Review: On higher ground at laV

 
 
laV Restaurant & Wine Bar
1501 E. Seventh St. (map), 512-391-1888, www.lavaustin.com
Hours: 5-10pm Tue-Thu; 5-10:30pm Fri-Sat; 6-9pm Sun; 10:30am-2pm Sun for brunch
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.17.14
 
A few days after last year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival in April, I was having tacos al pastor at La Michoacana market with Allison Jenkins and Vilma Mazaite, the chef and sommelier of what would become the French restaurant laV (lah-VEE, as in French for "life") just up the road on East Seventh Street. They had debuted their Say laV trailer at the festival, the prelude to a restaurant that was, at the time, just a bare lot and big ideas.
(See that story here.)
 
Mazaite spoke of scraping away the old gas station and building something that fit the character of the neighborhood. When laV opened in March of this year, all olive brick and tall warehouse windows, I wasn’t sure which character she meant — the neighborhoods of old or the gentrified enclaves of the new. But after $800, three dinners, two bar menu sessions, a Mediterranean happy hour and a six-way brunch, I’m left with little doubt that laV has staked out higher ground in a market saturated with the earnest gravy of the Comfort Food Offensive.
 
The higher ground means irony-free design, with yellow tufted leather in the bar and misty morning grays that flow into the main dining room. Green velvet drapes, sturdy wooden tables, chandeliers and landscapes draw side light from the six-pane windows. Every seat has a wine-wall view, a visual testament that laV, among its many gifts, is an oenophile’s playground, with more than a thousand labels on hand.
 
The higher ground means team service that was uniformly good enough to bring fresh silver, fill glasses, clear plates and bring bread, but not great enough to make sure those small things were never overlooked. Bread service has evolved from a hit-or-miss slice at a time to fresh whole boule loaves, tarnished only on one visit by butter that had gone rancid. Even so, at least the higher ground means actual bread service instead of the industry’s creeping a la carte upcharge.
 
The higher ground means that the small things never interfere with hospitality in its truest sense: the embrace of strangers as family. Because I interviewed the principals, I can’t pretend to that strangerhood, but I saw it in the way Mazaite worked the floor like a benevolent monarch, bringing European charm, wine expertise and deft command in equal measure. And the way general manager Jamie Wagner played host on a Sunday like a shopkeeper who knows all the kids’ names. Hospitality tends to flow from the top down, and each server and runner seemed to get it.
 
(AT TOP, clockwise from top left: Cheese plate with fig jam and honeycomb; laV grew from the former site of a gas station; roast chicken and a taste of laV's 1,200-label wine cellar; wine on ice in the casual bar area; chicken liver pâté with preserves; laV's private dining room. ABOVE LEFT: Chef Allison Jenkins, left, and sommelier Vilma Mazaite.)
 
 
(ABOVE, from left: Blue prawn appetizer; lamb T-bones with polenta and eggplant; bone-in grilled pork chop.)
 
The food
 
The higher ground means nothing if the food isn’t waiting when you get there. At laV. it’s there. There in the way Allison Jenkins brings the French colonial diaspora together with influences from Morocco, the Mediterranean, Spain and North Africa on a menu where appetizers and small plates run $10-$20 and main courses hover in the $30s.
 
I appreciated a starter of blue prawns with tomato, pickled fennel, basil, cucumber, watermelon, red pepper, honey vinaigrette and harissa that didn’t make me chase the deconstructed elements all over the plate. The dish gathered them in close, but still attractive, proximity to play off their acidic, sweet, cool and warm countercurrents. Tender grilled octopus with tangy tuna sauce showed off the smoky alchemy of wood-fired cooking, while a subtle foundation of beurre rouge and leek spaetzle let sweet diver scallops and opulent veal sweetbreads have their moment in a surf and turf dish.
 
Jenkins returned to the Austin Food & Wine Festival in 2014, this time as a Showcase Chef with samples of black bass tartare. It was no delicate pinkie-finger crudo, but a raw-power picketeer with a smoky harissa spice, propelled by olive powder that gave it a Mediterranean port-town character and potato chips for a flash of crunch and salt. In other club Med news, the summer’s Mediterranean Mezze menu that included robust ground lamb kebab and a beet salad made newly relevant by cool, compressed cubes of sweet watermelon has been retired for the season, and a hostess said the bar menu won’t return until late October. What’s left to lighten the tab are $7 glasses of wine and $2 off cocktails until 6:30.
 
Sometimes the higher ground means a perfect roast chicken. LaV offers a whole bird for two at $48, but they’ll meet you halfway for less, bringing crisp skin with appropriate “give” supported by meat in the soft/substantial zone reserved for medium-rare steak, a texture shared by the dish’s roasted potatoes. The Australians call arugula “rocket lettuce,” and it appropriately supercharged the dish’s earthbound palate (and palette). Pasta got a supercharge of its own in a dish of al dente agnolotti pockets with high-bright sweetpea and slivers of pressed strawberry. I’d also recommend medium-rare grilled lamb T-bones with eggplant and polenta and a well-turned charcuterie plate with rosemary lardo shaved like bacon, an earthy rabbit rillette in a jar and an iron-on chicken liver pâté with a bouquet of pickled vegetables and three mustards.
 
The higher ground also means that short mistakes make taller bumps. The blue-collar potato chip touch that informed the black bass tartare didn’t work as well with chilled corn soup — this time with popcorn — because it came half-popped, and the hard kernels were like brass knuckles under the soup’s velvet glove. A two-bone pork chop was grilled to a Bronze Age finish but hid a center as hard as marble, and a hearty bouillabaisse included unfortunate innertubes of squid and an orange smear of rouille that tasted good but looked like a cleanup on Aisle 3.
 
