Four days in, the amount of hype is palpable at Top Chef winner Kristen Kish’s new restaurant at the trendy Line Austin Hotel. The space has been crowded, full of hungry people looking to partake in Kish’s highly lauded fare. Buzz doesn’t always equate with the most heartfelt hotel restaurant projects, but if this is a rule, then Kish’s Arlo Grey is the exception. In this two-part Eater Austin series, the chef shares a rundown of the personal meaning that’s ever-present in Arlo, from the bathroom walls to the components of her take on fried chicken. Next up, diving into the menu of Arlo Grey:
Opening Arlo Grey, as a full-service high-volume restaurant, scared and thrilled chef Kristen Kish. But that is precisely why the Top Chef winner accepted the challenge. It was different from what she had been used to during her Boston days — fine dining tasting menus at Barbara Lynch’s restaurant Menton — but that made it more fun.
When the offer to open her own restaurant came from the Line Hotel, “part of me was terrified,” Kish admitted. “It was the appropriate challenge, and I was appropriately scared. That’s why I want to do it.”
This doesn’t mean that Kish is pivoting completely away from her culinary training. She knew that a tasting menu wouldn’t fly at the hotel restaurant, because she wanted “everyone to feel comfortable and welcomed.” Nevertheless, she is still pulling in what she knows best.
The a la carte menu at Arlo is still meant to flow like a tasting menu, where “every dish will impact the next.” Everything from her favorite foods to her upbringing influences the food. “Every dish has a story,” Kish said, “whether people know them completely or not, that’s okay but, shit, it feels good when I get to cook ’em.”
The malfadini, for example, is her take on her mother’s Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff meal, though her’s is served with house-made noodles and mushroom sauce as opposed to pre-packaged cream and pasta. The fluffy ricotta beignets with creme fraiche and chives are meant to taste like sour-cream-and-onion potato chips, except there’s caviar involved.
“I love shit food,” Kish admitted. Breakfast, which isn’t available yet, is set to include her homage to the McDonald’s morning menu with hash browns and biscuits, but yes, everything will be house-made.
Then there’s Kish’s Arby’s obsession. (Her preferred order is chicken strips, curly fries, and barbecue sauce.) For lunch service, which will roll out later, she’s toying with the idea of sourcing the sandwich chain’s curly fries. “I think it would be a funny story,” she said. “I just have to let my ego go with this one,” since everything else in the kitchen is so focused on local-sourcing and freshness.
Kish was hesitant to approach the idea of fried chicken because “it’s just not my thing.” But she’s made Arlo Grey’s version her very own: She brines the chicken in lacto-fermented pickle juice, dusts it with rice flour, and then double-fries it for added crispiness. It’s plated up with rice porridge as a bonus — an element that honors the chicken-lemon rice soup from her go-to comfort restaurant in Boston, Giorgiana’s. “Why do I have to make this more than what it is?” she said. “Fucking keep it clean, simple, and wonderful.”
Desserts continue the tasting menu idea, starting with the lime sorbet, which Kish thinks of as the palate cleanser. Then the whole-grain layer cake is her tribute to her elementary school breakfast: whole wheat toast topped with melted peanut butter and cold Aunt Jemima maple syrup, served with a glass of cold milk. She transformed it into a cake with peanut butter mousse and salted milk ice cream.
While Arlo’s prices aren’t at quite at tasting-menu levels (Menton was often considered one of Boston’s most expensive restaurants), the hotel restaurant dishes range on the higher end from $12 to $27 (the giant grilled Texas ribeye with sauces and vegetables rings in at $98).
The restaurant isn’t just Kish’s work, either. She sees Arlo as “a collaboration of creative minds,” from the design to the back-of-house staff. There’s “a true sense of teamwork for everything.” That is what makes the chef the happiest, working with people she can trust wholly. She highlighted the hotel’s head baker Ashley Whitmore (who plays a big part in Arlo’s breads; “so talented”) and executive sous chef Alex Munoz (formerly of Counter 3.Five.VII and Apis; “what a lifesaver he is”).
Every evening, the staff will share their highs and lows of the day in the back kitchen, and Kish always participates. “I admit my faults,” she said, “because I want them to feel open.” It’s her way of cultivating the team and bringing a sense of genuineness to the restaurant, which translates into the food and atmosphere for the diners.
While Austin’s fine dining establishments seem to be disappearing (RIP Congress and LaV) and there’s been a major shift toward neighborhood restaurants, Kish has a different idea of what the term actually means:
“You do that,” Kish continued, and then “anyone sitting in your restaurant is going to feel this sense of luxury. You feel important, you feel good.”