Fed Man 55: Lenoir (1)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 1: Lenoir
1807 S. First St. 512-215-9778, www.lenoirrestaurant.com.
Hours: Tue-Sat 5-10:30pm. 6-8:30pm Sun. Closed Mon.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.07.13        
When critics make a list like this, there’s always the possibility that No. 1 will be some left-field surprise. Maybe a Lithuanian skilandis truck or a place that’s open only in months ending in Y. Forgive me, I tried.
Lenoir is No. 1 on the Fed Man 55 for all the right reasons. Great cooking, a strong local identity, decor that marries form and function, smooth service, good wine and something you don’t often see at this level: real value. The husband-and-wife team of Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher synchronized those elements in just one year, easily 2012’s most impressive debut.
Lenoir has improved even since my 3.5-star review in May. They’ve added a courtyard out back with oil lamps, music, wine and a few small plates. More important, the space is a shady safety valve for overbooked tables inside. In a restaurant with 30-something seats, the pressure to move along is a silent partner at every table, and it wasn’t so silent the first few times I ate here. Nobody wants the bum rush and the check to show up at the same time. A more patient staff — and that wine garden — have eased the problem.
Dinner at Lenoir means three courses for $35 (UPDATE 3/13: The price has gone up to $38), chosen from among 12 dishes grouped into four categories: Field, Sea, Land and Dream. Any category, any dish, so long as three shall be the number thou shalt count, as they say in Antioch. There are 364 possible three-course combinations, not 1,728 as I reported in May. Something about factorials, chief among them the factorial that I majored in journalism instead of math.
Those combinations come from a crackerbox kitchen in a blue-and-white building with a golden nametag like a tidy boutique gift box. With sheers across the windows and as many soft points of light as a candlelight altar, Lenoir feels personal, even romantic. Watching couples feed each other isn’t just a seconding of that emotion, it’s the way Lenoir indulges our desire to try everything. My most recent of six trips to Lenoir ran longer than “Les Mis” at the movies, with nine plates and a wine tasting between the two of us.
The $35 three-course plan allows some dishes to be more modest, playing to a few strong elements, like creamy quinoa carbonara as restorative as logging camp porridge or a salad of sunburst watermelon radish and persimmons as sweet as the patience it took to watch them ripen. Or a charcuterie plate with silky thin slices of lardo like polished marble served with semi-soft raclette cheese from North Texas.
From there, the food escalated in flavor and complexity. A scaffolding of toasted shrimp ravioli brought with it the Gulf Coast flavors of Duplechan’s roots, with shrimp wearing crunch-rimmed pasta shells, okra and a dirty-water-dog ambrosia of Cajun tasso ham. The kitchen also turned out a spicy twist on pho with translucent mung bean noodles, pork belly and fat-freckled sausage with a hot streak. A lean shank of antelope got first billing in its dish description, but the real current flowed through soft-sautéed ribbons of onion sofrito and the seasoned iron of liver that Duplechan said he incorporated almost as an afterthought. Excellent precognitive hindsight.
But here’s where Lenoir truly caught the divine spark: bowfin caviar in a modern-art canvas of avocado green and gold. They had run out of bowfin and subbed much more expensive sturgeon caviar, in amounts more generous than the high-end peek-a-boo trend. The dish came together with the salt of the sea and the green of the earth and a little bounce from oyster meat and blocks of miso flan.
The food from that chart-topping dinner added to a playlist that had scored already with roasted head-on shrimp, a crawfish-and-wild-boar omelet, sake-cured snapper, braised artichokes, an heirloom tomato salad with loquat sherbet and too many others to thank individually.
It’s not all butterfly kisses. I’m not inclined to include dessert in a three-course dinner if I can opt out. But adding something from Lenoir’s “Dream” category even as a reasonable $10 extra course shaves off some of the overall value equation. I’d like to see desserts here step fully into the ring with their better counterparts at Uchiko, La Condesa or Barley Swine, and a glass of chocolate pudding or a plate of shaved cheese with orange slices won’t do that, nor will a rustic fried strawberry pie. What will do it is the six-bites-the-richer chocolate brioche bread pudding with coconut sorbet I had this fall, or a lithe persimmon rum pudding with ginger ice cream and Meyer lemon curd. Like its category’s namesake, dessert for now is more like an actual dream, a phased echo of the more lucent territories of Field, Sea and Land.
For the winelist, Duplechan drew from his past life as chef de cuisine at the Four Seasons, borrowing Trio sommelier Mark Sayre to tailor a list to suit the food. As such, it’s heavy on the German/Alsatian/Austrian whites Sayre champions, a passion that’s admirable on the Four Seasons’ longer list but domineering at Lenoir, where it accounts for five out of the eight or nine bottles of white. Good stuff, but still.
I’ve also had transformative reds at Lenoir, from the cedar closet sachet of St. Laurent Sattler to the earth and smoke of Occhipinti SP68 nero-frappato. One of the only American wines on the list comes from Va Piano in Washington, the winemaker for whom Sayre has done some custom blending. It's a small-world-after-all list, but I’ve yet to have a glass that didn’t suit the plate beside it, something for which I credit a waitstaff that doesn’t mind dirtying up a few glasses to let you try before you buy at $11-$16 a pour.
Physically, Lenoir has pushed beyond the car-lot bearing of its utilitarian building and long, narrow lot. The wine garden is more than a smart use of space. It’s a sanctuary where the steward spins LPs that move with grace from Nat King Cole singing the country hits of his day to a live shot of Dylan reminding us we’re gonna have to serve somebody. Inside, the orchestral swells of My Morning Jacket give way to the lost-boy twangst of the Avett Brothers. Lenoir moves comfortably among those worlds, a blend of Old Austin soul and New Austin style and my unequivocal choice for Austin’s best restaurant.
(TOP: The wine garden behind Lenoir; Austrian gruner veltliner from Nikolaihof; sturgeon caviar with miso flan and oysters. FIRST INSET: Poha-crusted fish; braised artichoke; sheer curtains cover the dining-room windows. SECOND INSET: Clockwise from left: crawfish and wild boar tamago; the exterior's gold tag and weathered white slats; fried chickpeas and poached egg; roasted shrimp and grits; the decor includes repurposed kitchen cabinets. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants