Restaurant review: Lenoir

 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.10.12
 
If some restaurant real estate is cursed — look how many places rose and fell on Barton Springs Road before El Alma settled in — you might say this plot of South First is charmed.
 
Until last summer it was Somnio’s Cafe, where Jay Guidry turned out farmers market food that tasted less like a folksingers’ lunch and more like a backstage buffet for the Old 97s. The dining room looked like an unfinished bohemian crash pad, tea steeped in French presses on the bar and purple-hulled peas always found their season. When people asked me to recommend a place that felt like Austin with good food and decent prices, Somnio’s was on the short list. I was sad to see it go.
 
That same piece of real estate reopened in January as Lenoir (len-WAH), transformed in every way. The building that once looked like the office of a rental-car lot is fronted now by a blue rampart painted deep peacock blue, rising like a twilight sky above a hammered mosaic screen of white wooden slats. The name is spelled out on a golden tag as if the restaurant itself were a tidy boutique gift box. And it’s still on the short list of places I’d recommend for food, for value and for a sense of Austin — the Austin of the restaurant renaissance.
 
The husband-and-wife team of Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher has taken a piece of that renaissance — small plates in a small space — and turned it into three courses for $35. The menu is divided into four categories with three choices in each: Field, Sea, Land and Dream, a fluffy name for dessert. You’re free to build three courses from anywhere, even if it’s three from the Sea. That makes 1,728 possible three-course combinations, not counting extra courses at $10 a pop.
 
Duplechan can’t seem to shake the number three. At the Four Seasons, he ran the kitchen at Trio. At Lenoir, a dish with thin slices of opalescent snapper layered like scales called back to my first go-round with Duplechan’s food at Trio in 2008. Except that there, the scales were made of shaved truffle over kampachi, and that one dish cost more than a full dinner and the best glass of wine at Lenoir. The snapper dish at Lenoir was marinated in the lees of sake from Austin’s Texas Sake Co. and laid over crab with avocado puree. With a hit of citrus to wake up the flavors, it was one of those head-swelling combinations that makes you buy into the whole concept.
 
The menu changes with the speed only a three-person kitchen can swing, so some of these dishes have come and gone already. The snapper was there this week. So was a salad of heirloom tomatoes, some of them blanched to liberate their early-season sweetness, all of them touched by an herb called mint marigold that combines the licorice whip of anise with the jagged little thrill of mint. It was a refreshing but complex plate, spiked with an icy scoop of barely sweet and mostly tart sherbet made from the rainy spring’s locally ubiquitous loquats.
 
The mint marigold played harmony in an herb salad of Thai basil and spearmint over a tamago-inspired omelet rolled around Beaumont crawfish. Not the tight layers of sushi-style tamago, but a looser hybrid finished with a tumble of sauteed wild boar cheek and the hard bite of toasted rice bits for textural contrast. In conversation with Duplechan — who knows who I am but seems to talk to any customer with something to say — the Beaumont angle brought to mind my unfortunate run-in with five pounds of crawfish 25 years ago. Neither I nor my buddy at the Beaumont Enterprise knew we were supposed to purge the little monsters first, a lesson burned into us after an epic detox. That story led tangentially to Duplechan’s recall of a relative’s bayou ingenuity in transforming an antique Ford engine first into a boat motor, then a sawblade driver. Duplechan himself bought an old pickup to haul supplies for Lenoir, a repurposing of something old that suits the restaurant’s narrative arc.
 
 
The interior design propels that arc, too, trading up from the old boho vibe to the boutique charm of reclaimed white wooden cabinet doors and tables that are set with studiously mismatched flatware and apothecary flower jars and distressed white chairs like choir seats from a rural church. The cabinet doors aren’t just for 3-D shadowbox effect. They hold coffee, tea, sugar bowls, dishware. One disguises an AC unit. Clever. The blue walls are set off with crisscrossed white curtains and strips of matte black wood arranged like a centurion’s shoulder armor. Brass-and-glass hanging lamps that would look tacky by themselves take on a faded antebellum glory in a cluster over the 10-top communal table. There’s space for 30-something well-socialized people, and they take reservations.
 
Enough background and context. What about the food? Highlights from 16 dishes over three visits include tender braised artichoke hearts with mustard sauce and ruby pearls of grapefruit, crisp fried oysters with hedgehog mushrooms and pecans, head-on Gulf shrimp over grits with snap peas, an earthy terrine of goat and potato spiced with harissa chile sauce and a bowl of petite fish fillets armored in flattened toasted rice in a gentle curry with a tangle of razor-thin vegetables. Each was a balance of heat, salt and citrus that suited earth and sea flavors alike.
 
Minor issues arose in a poached-egg dish with a pan-fried chickpea cake whose overdone sear lent an acrid halo to the plate and the air around it. The subtleties of tender roasted rabbit were lost to a curry that was pretty far down on the fight card but leapt up to take aggressive control.  And a roasted quail stuffed with wild boar was an unattractive heap with flavors gone gray in the dissonant clash of proteins.
 
Given the strength and variety of the Field, Sea and Land courses, the Dream segment barely stood a chance. A plate of salty fiore sardo Italian cheese was a nice finisher with candied oranges and almonds. So was a strawberry pie with simple rice milk ice cream. But the $35 value and Lenoir’s strengths are expressed best on the savory side, a bounty supported well by a wine list curated by Duplechan’s colleague from the Four Seasons, sommelier Mark Sayre. At 20 or so bottles ($32-$125) with most available by the glass ($9-$19), it’s a tight list. I found or was directed to a handful of good ones, including a $56 bottle of Nikolaihof gruner veltliner from Austria and a course of glasses ranging from an effervescent Spanish txakolina ($11) to a crazy saddle-soap St. Laurent red by Sattler ($11). At $9, a clean Pionero albariño covered the spread on a three-course, one-glass night.
 
With so much to recommend Lenoir, I ran across only a few service issues in an otherwise cordial, well-paced span of visits. Little things like a missing bowl for shrimp shells or neglected silverware swap-outs. Both for decorum and to avoid the crosstalk of flavors from one dish to another, silverware should be switched out with each turn of a coursed-out dinner. A larger point in a small space is feeling rushed, and I don’t like being handed the check before we talk about dessert or coffee. If I were parlaying a latte into an hour and 15 minutes of free wi-fi, I’d understand being pressed to finish my business. But I have little control over how much time it takes to serve three courses, and if I’m building the ticket the whole time — a bottle of wine, an extra cheese course, an after-dinner drink — I think my $150 bill for two should grant me a waiver from a table-turn squeeze play.
 
Lenoir is already close to a four-star experience, a rating I’ve used so far only for Uchi, Uchiko, the Carillon and Wink. At this snapshot moment, Lenoir’s momentum carries it close to that mark and makes it a fast contender with those four places. As it stands, it’s the best new answer to the question, “Where can I go that’s nice, not too expensive and feels like Austin?”
 
 
Lenoir
1807 S. First St. 512-215-9778, www.lenoirrestaurant.com.
Hours: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
 
(Top photo, clockwise from top left: Crawfish tamago, chickpea panisse, Gulf shrimp, Lenoir's white-wood screen, crispy wild boar and braised artichokes. Inset photo: Fish curry, the bungalow's back steps and Nikolaihof gruner veltliner. Bottom photo: Repurposed cabinet doors and chandeliers. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)