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Written by Lori Moffatt

[caption align="alignright" width="263" caption="Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi"]

Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi[/caption]

Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth

Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth
As fall’s first cool front pushed dramatic clouds into the skies above downtown Austin on Thursday night, I made my way through a well-behaved crowd viewing paintings, collages, and sculptures at the new W Hotel offices of Gensler, the global architecture firm that has designed hundreds of sleek structures in places as far away as Shanghai and Istanbul.

Since art, architecture, and community often meld together, it makes sense that Gensler chose to host the official launch party of a new endeavor called Generous Art, an online art gallery that envisions art purchases as community-oriented transactions. Conceived and brought to fruition by visual artist and entrepreneur Jennifer Chenoweth, Generous Art works like this: When a site visitor purchases art, the retail price is divided among the artist (40%), a nonprofit organization of the buyer’s choosing (40%), and the gallery itself.

More than 20 Austin-area artists are currently on board, including Virginia Fleck, who creates colorful and intricate collages from plastic bags and other recycled materials; Stella Alesi, a realist painter focused on the life cycle of birds, lizards, plants, and other life forms; Wells Mason, a craftsman currently fascinated with blurring the line between sculpture and furniture; and Emily Moores, whose stark yet evocative charcoal-on-paper works resemble Japanese woodcuts. Beautiful stuff.

This thought has stayed with me all day: Art, beauty, and community—all intangible concepts worth nurturing, whenever and wherever we find it.

Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houston’s first “Where the Chefs Eat” Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the city’s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau—both groups who sought to elevate the city’s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houston’s many well-regarded “fine dining” spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when they’re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blast—feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialties—with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.

The only downside to the tours? They’re so popular that they sell out quickly. So I was excited to receive the 2012 tour schedule and to learn that the three-year-old program has grown to encompass more tours, more chefs, and more restaurants. Another interesting element: Proceeds from the 2012 tours will benefit the new Foodways Texas organization (www.foodwaystexas.com ), which opens to public membership in 2012 and whose mission is to “preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.”

Tickets for the first tour—January 22’s “Chinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu” —go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as “Late night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,” “Oysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,” and many others. New additions for 2012 include farm tours, explorations of coffee and dessert, and a look-see at citywide Day of the Dead celebrations; popular “repeats” include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.

pinot-gris-544I’m learning to love wine. A few years ago, a friend organized a series of wine-tasting parties based on recommendations from Master Sommelier (and SMU graduate) Andrea Immer Robinson’s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chapters—learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of “The Big Six Grapes” (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of “flavor words” like tannic and oaky—I began to think about how the pleasures of drinking wine encompasses not only taste, but also tradition, history, agriculture, geography, chemistry, geology, and travel. Robinson, now one of fewer than 20 women in the world who have been made Master Sommeliers by the Court of Master Sommeliers, makes the wine world approachable and fun. After all, her own education began while she was a college student in Dallas, when she took a wine-tasting class at The Grape, a popular restaurant on Greenville Avenue.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event at Austin’s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nation’s only certified organic event facility. A two-story clapboard Victorian home anchors the site of a former farmstead, and past a series of native-plant gardens and sprawling oak trees (a Certified Wildlife Habitat), a modern, glass-and-cedar ballroom (recently rebuilt after being destroyed by fire last year) hosts events for up to 600 people.

This particular tasting, hosted by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, offered opportunities to sample an array of delicious varietals from France’s Loire Valley, which benefits from the temperature-moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some 65 appellations (wine-growing regions) in the Loire Valley, and the primary grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, which lends itself to crisp, dry whites.

Since one of my favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blanc—a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producers—I was particularly interested in exploring the differences in style between French versions (often made in the Sancerre appellations) compare. This, I learned, is a classic “Old World/New World” comparison.

Seems to me that Texas Sauvignon Blancs, like their New World siblings from Australia and New Zealand, seem slightly effervescent and bright, while the French Sancerres seemed creamier, with an expressive floral nose and a still-spritely mouthfeel.

I enjoyed chatting with an aspiring sommelier named Justine Langston, who currently buys wine for the small wine-bar chain Crú and will be sitting for her Sommelier Certification exam in October. Langston told me that in Europe, wine-drinking is rarely intimidating, and is in fact transcends all classes of society. The days of snooty sommeliers in America is over, she assured me.

In a room filled with so many outstanding French wines—some from vineyards that date back hundreds of years—I couldn’t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasn’t necessarily a difference in quality, even as he acknowledged the challenges of growing certain varietals in Texas simply because it gets so dang hot here. So we grow the ones that DO perform well here, he said—much as vineyards do the world over. The difference, this fellow told me, is more a result of scale. Texan growers simply cannot produce as much wine as large vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, and Spain, for example—and so in general, a high-quality Texan wine costs more than a comparable bottle from more-established wine-producing regions. Any thoughts on this, wine folks out there?

I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars to support a local industry. But I still like to experience how a style is made in other parts of the world—to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. It’s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.

[caption align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Dramatic clouds"]

Dramatic clouds[/caption]

Mavis Staples takes us there

Mavis Staples takes us there
the bike zoo

the bike zoo
A great weekend all around! Were you there? What was the moment that stood out for you? On the third day, I finally figured out how to maneuver through the streams of people, which reminded me of water rivulets making their way down a windshield on a rainy day. At some point, you just have to jump in and go with the flow.

Stevie Wonder may have stolen the show on the second night of ACL, but the glorious rain that came earlier in the day—which inspired smiles and celebration even as festival-goers got drenched—ushered in the most surprise. After all, it hadn’t rained (significantly, anyway) in Austin since May. Temperatures modulated and energized the crowds. Fall is in the air!

Once again, the smooth operations of the festival impressed me. Even as the park teemed with people, the mood was easy and accommodating. Props to fest organizers C3, who continue to make improvements to the festival’s operations and addressing concerns. This year, we found increased shade structures, additional free water stations (courtesy of CamelBak), and numerous opportunities to assist organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and statewide firefighting squads. It’s always great to feel philanthropic while you’re having fun.

Aside from the music, there’s a lot going on at ACL. What other festival, for example, offers such a wide variety of dining options prepared by upscale restaurants? And I’m not talking about turkey legs and corn dogs. Local flavor rules here. ACL’s food court, “curated” by Chef Jeff Blank of Hudson’s on the Bend, offers options such as pork-belly sliders with pickled onion ($6 by Odd Duck Farm to Trailer), oyster tacos with chile-honey aioli ($8 from Garrido’s), crispy artichoke hearts ($6 by Bess Bistro), steak frit sandwiches ($7 by Aquarelle), and truffled macaroni-and-cheese ($7 by Lonesome Dove Western Bistro out of Fort Worth. I’ll admit I found it amusing to see bikini-and-boots-clad fans sprawled on the grass eating meals they might normally enjoy by candlelight in a restaurant.

When the rain subsided, I spent some time checking out the arts offerings. The variety here reminded me of a marriage of Austin’s Cherrywood Art Fair, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, and South Congress’ First Friday funkiness. Drive-by-Press offered silkscreened T-shirts, Bolsa Bonita had an assortment of kitschy and ironic bags printed with hirsute Tom Selleck images, Rokoko’s imaginative ceramics, dresses by SOLA, $25 straw cowboy hats by Texas Headgear, leather-and-metal cuffs by LeighElena jewelry, scarves by Pangea, and wood-mounted prints of Austin scenes by Austin Art Garage. Most vendors were local, though a few came from as far as Chicago. The owner of Souldier, who was here from the Windy City for her 5th year at ACL, tells me her recycled-seatbelt headbands, bags, and guitar straps sell well at ACL, and that bands such as My Morning Jacket, Iron and Wine, TV on the Radio, and Fleet Foxes all use her guitar straps on stage.

So the line blurs once again. Art and music. Bring on the fun.

Walking through the festival grounds at Zilker Park, especially after the sun started to dip and the crowds thickened in anticipation of Austin Music Festival headliners Kanye West and Coldplay, it was easy to imagine myself a mere ant in an army of 40,000 other beings. It was an instant reminder of my small place in humanity. For a moment I felt flustered by the crowd. Then bam—more music, a chance encounter with a friend, a sight that made me laugh—and the mood turned in an instant. As a friend put it, ACL is not the minors. What it is, at least to my mind, is an instant submersion into what makes Austin such a tight community.

As I gear up for Day Two of the bash, I’m reflecting on yesterday and how seamless ACL operations seemed to be. Early in the day, we experienced our first indication of the solidarity of Austin --that joyous moment when skies finally opened up and rained (a short burst, yes, but water all the same) while crowds throughout Zilker shouted in glee and surprise.

The burn ban is in effect this year, and several donation stations for statewide volunteer firefighters reminded us of the wildfire risk. Still, some dedicated smokers (of ciggies and wacky tabac alike) were lighting up—but amazingly, I spied not a single discarded cigarette butt. At least they’re being responsible, which is the whole point of the ban. In a related note, festival organizers have made what I consider a brilliant business to keep the grounds litter-free: at several stations throughout the park, you can pick up a green trash bag, then meander the grounds picking up stray cans and other recyclables; when the bag is full, you can redeem it for an ACL T-shirt. Neat incentive that makes sense all around.

The festival’s food options (more on that in other post) are well known for their diversity, quality, and local vibe—with renowned restaurants like Olivia and Hudson’s creating rave-worthy noshes. But I’m also pleased to find the eclectic array of Austin shops and artisans selling their creations—again, reinforcing the sense of community. We’ll explore that aspect in greater depth today and tomorrow.

