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Bear with me—I’m trying to remember the olden days when a restaurant with more than two locations was by definition terrible. Nope, chains have changed. Sure, we’ll always have mass feeders like Chili’s and the Black-eyed Pea, but upscale chains are a different proposition altogether. And as much as I champion feisty local independents above all others, multilocation restaurants are coming on strong. Every week I see examples that are just as dedicated to quality as the homegrown shops, and North is one.
The modern Italian restaurant and bar popped up in Austin’s posh Domain shopping center four months ago. I had been curious about this offspring of Fox Restaurant Concepts, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, ever since I heard it was coming to town, so one night some friends and I headed out to see what was cooking.
Right off the bat, the menu sounded molto yummy, with loads of apps, varied entrées, and nontraditional pizzas and pasta (strozzapreti with toasted pine nuts, anyone?). The look was appealing too, although I would have to say it was the opposite of cozy. I mean, twenty-foot-tall glass walls with a 180-degree view of an outdoor courtyard and nearby shops do not an intimate setting make. (In other words, don’t bring your off-the-books beau here unless you want the whole city to know.)
When we finally got down to business, I ordered the grilled and sautéed whole artichokes, which had a wonderfully subtle smoky flavor and came with a tart aioli. Somebody at the table then insisted that we get the fried calamari (a dish I consider a rip-off—why not just eat onion rings?). Against my will, I tried one piece, then another and another. The golden slices were tender and tempura-light, and best of all they came with a baby arugula salad in a lemony vinaigrette.
Still in the sharing mode, we split a thin, crisp-crusted pizza with figs, goat cheese, and prosciutto, and after that, we all helped ourselves to a friend’s pasta, the aforementioned strozzapreti. Tossed with mushrooms and fresh spinach, the loosely rolled ribbons of dough were so lavishly dressed in Parmesan cream that we felt it was our moral duty to keep our buddy from pigging out.
Sharing, however, was out of the question when it came to my short ribs with Parmesan polenta. Good God almighty, the depth of flavor was amazing, as well it should have been, the meat having been braised for six hours. The only problem was, once again, that it was stupifyingly rich.
By the time our earnest young waiter recited the short dessert list, we were all beginning to look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but we still found room for the crostada, a pleasant if unexceptional rustic peach pie with way too much cinnamon. When I went back a week later, however, there was a new dessert, so I bit, and am glad I did. The Nutella cake—a moist, moussey chocolate-hazelnut concoction—was airy and dense at the same time, not to mention totally delicious and (all together now) insanely rich. But what impressed me as much as the quality was the fact that the local chef, Peter Lindquist, invented it himself, just like an independent. See? “Chain” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Bar. Domain shopping center, 11506 Century Oaks Terrace (512-339-4400). Open Sun—Thur 11—10, Fri & Sat 11—11. $$—$$$ W+