Stepping into Barley Swine feels like entering some secret supper club in an old ski town lodge. Maybe it’s the heavy wood accents across the dining room, or the long stack of logs lining the entryway. Or maybe it’s the open kitchen with a giant fire that we like to pretend is a fireplace in our cold city fantasy. Wherever you find yourself mentally, you can rest assured that you’re actually in a very cozy dining room in Brentwood, enjoying a tasting menu of Texas-inspired bites at one of Austin’s original trailer-turned-restaurant success stories.
You’re probably not here for a long history lesson, so we’ll keep the backstory brief. Back in 2009, Odd Duck became one of the most popular trailers in Austin, serving upscale, seasonal bites on South Lamar. After a successful trailer run, they eventually opened up Barley Swine down the street—a grown-up version of their original trailer. Since then, they’ve moved around a bit, and they’ve opened another restaurant (also called Odd Duck), but what’s important to know is that Barley Swine has been a cornerstone of the fine dining scene in Austin for a long time now.
The service is friendly and attentive—don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to exchange Instagram handles with your server at the end (don’t do this, they’re just professionals). But as much as we love the dining room, our favorite seat in the house might be at the bar, where you can enjoy the full tasting menu with a close-up view of the kitchen and your own semi-personal bartender guiding you through the meal and your (optional) wine pairing.
They’ve experimented with a few different menu formats over the years, but at the time of writing, Barley Swine is a tasting menu-only restaurant. Most of the plates changes every month or so, but in general you can expect to start off with a few small bites—like a funky dry-aged tartare inside of a bite-sized puff pastry, and an excellent cheese-stuffed shishito “tamale”—followed by four or five slightly larger plates and a couple dessert courses. And while there’s no way of knowing exactly what they’re going to pull out of a hat on any given night, the themes are largely Texan, and the ingredients, local. Ask anyone at the restaurant where an ingredient came from, and they can probably tell you a whole story about their close personal relationship with the farmer.
A meal here isn’t short, but somehow manages to feel even longer than it is. And maybe that’s because you don’t want to leave. The dining room is warm and inviting, like a cozy lodge in a much colder city. It’s a place where you can look into the open kitchen and see exactly what the team is working on at any point. This is where you come when you want to celebrate something big—anniversaries, promotions, birthdays, or maybe just hitting the daily move goal on your Apple Watch for three consecutive days. Even though Barley Swine has come a long, long way from their trailer origins, it’s not difficult to see why people fell in love with it all those years ago.
The first course is just a series of small bites, mostly served on little plates covered in rocks and pebbles. We really liked the shishito tamale—it’s deep fried, filled with cheese, and draped with a thin layer of cured ham that adds a nice touch of saltiness to the crispy shishito below.
As far as we know, this is one of the only items that’s stayed on the menu for as long as Barley Swine has been around. It’s not part of the tasting menu, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to order it as an add-on. Each order comes with four tiny soup dumplings, each filled with a super savory shiitake broth, all over a bed of scrambled eggs that are soft enough to pass as a sauce. And because they know how much you’ll want to finish every last bit, they serve it with a tiny rubber spatula that you can use to, well, finish every last bit.
We’ve had a few different versions of the duck at Barley Swine, and we’ve been fans of every one. This visit came with a small strip of Muscovy duck—larger, and a bit leaner than the more common duck we tend to get in restaurants—served over a shishito and arugula pesto. The sauce is bright, and adds some excellent balance to a very savory strip of duck breast.
The steak is not quite as tender as the sous vide preparation would lead you to believe, but it’s a very tasty cut, nonetheless. The highlight of the entire course though, is the accompaniment—a small piece of grilled ribeye cap doused in a creamy sauce and served with a hot piece of buttery naan, meant to be eaten like a taco. We’d make an entire meal out of these if we could.
This is a masa tres leches, with a texture reminiscent of cornbread, but with a soft, milky consistency. The corn flavor really comes through and is a nice complement to the buttery cream frosting on top. If you’re a fan of slightly savory desserts, you’ll really enjoy this.
Add-ons that we’ve seen have ranged from whole beef ribs smoked in a sweet, spicy gochujang rub, to corn custard topped with black river caviar, served in an egg shell. It feels like a place where they can flex their creativity just a bit more. And while these aren’t part of the standard tasting menu, we’d definitely recommend ordering whichever ones catch your eye, because these are where we’ve had some of our favorite bites.
The wine pairing is reasonably priced and reasonably portioned, which means you’ll actually be able to get through the entire meal without forgetting what your last two courses were the next morning. Unlike the rest of the menu, most of the wines are not local, but with our fondness for Italian, French, and Spanish wines, we’re OK with that.