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Their Beautiful Launderette

The latest venture from star chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki has Austinites in a lather.  

By April 2015Comments

Photograph by Jody Horton

Get there early,” warned my friend Pam. “We had to wait for an hour!” So three companions and I arrived promptly at six o’clock on a Saturday. “The wait could be an hour,” said the host, looking harried as more and more people jammed themselves into the small waiting area. The weather in Austin was cold and wet, and the crowd was in no mood to linger outside, even in the pools of warmth provided by heat lamps.

Launderette—in a medium-sized storefront that once held a washateria—has been a hit since day one. And it was the subject of much speculation in the foodieverse long before that. Its two principals, executive chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki, had aroused consternation and curiosity when they parted company with La Condesa and Sway, back in 2013, to open this new venture. Since they had already done Mexican and Thai, everyone wondered what was next. Ortiz, keeping his options open, was prone to statements like “I think of it as local in content and global in reach” and “I want it to be a simple cafe with extreme flavors.”

But now that the wraps are off, it’s clear that the main thrust is modern Mediterranean. The menu has Snacky Bits (the word “snacks” being a sign of restaurant coolness). It also has small plates and large plates. Significantly, it has ten offerings of vegetables and salads. And there are sweets, of course. Informality and sharing are encouraged by the enthusiastic servers. It’s a whole new ball game.

After milling around for a while and joining in the table-hopping (it seemed that everybody knew everybody else), we were actually seated in less than forty minutes. We peeled off our many layers of winter gear and immediately ordered five starters for the table, which was easy to do, given how reasonable the prices were. First to arrive was the French-style feta toast, which was mind-blowingly rich (turns out it’s an exceptionally creamy version of feta from Bellwether Farms, in California, that is whipped with a touch of its own brine). The crusty bread, from Austin’s Easy Tiger bakery, was spread with two pungent toppings, a paste of capers and golden raisins and a mixture of roasted bell peppers and eggplant. We realized too late that the two loaded pieces of toast would have been plenty, but we had also gluttonously ordered the lump crab version, with avocado and fennel aioli. If anything, it was richer, on a terrific, almost sweet semolina bread. After that, we tossed back a few caramelized cipollini lavished with an onion-chile balsamic dressing and then plowed through some paprika-and-pepper-seasoned fried oysters with a vinegary mojo-style dressing (cilantro, parsley, and oregano giving it a vivid green color). Then we attacked the tender charred octopus; good as it was, the bed of beluga lentils on which it sat was even better, with the depth of flavor of split-pea soup minus the mushy texture.

We hadn’t even gotten to the mains, but it was obvious that Ortiz’s hallmark style—his penchant for powerful, multilayered flavors—was in play here. The words “curb your enthusiasm” do not exist for him. The downside is that while the results are exhilarating, they can become overwhelming, especially if you’re greedy enough to try nine emphatic dishes in one evening before you order dessert. But we did have time for a breather, since we were ordering as we went, so we took a moment to admire the space, whose casual, boxy interior has been transformed with an aqua-blue concrete floor, a curvy wood bar with sculptural wire chairs, and glistening white tiles in the open kitchen. (Check out the restrooms to see some adorable hummingbird wallpaper.)

Revived, we next ordered the caramelized endive salad with generous crumbles of bleu des basques cheese. Then it was on to three entrées. Ortiz was his over-the-top self with all of them, which worked well with the garganelli, because the lusty Calabrian chile–spiked sausage paired nicely with the strong green flavor of curly kale (“We massage it with a bit of oil before we sauté it,” Ortiz later told me) and a snowstorm of grated pecorino. His style was also spot-on with the grilled prawns with saucy stewed Aleppo and Fresno chiles and a cooling splash of yogurt seasoned with crushed nigella seeds (a.k.a. black cumin). But enthusiasm pretty much obscured the delicate filet of red snapper with a lemony pine nut–gremolata garnish, because it also got slammed by a generous cauliflower puree (putting it to the side would have solved the problem).

It’s so tempting to order one dish after another and end up full before you know it, but you must not skip dessert: Sawicki was named in 2012 to Food & Wine’s inaugural list of the five best new pastry chefs in America, and she has an uncanny ability to put ingredients together in striking ways. Her unconventional combinations—like an English sticky toffee pudding, candied ginger ice cream, and a luscious vanilla-scented cauliflower puree—are miracles of interlocking flavors. And if you don’t fancy her rosewater-pistachio parfait with grapefruit, fennel, and tahini–agave nectar powder, just order her kid-friendly sundae. It looks like a clown face and tastes like a birthday party.

As usual, later on I called Ortiz to illuminate some of the more complex dishes (“If the menu explained everything, each description would be thirty words long,” he said, laughing). Once we got that out of the way, I asked how he had come up with his various ideas, expecting he would say that he was inspired by ingredients or recipes. But each time he would mention a chef he had known, years ago. He would say, “I kept remembering . . .” or “I wanted to do an homage . . .” or “I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t worked with . . .” After three or four of these, I stopped him and said that it sounded as though the menu had come from a stroll through his past. He thought about it for a second and said, “The menu incorporates all the things I have seen and done in my life.”

I felt lucky to have experienced them, vicariously, and happy to have made the acquaintance of so many of his friends.

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