Low water, haute dining
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., July 1, 2011
Sobani1700 RR 620 N. #110, Lakeway, 512/266-3900
Sobani's owners made a bold choice, placing the bistro in a small strip mall next to a mini-Sears. And you might be excused for wondering what the cuisine would be at a place by this name. The owner, who grew up in Japan, says Sobani means "nearby, or in the neighborhood," and the goal is to be a dependable and easily accessible local restaurant for folks along the south side of Lake Travis and in Lakeway and Steiner Ranch.
Inside, the comfortable restaurant has an elegant simplicity. The Japanese influence isn't really too apparent, though the menu does have some suitable touches to add a bit of international spice. The words "miso" and "tempura" pop up now and then, but this is not a place to go hunting for the kind of Asian fusion found at one of Tyson Cole's places.
That said, everything we tried at Sobani was quite good; it's well-executed cooking with clean flavors and creative concepts. For instance, the mushroom soup with truffle oil and crispy shiitake chips ($8) was rich and redolent of mushrooms, and the chips were a great idea for a touch of crispiness to add some interest. Anchovy fans (count me in) will love the light crunchiness and concentrated umami tastes of the battered fried cauliflower with white anchovy and caper dressing ($9). Our two main courses were similarly appealing. The best was the braised pork belly with spaetzle, sautéed greens, and a radish salad ($19). I know part of the point of pork belly is fat, but so often it's over the top. This version was just right. The spaetzle was properly firm, and the sautéed greens added a perfect touch of bitterness. The braised beef short ribs with curry and spiced rub, sunchoke puree, and a pickled vegetable salad ($22) stood out for its delicious sunchoke puree. The rub was quite mild, allowing the beef flavors to dominate.
The wine program is bold and inventive with many interesting choices. Unfortunately, Sobani shares two disappointing traits with a lot of Austin's newer restaurants. First, the red wines are served entirely too warm. It is important to remember that the old saw about serving reds at room temperature refers to an underground French cellar, not a Texas kitchen. Second, the markup at Sobani is quite steep, more like a Downtown steak house than a neighborhood restaurant – except on Wednesday, when wines are half price. Still, Sobani hits most of the bases it aims for. The waitstaff is solicitous, friendly, and knowledgeable, and, overall, Sobani is a great place for locals to pick up a well-prepared, dependably imaginative meal in a classy environment.