On-the-fly conversations with festival-goers, performers, and even a police officer working the event further underscored the community theme. Chilean-American singer Francesca Valenzuela (a knockout with tremendous pipes and a solid pop sensibility) told me that one thing that’s different about US audiences (and Texas crowds in particular) is that we’re open and supportive of new musical experiences. And the cop with whom I chatted told me with a big grin that he loves the people-watching. He confessed that he was on board to escort Kanye West and his entourage to the stage later that night—but that he wasn’t star-struck. After all, he’d heard Kanye was a prima donna. (Anyone care to dispute that?)

Biking to Zilker Park was a breeze. I hauled my bike on the back of my car to a spot near the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail, and popped over in a flash. Pedestrians and bikers on the trail were all smiles, hauling camp chairs, soft-sided coolers, umbrellas, and blankets to the site. “See you there!” we’d shout as we passed each other—strangers united by the promise of music, food, art, sweat, and celebration.

We’re posting photos to our Facebook page and tweeting all day (as long as the WiFi holds out, anyway), so follow TH on FB and on Twitter.

See you there.

With triple-digit heat already here in Austin (and lingering), I'mm semi-obsessed with swimming pools, so I smiled when I spied the Texas-shaped pool at Amarillo's Big Texan Motel, the lodging companion to the famous Big Texan restaurant, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (If you haven't heard of the Big Texan's free 72-ounce steak dinner, the mother of all big-food challenges, here's the skinny: You have to eat the whole thing, plus a slew of sides, in less than an hour.)

I don't think I could make a dent in that steak, but I sure can see myself doing a few laps from Amarillo to Brownsville.

Know of any other great hotel pools? Let's come up with a "Best-Of" list!Big Texan pool

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I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of “health travel,” or even the vague concept of “secondary travel.” For example, even if my main reason for visiting a city is to catch up with family, see a hotshot out-of-town specialist, or to attend a work conference or other event, I do try to squeeze in some recreation. In Houston, I try to visit a museum or gallery, a favorite shop, and a restaurant or bar I’ve been hearing about. This time, I joined up with two longtime Houston friends to check out El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the new (yet old-school) Tex-Mex restaurant dreamed up by food writer/historian Robb Walsh and restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. I had heard raves about the cheese enchiladas with chili gravy—that classic Tex-Mex comfort-food concoction served with orange cheese, lard-laden (and I mean that in a good way) refried beans, and Spanish rice. Well-deserved raves! Tart margaritas and a salvaged décor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. I’ll look forward to future visits once I can fit into my jeans again.

When I visit the Bayou City, I often stay with friends, but this time, I tried an experiment. I had heard about travel websites like www.lastminutetravel.com and www.hotwire.com, which offer unsold hotel rooms at steeply discounted prices, and I decided to give lastminutetravel a try. Here’s how it works: You go to the site, pick your city and general area, plug in your dates, and the website finds available rooms. In my case, I found a “four-star hotel” in “downtown Houston” for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you don’t learn the name of the hotel until you’ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they don’t want to advertise that they’re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you can’t cancel or change your reservation.) For my one-night stay, this worked beautifully: My hotel turned out to the Hyatt Regency, where rooms normally start around $180 per night. The hotel has a great rooftop pool, and its central location proved perfect for exploring on foot. When I returned to the office, I poked around these sites to see what other hotel deals I could find in Texas: I pretended to want to book a room four days out, and I turned up a “four-star” hotel in Galveston for $96 and a “three-star” hotel in downtown Fort Worth for $68.

Have you tried these sites for Texas travel? Care to share your experiences?

Upon its debut in 1965 as host to an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, Houston’s Astrodome—lauded by fans as the “Eighth Wonder in the World”—nabbed a spot in the record books as the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium (not to mention the birthplace of AstroTurf). Alas, the once-regal Dome now rests in the shadow of the much-larger Reliant Stadium at Reliant Park; the Astros left the Dome for Minute Maid Park more than a decade ago.

But city leaders are debating the Astrodome’s future, and the options are numerous: Demolish it and install a green-space plaza? Keep the shell and convert it to a multi-use venue, perhaps with an attached hotel? Create a mega-venue with a planetarium and an institute devoted to engineering and mathematics? What do you think should happen with the Astrodome? We’d love to hear your thoughts and memories. (You can see the current options being considered, complete with artists’ renditions of how redevelopment might look, at http://www.reliantpark.com/feedback.)

