Paul Petersen brings his pit master skills to Lake Creek
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Aug. 26, 2011
Fri., 11am - Midnight;
Happy Hour: Mon.-Fri., 4-6pm
Vivo12233 RR 620 N. #105, 331-4660
Monday, 11am-9pm; Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-12mid; Saturday, noon-12mid; Sunday, 4-9pm
Happy hour, Monday-Friday, 4-6pm
I've followed chef Paul Petersen's career since the talented San Antonio native operated the cozy Little Texas Bistro on Main Street in tiny Buda. After closing the successful bistro, Petersen continued to build his reputation running the kitchen at the historic Gage Hotel in West Texas and then a busy steak house in a restored historic property on the town square in McKinney. All three venues provided classy settings for the chef's refined culinary accomplishments. Petersen returned to Austin several months ago to help longtime friend and fellow San Antonian Roger Diaz upgrade the food at his Lake Creek Vivo location. Based on our recent visits to Vivo, Petersen has done an excellent job of elevating the menu to his usual level of sophistication. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the restaurant itself. We approached what we thought was a suburban strip-mall Mexican restaurant and found ourselves in a tacky, dimly lit nightclub wannabe instead.
Our party arrived at 6pm on a Saturday to discover that the reservation I'd made in a friend's name had not been recorded. The 30-minute wait for a table gave us time to investigate Vivo's impressive but very pricey ($9.95 house margaritas – yikes!) mixed drink and tequila selection. The walk to our table revealed that the restaurant is decorated with large, garish oil paintings of female nudes; clubby leatherette booths; and candlelit tables. No sooner had our appetizers arrived than the DJ in the bar began blaring pulsating dance music. The obnoxious decibel level made dinner conversation all but impossible, and our server had to yell descriptions of desserts to be heard. After conferring with uncomfortable diners at surrounding tables, we complained to a manager about the music and asked if it could be turned down some. She responded that the restaurant only features a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights (just our luck) and that the crowd packing the bar liked the music. It was obvious that the comfort of patrons spending good money in the dining rooms was of no concern. If our entrées hadn't already been on the way at that point, we would have paid our check and escaped what was a very unpleasant situation.
Excellent food was the evening's only saving grace. Vivo's chips and salsa are truly marvelous – hot, crisp tostada chips paired with an award-winning smoky, roasted-tomato salsa are an addictive start to the meal, and the staff replenishes both frequently. The shrimp nachos ($12.95) disappeared quickly. Each plump, perfectly cooked shrimp nestled on a blue corn tostada under a mantle of poblano-cream sauce and melted Manchego cheese made a delectable bite. Petersen's accomplished hand with seafood is also evident in other dishes, namely the crab enchiladas (the market price was $20 that night) and shrimp enchiladas ($16.95). Both picture-perfect plates offered toothsome seafood enfolded in delicate corn tortillas, each one napped with one of Petersen's exemplary signature sauces.
As impressed as we were with the seafood, the beef chile relleno ($16.95) and brisket enchiladas ($14.95) were even better. The relleno platter featured a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with savory beef picadillo in a pool of distinctive ranchero sauce, paired with fluffy white rice and a bowl of well-seasoned pinto beans. The fact that the pepper was not battered and fried gave the dish a level of lightness and finesse that I appreciated. Chef Petersen's skill as a pit master is evident in his brisket – tender, smoky shreds of beef are packed into enchiladas under a coating of expertly rendered chile gravy and melted cheese. It's one of the best plates of authentic Tex-Mex cooking I've tasted in years – don't miss it! The desserts we sampled were equally well-executed and attractively presented. Both the dense, moist Baileys chocolate cake ($8.95) and the rich, velvety flan ($7.95) were well worth the calories.
It's genuinely unsettling for a reviewer to have such strong but opposing reactions to a restaurant experience. I can't emphasize strongly enough how much my guests and I enjoyed the food at Vivo – every element of the meal was well-conceived, well-executed, and as appealing to the eye as to the palate. However, we all agreed that we would have preferred to enjoy the food in a different setting because we found the cheesy nightclub decor and ambience very unappealing. To be fair, I returned to Vivo for a weekday lunch with one of my guests from the Saturday night debacle. The food was still wonderful, and, on this visit, totally appropriate Spanish-language pop music played softly in the background. Still, I can't help but hope that Petersen's next restaurant offers a better showcase for his skills.