La Condesa

Austin
La Condesa
La Condesa, Austin
Photograph by Caleb Bennett

Party like it’s 2006! Or 2007! Or any year before the Great Recession started to eat our poor, pitiful economy’s lunch. Without an apparent care in the world, La Condesa has sashayed into Austin’s Second Street District boasting a Museum of Modern Art–worthy design from local dream team Michael Hsu and Joel Mozersky, a seductive cocktail list by famed mixologist Junior Merino, and a cutting-edge menu from internationally traveled Texas chef Rene Ortiz. Recession? What recession?

If my very early visit is any indication, the kitchen is delivering the (rather exotic) goods. Chef Ortiz may have been raised in San Antonio, but he has cooked all over the world (Vancouver, France, New York), and his perspective is global. Yes, when you open up the menu and see tacos, sopas, and tostadas, it all seems cozy and familiar, but once you delve below the headings, you find yourself in a far more adventurous place.

Take the five ceviches, for instance. There is the customary lime-marinated white fish, but that’s only the beginning. The other four range far afield and have much more in common with modern Peruvian-style ceviche or Italian crudo. The one I loved was the raw kingfish sliced (a bit too thickly) and arranged (beautifully) with grapefruit sections in a broth of lime juice brightened with cilantro and tiny bits of grilled habanero. The textures were fantastic—the silkiness of the raw fish set against the exploding bomblets of fresh citrus. So were the flavors, briny and fruity going mano a mano. But what gave it that little something extra was its garnish: the saltiest, airiest chicharrones (yes, fried pork skins) I’ve ever had.

Moving right along to the Platos Fuertes, or “large plates,” I found an instant new favorite: duck breast and leg in black mole. The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who adore mole and those whose jaws clench shut when they hear the word. I’m in the first camp, and this mole—with rare Oaxacan chiles, including chilhuacles negros and anchos negros—was rich with the flavors of chocolate, almonds, and aromatic spices. Even better, the duck was pink perfection.

All of which brings me to dessert. And for that I have five words of advice: torta de queso de cabra. Oh, my. Goat-cheese cheesecake is a risky dessert—it can so easily be too strong—but here the sour tang of the cheese stayed properly in the background, and the texture was as light as a soufflé. On top perched a ring of pineapple, to the side was a puddle of saffron- flavored vanilla custard (which, with about three times more saffron than was good for it, was the only flub).

If I have a caveat about La Condesa, it goes back to my initial impression. Some of the dishes—the small plates in particular—carry extremely stiff tariffs, which may be in line with their quality but seem strangely out of sync with the hard times we’re going through. But if you’re a person who has to be first through the door at the newest hot spot and doesn’t mind paying for the privilege, knock yourself out. You’ll certainly be getting your money’s worth. Bar. 400-A W. 2nd (512-499-0300). Lunch Mon–Fri 11–3. Dinner Sun–Wed 5–10:30, Thur–Sat 5–11. Brunch Sat & Sun 11–2. Dinner reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+

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