The Digest: Saying goodbye to Aquarelle; 'Lights On' report: Sputnik, Somnio's; 'Ferris Bueller' street bash

 
 
Aquarelle's closing will open family pathways, Latin flavors
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.22.11
 
Aquarelle holds a special place in my food-writing career. In 2008, it marked my first formal review visit in what amounted to an audition for the American-Statesman restaurant critic’s job. We had duck and foie gras and snapper in that French-influenced old house, and the kitchen graciously abided and catered to our 4-year-old, much to the horror of letter-writers in the days that followed.
 
But family matters to Aquarelle’s Terry Wilson, enough that she’s closing Aquarelle after 11 years to spend more time with hers, and she's opening in Aquarelle’s place a restaurant named in honor of her grandmother, affectionately called Chonita. “My best memories of cooking really start with her,” Wilson told me on a pre-service break from the kitchen last week.
 
Aquarelle’s last service will be Sept. 3, and Wilson said she hopes to have the new restaurant open Oct. 1.

So what will change and what will stay the same at 606 Rio Grande St.? On the outside, the familiar sunflower yellow paint scheme will be replaced with something that reflects the changes on the inside. The high-technique French menu will give way to what Wilson calls dishes with classical backgrounds that use flavors from the Spanish-speaking world: tamarind, jalapeño, piquillo, chorizo and the like.
 
Dishes like a “croque señor” sandwich with spicy cheese and smoked mozzarella bechamel or a Strube Ranch flatiron steak with tamarind-orange sauce and citrus slaw or fish with chickpeas, piquillo peppers and boquerones vinaigrette. The goal will be a menu priced at $20 or less. The restaurant will also add a full bar to its small but well-chosen wine list, with craft cocktails including a drink of white grapes, basil, vodka and a splash of Topo Chico.
 
What will stay the same is the three-person band of equals in the kitchen: chefs Jacques Richard, Leonard Reese and Wilson herself, plus much of the floor staff.
 
What will the changes buy for Wilson and her staff? Time and flexibility. Classical French cuisine is a demanding art, and Wilson said Aquarelle’s menu requires all three of them not just to cook but to give the high polish the plate presentation demands. The new menu will allow them to run a kitchen with any single one of them at a time, with less pressure on high presentation, even as the restaurant moves from dinner-only to a schedule that also includes lunch and Sunday brunch.
 
Only restaurant logic could weave a world where longer hours and a more geographically diverse menu somehow equate to a less-demanding schedule. But a few parting dishes from Aquarelle’s menu bear out the commitment their execution demands.  A salad brings together smoked duck with thin slices of cantaloupe for a pinwheel of rich meat against sweet melon set off with honey vinaigrette. A simple crepe is filled with a tapestry of shredded duck confit with orange gastrique, and even a crabcake becomes more than a solid expression of that form with a compote of fennel.
 
Through Sept. 3, Aquarelle will be open Tuesday-Saturday starting at 5 p.m. for the wine bar, then running 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday in the restaurant, 6 to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Aquarelle is at 606 Rio Grande St. 479-8117, www.aquarellerestaurant.com.
 
'Lights On’ report
 
► On the way: The Good Knight, a restaurant as dark as a Tolkien rendezvous, closed earlier this summer at 1300 E. Sixth St. But owner Randall Stockton was hardly finished with the space, and work is progressing on a new burger space there called Sputnik. Check the Good Knight’s old Facebook page for developments.
 
► Open: YaYa Cafe, doing Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and noodles plus shaved ice in the former Texadelphia space at 3706 Guadalupe St. 297-2612, Facebook page here.
 
Reopened: Sam's BBQ at 2000 E. 12th St. The restaurant had been closed as part of an investigation into the sale of stolen meat. (Information used by permission of RL Reeves at Scrumptious Chef: http://bit.ly/oMsUTr)
 
► Closed: Somnio’s Cafe on South First Street. A place that proved fresh-market cooking could rock like diner food. This was one of my answers when people would ask me, "Where should I go for ... ?" Austin eclectic, always good.
 
Restaurant briefs
 
► We don’t think of Labor Day as a restaurant day, but Eddie V’s and the Roaring Fork will take that Monday, Sept. 5, to offer buy-one-get-one-free entrees at dinner at the two Austin Eddie V’s locations (301 E. Fifth St., 472-1860; 9400B Arboretum Blvd., 342-2642) and Roaring Fork locations (10850 Stonelake Blvd., 347-2700; 701 Congress Ave., 583-0000).
 
► Parkside and the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow will team up for a free showing of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for a street party Sept. 11 in the 500 block of San Jacinto Boulevard between Fifth and Sixth streets. Admission is free, but a $5 suggested donation and proceeds from food-and-beverage sales (upscale street food, cocktails and beer from Parkside) will benefit the 6ith Street Austin Association. Gates open at 7:30 p.m. Movie starts at 9 p.m.
 
► As work continues on chef Parind Vora’s three-venue restaurant complex — which includes the resurrection of Restaurant Jezebel — at the Cirrus Logic building on West Sixth Street, Vora will host a multicourse Jezebel Dining event Sept. 15. The catered event will reunite the food from Jezebel with painter Tom Darrah, who painted the towering nudes that hung in the original Jezebel when it burned in July 2010. Darrah will be showing new works during the dinner. Menu choices include tartar of hamachi and foie gras, lobster bisque, roasted duck and El Rey chocolate torte. $120. Bring your own wine; corkage included. Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Location given upon reservation at www.jezebeldining.com.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking. Top: Leonard Reese, Terry Wilson and Jacques Richard in the kitchen at Aquarelle. Inset: Smoked duck and melon salad at Aquarelle.)