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Michael Barnes

Bullock Museum Gala, Toast and Roast, JW Marriott Grand Opening, Counter 357 Preview Dinner

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Alejandro and Ana Ruelas at Bullock Texas State History Museum's History-Making Texans Awards.

Alejandro and Ana Ruelas at Bullock Texas State History Museum’s History-Making Texans Awards.

HISTORY: Bullock Museum Gala. I won the social jackpot at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. At the figurative head of our round table was new University of Texas System Chancellor, Bill McRaven, a practiced storyteller, and his wife, Georgeann, who talked about settling into Baeur House, the Tarrytown residence set aside for chancellors and their families. The admiral and I spoke briefly about a previous chancellor, Hans Mark, who is now writing his memoirs. Two impressive guys! Hope they get to know each other. To my left was a couple from Albany, Texas, who seemed well connected to the distinguished crowd. To my right was UT System Vice Chancellor Randa Safady, whose Texas roots and good-humored savvy help her to navigate external relations for the system, and Dr. James Willerson, president and medical director of the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. Wonderful, sweet man. Winning the History-Making Texan Awards were the King Ranch and Dr. John  Mendelsohn, who was president of the MD Anderson Cancer Center from 1996 to 2011. Both highly deserving.

Sisters Jay Letemendia, Jody Cerisano and Jill Sellers at Rancho Cuernavaca for Toast and Roast.

Sisters Jay Letemendia, Jody Cerisano and Jill Sellers at Rancho Cuernavaca for Toast and Roast.

FOOD 1: Toast and Roast. The weather turned chilly and damp. That made Toast and Roast all the more like a chummy camp out at Rancho Cuernavaca, a mostly outdoor event venue on Cuernavaca Drive. After all, meat was roasted in a limestone fire pit. Cheerful folks huddled around the standing heaters. Guests were there at the invitation of the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, partly for the rustic grub from Noble Sandwich Co., but also for sips from Texas Monthly’s Best Texas Wines 2014. For my tastes, standouts included Perissos Vineyards Petite Sirah 2012, Pedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo 2012 and, especially, Fall Creek Vineyards GSM 2012, a heady mix of hot-weather grenache, sirah and mourvédre. I spoke for some time with Fall Creek co-founder Susan Auler, then with her winemaker, Sergio Cuadra, drafted from Chile to take advantage of specific grape-growing conditions at the winery’s two Hill Country locations. Also learned a lot from wine writer Matt McGinnis, always the optimal host.

Martha Morales, Alessia Frighetto and Ginger Leigh at JW Marriott Grand Opening Luncheon.

Martha Morales, Alessia Frighetto and Ginger Leigh at JW Marriott Grand Opening Luncheon.

BUSINESS: JW Marriott Grand Opening Luncheon. It was the perfect time to get everything right. For this showcase for the local hospitality industry, the city’s giant new hotel knocked it out of the park with a short program, excellent grub and timely introductions all around. General Manager Scott Blalock makes fine ambassador for White Lodging, the Indiana-based management company that operates this, the largest JW Marriott in North America and the second largest in the world. I was even more impressed with company’s close partnership with Back on My Feet Austin, a charity that coaches those transitioning out of homelessness with, among other things, early morning runs. Many of graduates, here and elsewhere, end up working for White Lodging. Graduate Clayton Swearington gave a fantastic speech about his harrowing journey.

FOOD 2: Counter 357 Preview Dinner. In the blur of eatery openings in Austin — how does American-Statesman food writer Matthew Odam keep up? — this preview dinner was particularly memorable. In a relatively small, pristine space below Swift’s Attic and above the Elephant Room is a light, airy room with a counter built around a kitchen. The chefs prepare the food for Counter 357 in front of you, collaborating on each dish. The they hand it to you with an explanation. Which you want, because each ambitious small dish is packed with ambiguous flavors. Many of the micro-greens are grown in a glass-fronted light box right there in the kitchen. A social report on a preview dinner is not the place for a food review, and this is not one, but each daring dish and drink pairing fired conversations on both sides of me at the counter. I wondered if the set-up would discourage guest engagement, but it did not. In fact, I learned more about the lives of my counter-mates than I do at the usual gala, in part because we were not competing with a loud program or live auction. Counter 357 plans to offer 3-course, 5-course and 7-course menus.