Today, Arlo Grey debuts at the LINE Austin. We chatted with the Top Chef champion about what to expect.
"You always hear opening is the hardest thing you’ve ever done," said Kristen Kish, a few days before her debut restaurant Arlo Grey opened in Austin's new The LINE Hotel. "And it's true times a million."
In fact, Kish, who won the tenth season of Top Chef, tells Food & Wine that she didn't know if she even wanted to open a restaurant, but after five years of traveling (and taking a step back from the restaurant world), she decided this was the right opportunity. Finally.
"There was a tipping point," she said. "I'm terrified, and that was, for me, an appropriate feeling: terrified. OK, it's time. It's one of the questions I've gotten the most since mid-season Top Chef, and that was seven years ago. 'When are you going to open up your restaurant?' I don’t know! And here we are. I had to wait until the right partnership came up, and I felt emotionally ready."
And Kish, who first built a name for herself working for Barbara Lynch at Stir and then later as chef de cuisine at Menton, feels emotionally ready to put roots in Austin, after several post-Top Chef years of an admittedly "nomadic" lifestyle writing books, shooting shows, and doing pop-ups.
Food & Wine got a first look at the menu, and fortunately, it appears to be very, very Kish. Reflecting her sharp fine-dining sensibility while offering some of the comforts you might expect at a hotel restaurant (including a damn good burger), Arlo Grey's short menu progresses from smallest dishes to the biggest, quite elegantly; it feels like a tasting menu in spirit, though it isn't one. There's beef tartare with grated egg and caper aioli, burrata in cucumber broth, housemade agnolotti, and head-on prawns served on white corn grits.
"This whole small plate movement is wonderful, and the shareable thing is lovely, but the one thing that I missed was a progression," Kish said. "It reads like one big tasting menu, listed from lightest to heaviest. If you were to eat it all in one go, and I shrunk down all the portions, it would be a tasting menu. Yes, everything is shareable, and I encourage people to do that, but each one breathes into the next."
Her mission was to take her love of fine-dining and "spin in it a way that was comfortable," she said. "The fun part was finding that balance: redefining what fine-dining meant to me. It doesn’t mean white glove service or Michelin status. To me, it means exception, comfort, care, and kindness. It's more of an emotional thing than a physical experience."
Indeed, the dessert menu reflects this refined-but-comfortable ethos that seems to have inspired much of Arlo Grey: there's a banana custard ice cream (topped with tahina whipped cream and hazelnut cocoa nib crumble,) a whole grain layer cake with peanut butter, and a churro served with pastry cream.
After years of questioning whether she even wanted to open a restaurant, Kish now understands why so many chefs feel inspired to open more than one—despite the terror, the insane hours (hers have been 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.), and the uncertainty.
"This has completely reminded me that I'm addicted to this feeling—the restaurant pace, the cadence of it all," she said.
When I ask her if she's already plotting her next spot, she responded, "We hear chefs say it all the time, 'Why would we ever do it?' And then we see them do it again."