As the number of local restaurants keeps expanding every year, it gets more and more difficult for us to update our reviews on eateries we've already visited while keeping pace with new arrivals. However, when a multiple award-winning restaurant loses its high-profile chef and pastry chef, turns its cocktail lounge into a private event space, spins off a food truck, and is closed for an entire month recovering from fire damage, it has experienced enough change to warrant a fresh appraisal. Such is the case with Austin's popular La Condesa, always a top contender in our former annual Restaurant Poll and a winner of one of our inaugural 2013 First Plates Awards.
Founding chef and pastry chef team Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki struck out on their own back in the fall, leaving the La Condesa kitchen in the capable hands of chef Rick Lopez. Lopez is a San Antonio native who worked in the Las Canarias kitchen there, as well as Picholine and Cafe Boulud in New York and parkside in Austin, before persuading Ortiz to hire him at La Condesa three years ago. No big-name pastry chef has been brought in to replace Sawicki as yet, but the company did launch the El Cubico food truck concept, which gives them the flexibility to participate in local festivals and events as well as provide off-premise catering.
We hadn't been inside La Condesa since it reopened in December after the fire cleanup, and their New Year's Day special brunch menu was the most inviting one I'd received during the holiday season. All four of the special menu options sounded like something worth ordering, so I solicited friends and off we went. My first suggestion would be to arrive when La Condesa opens and/or make reservations because this place already has a loyal brunch crowd. We sat near folks who had been in the night before and liked it so well, they came back for brunch. Incidentally, the new tables and chairs are very attractive.
Our gregarious server was so pleased we'd ordered the entire brunch specials menu he shared a bit of inside information when taking our juice order. It seems that when preparing fresh juices for inclusion in bar drinks, the kitchen grills and juices fresh pineapple for their signature El Cubico cocktail. He offered us some instead of the regular fresh pineapple juice ($4) and it was a truly memorable taste experience – the caramelization of the fruit sugar rendered a depth and concentration of pineapple flavor that was unforgettable. I can't imagine how the grilled pineapple tastes in a cocktail with tobacco-infused tequila, vanilla-infused brandy, lemon, mescal essence, and a rim of volcanic saffron salt, but I can promise you I'll be trying to replicate that juice flavor at home when pineapples are plentiful and ripe.
Chef Lopez is keeping the original menu and using off-menu specials as opportunities to present new dishes; we were well-impressed with all four of the New Year's Day brunch specials. The pastry tray ($15) included a sampling of chocolate doughnut holes with caramel crème fraîche and lemon curd, nut-studded slices of spiced banana bread, warm cinnamon-sugar churros, cheese-topped buttermilk scones with jam, and a small, flaky croissant with honey butter. Each component of the tray was perfectly executed, but the churros were the best my guest and I have found in town. (In a follow-up call, chef Lopez gave credit to line cook Derrick Flynn, who displays a fine hand with pastries.)
The kitchen was kind enough to split our next entrée – a hearty bowl of posole rojo ($10) redolent of red chiles in pork stock, with buttery hominy and chunks of corn on the cob; delightful on a crisp morning. Our other entrées were nothing short of spectacular. The perfectly chicken-fried, butter-flied Texas quail ($21) was perched on a nutty-tasting browned butter waffle and served with honey chipotle butter and a decadent bacon-fat maple syrup, on the side where they belonged. The crust had plenty of crunch and the meat inside was moist and tender. My platter of goat ($18) featured the meat prepared three ways: a toothsome, roasted rib; a pile of shredded loin meat for tacos; and two fried croquettes of forcemeat in a delicate breadcrumb crust. Each component of the dish had an accompaniment such as fresh corn tortillas, a fiery sauce of chile de árbol, and a tangy vinaigrette with green onion tips, garlic, and whisper-thin slices of chile serrano that provided a bright pop of acid to the unctuous meat.
Considering this remarkable meal was served on the first day of 2014, it sets the bar pretty high for anything else I'll review this year. Here is the update: La Condesa is firing on all cylinders.
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