 
(ABOVE, clockwise from top: The main bar is laV's cocktail depot; financiers, macarons and mini-eclairs from laV's brunch menu; the front wine bar is a social area with communal seating; lamb burger and fries at brunch.) 
 
The wine
 
The higher ground means serious wine. But this is a review and not my kindergarten sommelier exam, so I won’t stumble through the wine program name-checking bottles. Scattered among some 1,200 labels are two pages dedicated just to Champagne and another to sparkling wine. There are 20-plus wines by the glass for $11-$25. There’s a four-page “Tour du Monde” list of bottles under $100 (but not many under $50) celebrating the wide world of iconoclastic grapes and styles like txakolina, vermentino, aglianico and Zweigelt. There’s a $5,500 magnum of pinot noir and a $4,000 half-bottle of Bordeaux. A full page is dedicated to just one French chardonnay house.
 
In this rarefied air, the sommelier is your friend; so is the server who’s attuned to how the wine will work with the food. I asked for and got good guidance on bottles from the former and solid advice by the glass from the latter. A bottle-rocket red called Michel Gahier Trousseau Les Grands Vergers 2012 ($83/bottle) suggested by Mazaite, for example, brought enough gunpowder flash to illuminate a bridge between bouillabaisse and grilled pork. And a server in the bar area tailored the robust scarlet bloom of Vietti “Perbacco” Nebbiolo ($14) to grilled lamb. And Gunderloch “Jean-Baptiste” Kabinett Riesling ($13) was the first glass of cold white wine you’d want on a summer morning. And yes, I said morning.
 
On another visit, I was already working on a glass of Jean-Louis Trocard Sémillon Cremant ($12), a sparkling wine with green apple and a linen hankie wave on the finish. But when the bartender saw the black bass tartare hit the table, he brought a taste of Domaine du Bagnol Cassis Marsanne Blend ($15), a French white as crisp as an ironed pillowcase. To go with the roasted chicken that followed, I switched to cold, steel-aged Sandhi California chardonnay ($15). Without oak, the chardonnay grape is as playful as a yellow Lab pup, and Sandhi’s been to a good training school.
 
Wine is food in its own right, not reliant on a dish to match. That was the rationale, anyway, with a glass of Maison L’Oree Bourgogne Pinot Noir ($20) with marquee fruit, reserved dryness and a sturdy backbone. Red wine with chicken? Yes. This one.
 
The calliope dance of enchanting reds continued through other visits with Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgeuil Cabernet Franc ($12), with incense like an Orthodox church. Another cab franc, Domaine Grosbois Chinon ($13), came to the table too warm, baring its tannic fangs. The temperature issue affected a few other glasses as well, both red and white. With so many bottles, you have to store them somewhere, and sometimes that somewhere lies along the walls of sunlit rooms in the summertime.
 
The brunch
 
Some would argue that brunch needs no higher ground. Just alcohol and plenty of it. Our brand of summer means laV has a thing for rosé. On Sundays for brunch, that thing is this: Buy a glass for $12 and they’ll throw in the bottle. And friends, you’ll need it to ride out the rough spots of Sunday morning coming down. A convivial buzz might forgive a rubbery $17 frittata with no sides, a $10 French press or a pair of scrambled-egg crepes unencumbered by things like sides or flavor despite a $19 pedigree of crab and apparently endangered caviar, the fish eggs sparse enough to count.
 
Time for a little cheese with my whine: a trio of soft, grainy and strong cheeses with crisp honeycomb and fig jam. That simple, well-chosen plate was an invitation to see the brunch ritual in a more positive light, a light that grew brighter as the morning matured, progressing with rich chicken liver pâté and vermillion slices of wood-grilled hanger steak with mushroom and potato hash and a sunny-side egg. The best of brunch’s savory side was an iron skillet of grits with whole prawns and a poached egg, followed by a lamb burger with harissa’s dusky flash and a side of diner fries with hand-cut character.
 
 
(ABOVE: Pastry chef Janina O'Leary's brioche doughnuts; Tuscan melon and cucumber sorbets; opera cake.)
 
The cherry on top
 
Finally, the higher ground is no victory at all if victory doesn’t have a sweet side. The best of brunch’s sweet side — and every side — was dessert, an argument for ordering pastry chef Janina O’Leary’s work first, then letting the rest fill in the Sunday corners. Starting simply with the dense, sweet carbohydrate buzz of oat scones with jam and a heavyweight caramel pecan sticky bun, O’Leary’s elaborate display table yielded to fingerling financiers with chocolate and sour cherry and macarons as ephemeral in texture as their lavender and Earl Grey flavors suggested.
 
O’Leary infused those same flyaway florals into ice cream, the craft she mastered at Trace, where her tarragon and tequila ice creams could stand with any dish on the menu. At laV, I tried lavender and Earl Grey, sure, but also salted caramel, crème fraîche and hazel nougat, plus cucumber and Tuscan melon sorbets whose window-frosted green and orange colors belied bracing summer crispness. O’Leary’s clafoutis brought tart sour fruit like cherry bombs in a Spoon song and pastry somewhere between shortbread and dry tres leches, and an opera cake channeled Little Debbie in full evening gown with gilded chocolate and shuffled layers of hazelnut cream.
 
But the dessert that will put the heart tattoo on O’Leary’s tenure at laV is brioche doughnuts, softball pillows of flawless egg-and-butter fluff bedazzled with sugar and a side of jam and pastry cream. A warm finish in a cool place, another way laV claims the higher ground.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)