Somnio's delicious local cuisine vacillates between homestyle and chef-inspired
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., July 30, 2010
Tue.-Fri., 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm
Somnio's Cafe1807 S. First, 442-2500
Tuesday-Friday, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday brunch, 10:30am-2:30pm
All too often, when ambitious, idealistic restaurants open with a mission of serving premium quality organic, local, and seasonal food for reasonable (not "fine dining") prices, they are crushed by the competition. Not because they're unworthy, but because they simply can't be as inexpensive as places that are using the cheap, factory-farmed ingredients.
So when a little place like Somnio's breaks the two-year barrier, having developed a loyal following and a consistent Saturday night wait, it is a meaningful victory. I think it also indicates a tipping point has been passed: There are enough people in Austin who are willing to pay the extra money to get food made from premium ingredients – not just on special occasions but routinely.
Somnio's list of suppliers is positively utopian: produce from area organic farms including Hairston Creek and Green Gate, grass-fed pork from Richardson Farms, pastured chicken from Dewberry Hills Farms, Fair Trade coffee from Fair Bean, teas from Sesa Tea, Thunderheart bison, Brazos Valley Cheese, Texas Olive Ranch olive oil, Vital Farms eggs, pasta from Pasta & Co., bread from Moonlight Bakery, and even the hand soap in the bathrooms is from So.A.P. "Our local sourcing is one of the things I am most proud of," says owner/chef Jay Guidry. "It is central to our philosophy."
The restaurant itself occupies a nondescript house on South First Street. Remodeling was initially kept to a minimum, and the ambience is best described as "funky." The dining room is tiny (28 seats, most of which give you a pretty good view of the two-man kitchen). It's clean and cheerful but not fancy.
The cuisine vacillates between homestyle and chef-inspired. For lunch, sandwiches and wraps are served with a choice of soup or salad, and the options are definitely in the homestyle camp: chicken salad ($8), hummus ($7), meat loaf ($8), egg salad ($7), and cheesesteak ($8). The salads, however, are squarely in the chef-inspired camp. The Bud ($4/7), is made with sliced golden beets, garbanzo beans, and red onions, topped with cilantro, pecans, and chipotle vinaigrette, all on a bed of organic baby greens. It is original and fabulous, a wonderful blend of flavors seldom encountered in one dish. The Sissy salad ($4/7) is equally inspired: avocado, mint, pecans, and mild jalapeños, served atop a bed of greens with a creamy garlic vinaigrette. The vinaigrette dressings are impressive, boldly flavorful yet without vinegary sharpness.
One of the most popular appetizers is called simply Seasonal Fries ($6), made by batter-frying a fresh local vegetable and serving it with a red pepper and tahini sauce. I've had the green bean "fries" in the past, and they were so good, it made me wish that green beans were perpetually in season. This visit, the fries were sweet potato, and the enormous pile we were served was perfectly cooked, hot, crispy, and studded with sea salt. The pan-fried shiitake dumplings ($8) were savory and filling, and the hummus appetizer ($5), served with feta cheese, ample pita bread, and brined green olives, was garlicky and satisfying.
Somnio's homemade tacos have won accolades in both the national and local press. Nynavae's Tacos ($8) contain panko-crusted mushroom fritters and crunchy slaw and were named one of the 25 best bites in Austin by the Austin American-Statesman. The orange pork tacos ($8), organic carnitas served up with baby spinach and queso fresco, are one of Somnio's bestselling dishes and merited a mention in Bon Appétit.
The entrées are a little more expensive ($11-13), and the execution can be more erratic than with the salads, tacos, and appetizers. Because the emphasis is on seasonal, the blackboard specials tend to supersede the menu entrées, sometimes rendering the written entrée menu obsolete. The Crazy Crispy Medallions ($13) are usually available, however: organic Richardson Farms pork breaded with panko and served with buckwheat noodles over fresh greens. The medallions thrilled me with hearty, rich flavor, but may be a bit heavy for some.
Somnio's is open for Sunday brunch as well, with a concise menu of migas ($7), French toast ($6), oatmeal ($6), omelets ($9), buckwheat pancakes ($6), and topped egg or tofu scrambles ($7). To the joy of the regular clientele, Somnio's is always BYOB, with a wonderfully low corkage fee of $2 per person (waived if you buy $5 worth of setups).