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TH Taste: A Monumental Dining Experience

Visitors enjoy the beer garden at The Monument Cafe in Georgetown. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

By Anthony Head

Though I know full well how delicious and varied Austin’s dining options are these days, I still make a point to tell friends driving south from Dallas/Fort Worth or Waco to stop at the Monument Cafe in Georgetown before continuing on to the Capital City—if for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a slice of Monument Chocolate Pie. I’ll often hear back that they liked the café so much that they made a full-meal stop on the return trip.

altJust a couple of blocks north of the courthouse square, this 16-year-old restaurant serves truly farm-fresh and locally sourced comfort food, like pan-fried pork chops and chicken-fried steak, that regularly earns positive reviews from local and national media. My own list of recommendations keeps growing, but it currently includes the juicy portabella sandwich, the addictive sweet potato fries, and the creamy and savory tomato-basil soup.

Earlier this year, the Monument expanded its appeal by opening a farmers market and a beer garden. So one recent Saturday evening, I drove to Georgetown to meet owner Rusty Winkstern and see the new ventures.

Winkstern shows me the way to the Garden at the Monument, which is adjacent to the café. Forest-green walls frame the 60-by-30-foot, open-air space. There’s a bar at the back, a stylish cement pool full of goldfish in the middle, and a small performance stage up front. Fans rigged with water-misting systems oscillate above the bistro perches and the family-style picnic tables.

“Almost daily I get calls from people wanting to come and play for us,” Winkstern says. “There’s so much great local talent that we always provide quality entertainment.” Bands perform blues, Western swing, country, and other types of music on occasional weekday evenings and every Friday and Saturday night. “The beer garden is a way to bring more folks to the square,” says Winkstern. “After a beer or glass of wine, they can walk up the street to the shops and restaurants.”

Some patrons, though, stay put to eat as well as drink, because the beer garden serves some of the same tasty burgers, sandwiches, and side dishes as the Monument Cafe—oftentimes without a wait.

While the trio of musicians (playing ukuleles and guitar) in the Austin-based band the Love Leighs sets up, Winkstern leads the way to the Monument Market. Inside the cavernous 3,500-square-foot building, a dozen tables are piled with red tomatoes, yellow zucchini, black beauty eggplant, blue ballet squash, and other fresh fruits and vegetables, most of them delivered from local farms within the past 24 hours.

A few blocks north of the courthouse square, the Monument Cafe has focused on local, organic food since it opened in 1995. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)Winkstern gestures to the colorful tabletop bounty and says, “With the Market, we wanted to bring in more of what we use in the café and make that available to our customers for home cooking. We have very strong relationships with a lot of growers. Everything comes from within 250 miles of Georgetown, and most of it comes from within a 20- or 30-mile radius.” There are also packaged specialty items, like McPherson Cellars wines from Lubbock, Mom’s Pasta Sauce from Fredericksburg, and Texas Best Organics Rice from China (just east of Houston). Refrigerated cases display fresh milk and eggs, local meats and poultry, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, and chicken salad from the café.

Jeanette Murphy, general manager of the market, points to one shelf and says, “We found the best tamales ever from Gardener’s Feast, in Manor. The flavors are phenomenal, and ingredients change according to what’s in season. They even use organic masa. I especially love the tamales made with corn, poblano peppers, squash, and queso fresco.”

Jeanette worked in the restaurant for 15 years before taking charge of the market. “And I love it, especially getting to know the farmers and producers in the area,” she tells me. “Sometimes they’ll visit the market directly to bring us items, but then we often go see the farms ourselves to select produce, as well. It has been very rewarding to play a role in the local-food movement.” She also says that many customers browse before and after meals, while some regulars drive up from Austin to see what’s fresh and to support the farm-to-market concept.

Later this fall, a new bakery will open at the Monument, to be overseen by chef Mark Chapman, who most recently served as executive pastry chef at Austin’s Driskill Hotel and at San Antonio’s La Mansión del Rio’s Las Canarias. “When Rusty reached out to me, I’d already had 25 years of experience with fine dining in luxury hotels,” Chapman says. “But I loved the idea of developing the bread and dessert programs for Monument, because it gives me an opportunity to highlight the organic ingredients and experiment with an artisan style of bread-baking.  I’ve just developed a new hamburger bun—kind of a cross between a brioche and a potato roll—that is chewy, supple, and truly amazing. It’s going to make one dang sexy hamburger.”

I ask what else he has planned for the bakery’s grand opening, and he begins describing a possible churros recipe that sounds so wonderful that I wish the bakery were open already. Chapman’s best guess is that it’ll debut sometime before winter, and when that happens, Market customers will not only be able to breathe in the appealing yeasty aroma of bread baking, they’ll be able to view the entire process through glass walls.

I head back to the beer garden, order a cold Shiner draft, and listen to the Love Leighs play. Crowds gathering outside the restaurant try to decide which Monument door to walk through first: the beer garden, the cafe, or the market. I can imagine that same wonderful frustration playing out the next time my friends stop in Georgetown for a quick bite.

From the November 2011 issue.

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