ramen, with a measurable circumference. True to method, Curren’s – who’s concocted a varietal that I’ve never experienced anywhere other than Italic – was developed con amore (SPCHK- Italian)over the past ten years.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Curren of his dough.
I honestly can’t say that I’ve had anything similar. Chewy, but not Neapolitan chewy. Soft, but dense enough to carry the toppings. The normal culprits are there: olive oil, flour, salt, sugar, yeast plus a surprise ingredient…beer. It rests overnight and is never used past a day. The toppings are an ode to Italy’s use of the gardens around them. Unique combinations like soppressata and honey (with creamy taleggiio) and prosciutto with salsa verde make for a tasty Curren spin. Maybe it’s the beer, maybe its the plentiful diversity of use of local veg, but ‘rustic’ rings true with every bite.
Everything about the Burrata screams authentic. I might as well have been in Italy, overlooking a verdant hillside by a pool with a decanter of wine. The rich, fruity (two words I hate to use to describe olive oil, but cliches exist for a reason) olive oil perfectly complements the creamy, lightly salted perfection that is burrata. It’s everything it should be and it can be hard to find because 99 percent of people have no clue what burrata is (if you fall is this caterogry, please go find out what you are missing immediately). Not a celery or fennel lover, those elements worked. It was perfect.
I think about the Seared Calamari to this day. It’s slightly smokey, charred flavor paired with citrus and herbs and slight sweet crunch thanks to the almonds was genius. At first bite I was baffled, intrigued and in. The calamari is sourced from Curren’s friend in Brooklyn (so you’re getting the good stuff). It’s easy. It’s light. It works – it’s a dish that stays with you.
The shaved brussel sprouts are stupid good. Want to make someone like brussel sprouts, give them this – tell them it’s lettuce or cabbage, whatever floats your boat. Leftovers can be breakfast with some grilled Easy Tiger toast and a fried (or poached) egg.
The Penne Rigate Alla Bolognese is perfect. My exact notes (see menu shot) are “Damn. That’s Perfect.” Having been through something of a personal ordeal the few weeks prior, I hadn’t eaten anything. I almost dreaded meeting Chef so distraught and not wanting food (I held it together after all, food really does heal the soul). I ate every bite of this dish of awesomeness. Don’t quote me, but there might be ground unicorn horn in it – it was that good.
Fregola & Shellfish. One bite and you’re by the sea. The good sea – not Galveston.
The Half Chicken pairs with the rustic potatoes is one of my favorite meals when I need to feel the soul-powering simplicity of comfort food. The chicken is roasted to perfection, succulent and juicy with crisp skin for contrast. The potatoes were even good cold. They are crispy and tender inside, seasoned well and coated in a luscious, umami-packed parmigiano layer.
Curren’s favorite dish is the Bistecca Fiorentina, ($75, two-pound t-bone). Common in Italy, this was high on Curren’s list to replicate authentically.
“One of my favorite memories is at Ristorante da Muzzicone in Castiglion, where we would go once a week,” says Curren. “Though Americans were generally barred from learning with the big, bald, smoking chef – Muzzicone himself – for whatever stroke of fate, I got lucky enough to garner his teaching. He was 385 pounds, bald and always had a cigarette in his mouth. He cooked in an open kitchen and Tuscany tastes like his food to me.”
The meat Italic uses is different than Chianina breed used in Tuscany – it doesn’t have the muscled fat.
Photo | Jane Ko atasteofkoko.com/italic-restaurant
“The certified Black Angus yields a slightly smaller steak that is better marlbled than Chianina. We let it rest for 10-15 minutes then put it back in the pizza oven with olive oil. Every time I pull one out of the oven, I think of Tuscany and Muzzicone.”
The living dream, the dream that was his original impetus for cooking, has come to fruition. It was worth every tasty detour along the way.