laV and Say laV: Austin's French New Wave
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.21.13
Food trailers are modern culinary Pinocchios, miniature meals on wheels dreaming of becoming a real restaurant someday. Except when the trailer is the projection of the real restaurant’s dream, a puppet show to warm people up for the real thing.
That’s the story of Say laV, a trailer sitting behind a lot on East Seventh Street that once was a gas station. Across from a cemetery. The trailer is the calling card for a French restaurant coming this fall called laV (lah-VEE), a project led by sommelier and restaurant bon vivant Vilma Mazaite and executive chef Allison Jenkins. On first blush, the location seems like an inauspicious setting, but Bobcats and backhoes have cleared all traces of the gas station, and the bucolic trees and monuments across the road haven’t hurt the party spirit of next-door-neighbor Takoba. In fact, the graveyard played into laV’s name, a declaration of life at death’s back door.
In the months before laV puts flowers on the tables and opens the doors, the orange-and-white Say laV trailer is holding down the courtyard at the Volstead Lounge and Hotel Vegas five nights a week. The menu at Say laV is not a preview of laV, per se, but a taste, as in “such is life.” It shows what Jenkins can do with the summer harvest: sauteed corn with miso butter and duck egg, grilled watermelon with chevre, pita with goat meatballs and pickled zucchini. Bar food for the discerningly buzzed for about $5-$8. The trailer is open 7pm-midnight Tue-Thu and 7pm-2am Fri-Sat (1601 W. Sixth St., 512-720-8112, www.saylavaustin.com).
Mazaite and Jenkins shook hands with Austin’s food scene when they were invited to park the Say laV trailer at the Austin Food & Wine Festival last month. A seared pork belly slider with sweet tomato jam was a nice fit with the festival’s picnic atmosphere. So was a sandwich of corned beef tongue on rye with party-crashing Brussels sprouts. But a little paper boat with a hard-boiled egg stole the show, pickled with a tarragon twang and a shower of microgreens for $1.50, a throwback snack from a chef who can play the high-low game. Because while Jenkins’ worldview includes the Culinary Institute of America, it also includes her grandfather selling pickled eggs at the Jenkins Grocery in Wortham, Texas.
Jenkins’ road to Austin traveled through college at Trinity in San Antonio, a life-changing summer at Le Cordon Bleu in London, then the CIA, then the Coach House at Martha’s Vineyard and most recently the Ajax Tavern at the Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colo., where she was executive chef.
Mazaite is from Lithuania — some of her Facebook friends address her in her native tongue — and she started working in restaurants there when she was 16 “bussing, serving, hostessing, doing everything.” After several visits to America, she got a job in Las Vegas as the manager of a buffet. It was a foreign concept to her, this all-you-can-eat thing. A passion for wine led her to join SeaBlue at the MGM Grand as beverage director, and Vegas held onto her at the Wynn, where she refined her Italian tastes at Bartolotta. That led her to work with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich at Babbo in New York. Then Colorado called Mazaite away from the big-city crush, and she joined the Little Nell staff in Aspen.
Two different career paths landed Mazaite and Jenkins in Aspen at the same time. Which begs the question: Who would ever want to leave Aspen? Mazaite, along with Houston investor Ralph Eads, saw potential in laV’s East Seventh Street location three years ago, she said, banking on the growth of East Austin and its proximity to downtown. For Jenkins, it was a drive to see what lay beyond working at one of the best places in town. Also: “Aspen’s a very difficult place to get your foot in the door to start a business,” she said. “It’s really expensive to live there.” On July Fourth weekend in 2011 — one of the resort town’s busiest holidays — Mazaite approached Jenkins with the Austin restaurant idea. “I always said that if I moved back to Texas it would be to Austin,” Jenkins said.
Say laV and laV join an Austin market eager to embrace French cooking. “What is French cuisine?” Mazaite said. “It’s like Italian; it’s just so many different regions.” She’s inspired by Provence, by a good roast chicken, by presentation, “though not necessarily in a fancy way.” LaV will join a French legion that includes Chez Nous, Justine’s, Artisan Bistro and Baguette et Chocolat, plus a new French restaurant called Arro that’s set to open this summer on West Sixth Street with chefs Drew and Mary Catherine Curren.
“(LaV) is not straight-up classic French,” Jenkins said. “There will be some things on the menu like escargot, pâté and cheese soufflé, but I think it’s more of an extension of a lifestyle. Grabbing great food, enjoying life, enjoying wine, the company of your friends and family in a space that feels like home.”
Cooking at laV will be different from feeding 100,000 people a year in a resort town like Aspen, where Jenkins described the Ajax menu as “Balthazar meets Bouchon meets In-N-Out.” In Austin, the menu will highlight dishes from a wood-burning oven and grill, like roasted chicken, whole fish and a mixed grill that might feature lamb or goat or rabbit. Plus a raw bar, summer onion soup, pâté, house-baked boule, escargot and “a lot of vegetable sides.” Appetizers will run $8-$15, Jenkins said, with main courses in the mid- to high $20s and specialties designed for two at $40-$45.
Mazaite, who’s taking her master sommelier exam even as this story posts, will handle laV’s wine program with “almost two lists in one,” she said. “We’ll have this really amazing French, Italian and American selection and then have a list that is maybe four pages, really fun wines by the glass that change depending on Allison’s food.” But it always comes back to France, with Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone and offbeat bottles from southern France, Provence and Savoy. “And Champagne,” Jenkins interjected. “Heavy on the Champagne; that’s a given,” Mazaite said.
The lists will fit a range of budgets. “If you want to spend $20, you’re going to be able to. If you want to spend $200, you’re going to be able to,” she said. “If you want to spend $2,000, you’re going to be able to.”
So what will grow from the bare earthen lot at East Seventh and Onion streets? They want the building to look like something that’s been there awhile, Mazaite said, not a glass-and-angles interloper. For that, laV is working with celebrated designer Bobby McAlpine, whose interiors have appeared in Southern Accents and House Beautiful and his book “The Home Within.” There will be warehouse-scale windows, brick, a mix of wooden and pewter tables, a pewter bar, a patio with pergolas, trees and vines and a wine room set with distressed wood and vibrant yellows with a bar and tall communal tables. Deeper into the restaurant, a dining room will draw on more romantic themes, and a private wine cellar room will house a table for 12, bringing the restaurant’s capacity to 150.
A wine cellar at a former gas station? Mazaite’s in on the joke: “You’re going to smell a lot of petroleum in the wine.”
As the plan stands now, laV will be open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, with brunches on Saturday and Sunday, Mazaite said. Lunch is a possibility down the road. As for when the whole show will start, both Jenkins and Mazaite have enough experience to be purposefully nonspecific, especially when they’re starting with nothing but earth on an empty lot. An opening measured not by weeks or months, but by a season: fall.
(TOP: Sommelier Vilma Mazaite, left, and chef Allison Jenkins at the Say laV trailer, the predecessor to the French restaurant laV scheduled to open in the fall. The trailer menu includes dishes like a tarragon pickled egg, pork belly slider with tomato jam and a corned beef tongue sandwich with Brussels sprouts. FIRST INSET: The yellow awning beyond Takoba in this 2012 photo is the former gas station on East Seventh where laV is being built. SECOND INSET: The Say laV trailer’s parked in the courtyard behind the Volstead Lounge and Hotel Vegas, with a view of the construction on the lot next door where laV’s being built. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)