Fed Man 55: La Traviata (10)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 10: La Traviata
314 Congress Ave. 512-479-8131, www.latraviata.net.
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm. Dinner Mon-Thu 5:30-10pm and Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30pm. Closed Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.10.12
I’ve walked past the bay windows of La Traviata in the twilight and envied the people inside, like figures in a shoebox diorama with the soft glow of light playing off white stone walls and a soundtrack of muffled conversation and the clatter of fork and plate.
“When I found the space, it had more of an Italian feel, like a New York or San Francisco kind of restaurant,” chef and owner Marion Gilchrist told me last year when we talked about spaghetti Bolognese, about having an all-female crew behind the stoves and the ballet of working in a small kitchen. "I had to design the menu around the kitchen. We only have 12 burners back there and two ovens and that's it. It's all women on the line. All of the pastas are done to order. We all kind of dance around one another.”
From that dance comes a spaghetti carbonara like a bird’s nest cradling a sunrise egg yolk in a tangle of scallions and pockets of dense, robustly salty pancetta, laced through with a cream sauce and the sprinkled gold of toasted breadcrumbs and parmesan ($15). I like it as a starter, an opening pasta dish with just enough lush indulgence before a main course of duck leg quarters braised in their own fat, rendered as soft as veal cheeks but with duck’s wild character, amplified by anise and the crystalline pop of seeds in a sauce sweetened with dried figs ($22).
It’s a complete plate, finished with a stack of crisp haricots verts and a potato gratin layered like Barnett Shale with crisp cheese, creamy slices of snap-charactered potato and aromatic fennel. A shower of arugula brings a peppery herbal shake to the whole plate. So much happening in one dish. That density of flavor and technique also leads to my favorite spaghetti Bolognese in Austin, starting with browned veal, pork and beef with a mirepoix of carrot, onion and celery simmered with tomato, mushrooms and bacon, then finished with cream ($9.50 lunch/$15 dinner). With crispy fried polenta sticks at lunch or a Caesar salad at dinner, it’s how downtown Italian is done. (To see how it’s not done, walk a few blocks north to Quattro Gatti.)
Sound bounces at La Traviata, the sounds bred by laughter, business, wood floors and limestone walls. It’s a long, shotgun space with a full wardrobe mirror on a back wall that suggests depth and lets you check your hair while you’re at it. A sturdy wooden bar runs the length of the room, with glasses hanging like marquee lights advertising a short, strong Italian wine list. Those lights shone a little brighter this summer when the lambrusco was around. Yes, that lambrusco, the fizzy pink stuff. And if you’ve had the Cleto Chiarli from Italy, you know it’s a little sweet and refreshingly innocent of all the charges brought against lambrusco during your parents’ mild-wild years. I came close to blush-colored overload with a dessert of freshly shaved strawberry granita, served in a stemless cone glass like an Italian ice with upward aspirations.
When people complain that there’s no good Italian in Austin — and they do; a lot — I counter with Asti and Vespaio. I’d rather keep La Traviata all to myself.
(TOP: Duck confit with haricots verts and potato-fennel gratin. INSET: La Traviata's front windows make good dinner theater; spaghetti carbonara and a glass of lambrusco; strawberry granita with whipped cream and biscotti. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants