What! No Russian caviar? No experiments in modernist cuisine involving burnt hay and foraged reindeer moss? No pterodactyl-size lobsters?! I’m looking at the menu at La V, one of Austin’s most-anticipated new restaurants, and I am not seeing the hoary hallmarks of fine dining. As we all know, there are certain eternal verities, one being that restaurants with plush venues and remarkable wine lists serve elegant fare. Oh, sure, the chef may throw in Mom’s Salmon Croquettes, but overall, the food, drink, and design occupy the same elevated plane. At La V, though, there is a serious and deliberate disconnect, something out of sync. And I like it.
The tone is set at the host stand, where you can peer into a series of gorgeous rooms done in soft taupes and olive greens. You are escorted to your table past expansive windows, a dazzling crystal chandelier, and cushy banquettes. A server soon appears with the leather-bound wine list. If you follow the food media at all, you’ve read about this tome, which is one of the most impressive in Texas. But until you begin to turn—and turn—the pages, it’s hard to grasp the extent of a 1,200-label list (just to save you time, the 1945 Château Latour, for $20,500, is on page 43). By now your attitude has been thoroughly adjusted, so when the aforementioned food menu arrives, you do a double take. It’s as concise and approachable as your neighborhood French bistro’s. The costliest non-beef entrée is $36, and there’s not a speck of reindeer moss in sight.
I made reservations for myself and four friends, but I needn’t have, because most seats are kept open for walk-ins. We were still debating what to have when Vilma Mazaite, the head sommelier and a managing partner, appeared. (A Lithuanian who came to the United States after college, Mazaite has worked at, among others, Babbo, in New York, and the Little Nell, in Aspen. It was in Aspen, in fact, that she met Houston investment banker and mega wine collector Ralph Eads, who, with his wife, Lisa, financed and owns La V.) Our array of menu selections led her to suggest a 2012 Copain P2, a versatile California blend of pinot noir and pinot gris that, though high-priced at $70, perfectly suited a group that was angling for something pleasant, not a life-changing experience.
The wine complemented everything we tried, starting with a novel surf and turf (a deep bowl of three velvety seared scallops paired with crispy pan-fried nibbles of sweetbreads on leek spaetzle with a seductive red wine–shallot butter). Our next choice, chicken-liver pâté, proved to be not the usual homey, grainy spread but a sumptuous pink brick, which we cut and slathered on slices of toasty brioche. But by far our favorite starter was the wine-braised and grilled octopus. A miracle of tenderness, the creature had its own mild flavor, brightened by an orange-and-lemon-zest marinade and a salty tonnato sauce, the latter a spunky Mediterranean tuna-caper-anchovy mayo that used to be popular but fell out of favor (here’s hoping it’s making a comeback).
One of the more unusual things about La V is that its top team is all women, which may explain why the menu is not an exercise in “egotarian cuisine” (a term coined by GQ critic Alan Richman in a harangue against the show-off cooking that’s become so pervasive in male-run kitchens). In fact, chef Allison Jenkins—who grew up outside Dallas and is a veteran of the Coach House, on Martha’s Vineyard, and Aspen’s Little Nell and Ajax Tavern—says, “Everyday dining is the most important dining there is.” (Right on!) She confesses that her natural style, the way she cooks at home, is Italian but says it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to La V’s Provençal-style traditions and terroir.
Or maybe I should say “merroir,” because the menu has a strong Mediterranean seafood bent. Jenkins makes the case with her bouillabaisse, which has elements of that famous French stew crossed with Italy’s more eclectic cacciucco. “We use a lot of squid,” she says, “fresh, not frozen, which is rare, plus clams and blue prawns, and then we finish it with orange zest and Pernod, which is super-typical of Provence.” It was an agreeable dish, though for all the trouble it must be to make, it was much less impressive than the fabulous pan-roasted Massachusetts cod, a pristine filet capped with deeply caramelized skin.
In fact, fish overall seems to be a strength. I was swept off my feet by the whole dourade, a fragile-fleshed white fish mounded with olives and a fantastic fennel-and-preserved-lemon confit that was mellow and pungent all at once. But when it came to red meat, it was hard to draw conclusions. We tried only one of the two choices, the lamb T-bones, and they proved tough and overdone, not really helped by their bed of nice but frankly boring beefy-flavored farro (I enjoyed the baby fiddlehead ferns, though).
Like the main menu, the dessert list keeps it short and sweet. Pastry chef Janina O’Leary—a Texan who came up through the ranks at New York’s Daniel and Per Se and then returned to run the dessert program at the W Hotel in Austin—hits all the right notes. If I had to single out just one dessert, it would probably be the puckery lemon curd sided by mascarpone-enriched pastry cream. But the truth is that my two favorite things were basically garnishes: the Earl Grey ice cream, kissed with citrusy bergamot, and the crackly cocoa-nib tuile cookie (they accompanied the triple-layered indulgence that is the chocolate délice).
On our way out, we agreed to meet here again, to sample flights in the informal wine room or dine at the sexy-looking cocktail bar. Thanks to the food prices, this is not a fancy restaurant that’s for big-deal occasions only. This is a fancy restaurant where members of the ever-dwindling middle class (like us) can drop in after work for wine by the glass or where awestruck wine enthusiasts can blow a bundle on amazing French Burgundies or California cabs. True, nobody will be dining on a lobster that could do battle with King Kong, but did we really want one anyway?