If you moved away from Austin before the turn of the millennium and returned recently for a dinner at LaV, you might be excused for thinking someone had spiked your Willie Weed. Surely a restaurateur would have to be pretty bold to think they can muscle in on the upscale fine-dining territory that was once the exclusive province of Jeffrey's and Congress? Conceptually, it seems suicidal to choose a location on East Seventh Street, seven blocks west of I-35 and just on the edge of Hipster Haven. But all such thoughts disappear when you arrive in the LaV parking lot. From the moment the valets approach, you know this is going to be a coddling experience. You enter through their exquisite wine bar, a space just begging for an amorous interlude. The dining room is reminiscent of a Michelin one-star restaurant in the southern half of France. It is modern and clean, but exceedingly comfortable, plus it's lively, yet quiet enough for a romantic tryst. The service adds to the overall impression with its expert, friendly, and quite knowledgeable staff.
We started with salt cod & chickpea fritters ($7), just as moist and juicy and light as any fried thing I've eaten outside of Japan. LaV's charcuterie board ($20) was beautifully presented and delicately flavored, especially the rabbit rillettes and chicken liver pâté. The slices of rosemary lardo were some of the best I've had, though that's damning it with faint praise. We absolutely adored the pan-roasted Massachusetts cod ($29) with a ragout of tomato, artichoke, and beans. The cod arrived at the table perfectly cooked, firm and juicy and smelling as fresh as the sea. Rather than a main course, I opted for two of their small plates. The toothsome hand-cut tagliatelle ($15) came with a touch of ricotta and a fresh-as-spring-tasting pea puree. My favorite savory dish was their "surf and turf" ($18), which included sautéed diver scallops, lightly fried veal sweetbreads, and a perfectly textured leek spaetzle, all finished with a delicious beurre rouge. Even though the menu here changes regularly, I hope they continue to find a place for this tasty dish. After an enchanting dinner, we tried the assiette de fromage ($20) which is the bargain of the house with a lovely selection of perfectly aged cheeses at just the right temperature. Such a special occasion demanded a dessert, so we finished with warm brioche doughnuts ($11) with vanilla bean pastry cream and berry jam. These may have been the best doughnuts I've ever tried, and that is high praise.
The vast majority of the wine list is from Burgundy and is quite expensive. Thankfully, the selection of wines under $100 shows the same creativity as the expensive wines. We started with a Movia Ribolla Gialla from Slovenia ($75), an intense wine with delightful floral aromas. We also chose a Burgundian Rosé made from Pinot Noir, the Bruno Clair Marsannay ($74). These were great wines with a fair markup for such a luxurious dinner.
Still, I have mixed feelings about the wine list as a whole. Their website makes two proclamations. First, they intend "to create one of the great wine programs in America." Second, "We serve a broad range of wines – from compelling value to uncompromising quality ...." Both are laudable goals, and they are definitely on the right track for seekers of amazing trophy wines. What restaurant wouldn't want to show off a 1945 Latour for $20,500 or a 1996 Domaine Georges Roumier, "Les Amoureuses" for $6,750? But a "great wine program" requires balance. When I mentioned to one of the staff that the wine list was filled with extravagant wines, they pointed me to the front of the book and said it was for "our customers who prefer less expensive wines." They were not being condescending, just trying to be helpful by referring me to the four-page section of wines at the front of the list. There we found about 50 wines that are set aside because they are priced under $100.
I'm fairly confident in my knowledge of wine, so I wasn't embarrassed to pick two of the cheapest wines on their list. But many people will feel intimidated. Given the near perfection of everything else at LaV, I would hate to have any guests feel like second-class citizens because they can't choose to spend thousands of dollars on wine. Out of the wine list's 64 pages, my guess is that the choices under $50 wouldn't even add up to 2%, with maybe 10% under $100. I am happy to see a restaurant take their wines as seriously as LaV, but to have such a lovely wine list be so slanted toward wines that are out of the reach of 99.99% of the population seems short-sighted. Bring some balance to that list, and it's my opinion that LaV will soon be a part of the conversation about the best restaurants in Texas.
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