On a gray rainy day in early spring, Chef Jesse Griffiths and I sat down over grilled toast and an assortment of jams at his hyper-local east Austin restaurant Dai Due.
But we weren’t having just any jams; these were made from unexpected native ingredients, such as redbud blossoms (Cercis canadensis), agarita berries (Mahonia trifoliolata) and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
Griffiths, the red-bearded founder of Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club, sourced the jams from forager and Houstonite Susan Ebert. (Ebert just released “The Field to Table Cookbook: Gardening, Foraging, Fishing, & Hunting” with a foreword by Griffiths.)
The jams are like everything he gets for the restaurant: foraged, hunted, fished, produced and grown as nearby as possible. The menu does not lie when it says that “everything is from around here.”
Diners won’t find chocolate (it comes from too far away), but they will find native mesquite bean (Prosopis glandulosa), which is ground into flour and used to sweeten desserts. The only tea the restaurant serves is made from yaupon (Ilex vomitoria).
“I really want to keep it as strict as possible and use only what we have locally,” says Griffiths. “We don’t even buy onions out of season. When we don’t have carrots, they are gone [off the menu]. We don’t have lemons for our iced tea out of season. It’s a real experiment in using what our region supports.”
Griffiths makes an exception for a few things, like coffee, but largely the menu remains true to his overall philosophy, and foraged natives are clearly part of that picture. Even the name of the restaurant reflects his reverence for food sources: “Dai due” begins an Italian proverb meaning, “From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care.”
The morning I was there, the Day Menu featured only one native plant — wild onion (probably Allium canadense) vinaigrette on a mixed green salad — but Griffiths estimates they use at least 30 different species of native plants throughout the year. You’ll find Texas persimmons (Diospyros texana), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), chile pequin (Capsicum annuum), pecans (Carya illinoinensis), dewberries (Rubus spp.) and American beautyberry on the list.
“We serve a lot of nopal [Opuntia spp.],” he says. “Our sourdough starter is made from wild grapes [Vitis spp.]. The pastry chef uses a lot of wild persimmons in the fall. You can have persimmon [which is notoriously messy] in its pure form as a sorbet, without getting your hands stained black. You really get the flavor and essence of it.”
Griffiths says that native plants help anchor food to a region. “Anything that we can eat from here has to be good for us in supporting our bodies to live in a region like this. For instance, peppers thrive here, and they are very good for people in hot climates to eat.”
All of this may make the cuisine sound more experimental than it is in practice. Dai Due isn’t a place of intricately arranged plates, nor is it a crunchy hippie restaurant. True to the name “supper club,” the food is hearty and thoughtfully inspired by what your grandparents might have eaten. It is a place where a big-buckled Texan can sidle up next to a young hipster to devour a tasty local steak and some damned fine fried chicken.
“It’s all just comfort food, only made with very good ingredients,” explains Griffiths.
Chef Griffiths’ Wood Sorrel Salsa Verde
1 bunch fresh mint, leaves only
4 cloves garlic
Juice and zest of one lemon
3/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon crushed red chilies
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until very smooth, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to one day. This sauce is best served over grilled fish, chicken, lamb or goat.