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It would be poetic, I think, if I were to effuse that I’ve been fascinated with mobiles since I was an infant gazing at one dangling above my crib. But in reality, my introduction to mobiles came in grade school, thanks to a hippie art teacher who smelled of patchouli and patiently taught her ham-handed students how to make dancing (if lopsided) sculptures from twigs, painted acorns, and twine. I thought of her this morning when I read about the Nasher Sculpture Center’s exhibition of the works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), whose first kinetic sculptures were dubbed “mobiles” by colleague and friend Marcel Duchamp. (Interestingly, fellow experimental artist Jean Arp called Calder’s stationary artworks “stabiles.”)

The Nasher’s show, Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, runs through March 6. Along with more than 30 of Calder’s works, the exhibition also highlights seven contemporary artists who were influenced by Calder’s creative reuse of materials, hands-on production methods, and explorations of form, balance, color, and movement.

I can’t think of a more pleasant place to experience Calder’s graceful sculptures. With its spare and light-filled interior galleries and al fresco sculpture garden filled with beautiful and thought-provoking installations, the Nasher makes artworks accessible and relevant to life’s experiences. So I know that when I next make it to Dallas, and when I walk amongst the mobiles as they rotate on gossamer threads, I’ll be back in art class, surrounded by classmates with braces and awkward hairdos, assembling sculptures from garden flotsam. The weight of one acorn could throw the whole thing off-balance. Alter one variable, and the whole project shifts. Could I have known back then that a mobile could be a metaphor for life itself? For more on the Nasher, see www.nashersculpturecenter.org.

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I’m not really a football fan. Those are fighting words, I realize, in some parts of Texas, where pigskin rivalries divide families, coworkers, and even strangers in line at the grocery store. I do look forward to the Super Bowl every year (so I’ve marked my calendar for this year’s 45th anniversary game up in Arlington on February 6), but that’s mostly because it’s my annual excuse to eat lots of Velveeta-and-Rotel queso.

So for those who know me well, it’s always a surprise that I adore the television show Friday Night Lights, that sleeper quasi-hit show that won raves from the critics but never really took off with television audiences. My non-expert opinion is that it suffers an identity crisis: Most people think of it as a sports drama, whereas truly it’s a story about relationships, and it’s perhaps one of the of the most authentic depictions of small-town Texas since Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is set in Austin and surrounding areas. There’s the Continental Club! Fran’s Hamburgers! The Landing Strip of all places! That megalachurch near my house! It’s fun to try to figure out where each shot was filmed.

Location-spotting: This, along with the curious charms of actor Bradley Whitford (you know, the guy who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Danny Tripp on the rollicking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is what drew me to the new Fox buddy-police-comedy The Good Guys, which is set in Dallas and filmed in Dallas. The plots are gossamer-thin, but Whitford plays a pratfalling rogue Texas cop with gum-smacking panache (with Tom Hanks’ son Colin as the straight-guy sidekick). Never mind; the true star of the show is Dallas—sleek office buildings and tony downtown restaurants, Fair Park in all its Art-Deco glory, rough-around-the-edges barbecue joints along Riverside (formerly Industrial)…. I wonder if Dallasites have the same fun trying to identify filming locations for The Good Guys as I do for Friday Night Lights.

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A few years ago, as I swam laps at the YMCA in Austin, I came up for air to find a sickly beagle circling the pool, watching me. Somehow he had wriggled between a break in the fence and—I like to think—decided I’d make a fine new owner. First, though, I had to nurse him back to health, and for that, I have Animal Trustees of Austin (ATA) to thank.

Along with other symptoms of neglect, my rescued beagle—whom my husband and I named Oscar—had an advanced case of heartworm disease, a dangerous disease that left untreated, leads to death. Treatment is expensive and grueling, but since I eventually adopted Oscar through a rescue organization called Austin Hound Rescue, I was able to take advantage of the mightily reduced treatment cost offered by ATA.

So I’m pleased to hear that “Celebrating Paws,” a new program offered by Lake Austin Spa Resort, not only benefits spa visitors who bring their canine friends but also donates 100% of pet guest fees collected throughout 2011 to ATA.

As part of the program, animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell will speak about the documented health benefits of pet ownership—including lower blood pressure and reduced stress levels—during spa stays February 2-6 and November 2-11, 2011.

McConnell’s topics will include “The Power of Pets: What Science Has to Tell Us about Our Love for Animals,” “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? What’s Really Going on in a Dog’s Brain,” and “The Other End of the Leash: Understanding How to Communicate with Your Best Friend.”

Other pet experts participating in the program include dog trainer Cara Shannon, who will lead classes in manners training and etiquette and author Susannah Charleson and her dog Puzzle (both members of the Metro Area K9 Rescue in Dallas), as well as canine photographers, massage therapists, and professional dog-walkers.

I’ll be honest: Oscar wouldn’t stand for one moment for a pedicure, but a massage is another matter.

For details about canine programs at Lake Austin Spa Resort, call 800/847-5637; www.lakeaustin.com.

And now I’m curious: what’s the most indulgent thing you’ve ever done for your dog?

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