Among my favorite childhood memories are the Sunday dinners we would share with my stepmother and her big Italian family. These were crowded, noisy affairs of lace tablecloths, cut crystal, and showy china. The mirrors lining the back wall of the dining room made our 15-person meals seem like massive banquet feasts. There was always lasagna or some other tomatoey pasta with meat sauce. There was usually a roast lamb or turkey and, for dessert, we had cannoli and butter cookies. In my imperfect childhood recollection, those Sunday dinners happened regularly, and everyone came bearing smiles and lively conversation.
In fact, those epic meals probably happened only once a year or so. And now that I think about it, I am sure at least one of them ended in tears and verbal recriminations from someone. These days my stepmother no longer talks to her sister, and I no longer talk to my stepmother. But such is the power of a Sunday dinner to imprint children's minds so strongly that the memories selectively endure, outlasting subsequent hurt and bitterness. In spite of the distortions of time, in spite of whatever familial dysfunctions persist today, I still treasure those flawed mealtime memories. I am sure I am not alone.
For many families, the Sunday dinner was, and still is, an important tradition. It is a time for decelerating, disconnecting from devices, and, for better or worse, keeping the spark of family alive. Summer is a perfect time to practice the art of leisurely Sunday dining. In summer, there is no Sunday night homework anxiety, schedules are looser, and the hectic pace of life seems to slow, if only for a few months. A few Austin restaurants have begun reviving the Sunday dinner tradition, making it easier to share a weekend friends-and-family meal without having to spend all day in front of the hot oven.
One of my current favorites is at Olive & June. You don't have to book a trans-Atlantic flight to feel like you are a member of some ancient, landed Italian clan. Dining al fresco under the oak-shaded patio at Olive & June offers a Sunday family-dining experience that is so authentic, you could bottle and sell it, which I suppose is exactly what chef/restaurateur and family man Shawn Cirkiel is doing. Olive & June Sunday dinners are opulent three-course feasts that generally feature two antipasti dishes, followed by a pasta course, and end with a hearty roast ($29 per person, kids under 12 eat free). The menu, featuring seasonal ingredients, changes weekly and has become an opportunity for the kitchen to test drive new ideas. Recent offerings included kale frittata, crisp arugula and strawberry salad, linguine with olive oil and bottarga (pressed fish roe), and succulent pork roast paired with feisty fennel mostarda. Flavors are vibrant, pastas are all house-made, and the whole ensemble evokes a slow Sunday meal in Nonna's backyard. The regular menu is also available for diners who need fuller control over their choices. But why bother when the Sunday menus are so consistently stellar? I recommend making reservations in advance because the patio fills fast. And while the indoor dining room is also pleasant, it cannot match the charm of the twinkling lights and the massive 100-year-old oak that dominates the outdoor aesthetic.
A different kind of Sunday spread can be had at Hyde Park's Vino Vino, where piping hot paella comes out of the kitchen promptly at 7pm. For more than half a decade, neighborhood folks and foodies have been mindfully keeping this quaint cafe and wine bar a secret, but I feel like it is time that Vino Vino gets the love it deserves from a wider audience. At Vino Vino, everything from pasta to the ketchup is made from scratch. Chef Jesse Marco prepares two paellas each Sunday, both served from huge, shallow pans at the end of the bar. For $17 you get a choice of seafood paella, chock-full of mussels, octopus, shrimp, clams, and whatever fish is in season; or a heaping plate of land-based paella made with chorizo, chicken, lamb, and pork. I prefer not to choose and go for a little bit of each. Half plates ($8.50) are also available to pair with another of Vino Vino's regular menu items. Paella service continues until they sell out, which usually happens toward the end of the night. But it's better to get there early, enjoy a glass of wine first, and then to get it while it is still hot.
Finally, in South Austin, Lenoir's $40 Sunday night dinner is one of this town's hidden gems. This postage stamp-sized restaurant is a darling of indie chefs and food cognoscenti for its innovative culinary mash-ups like roasted carrots with miso flan and hemp soup topped with Indian chaat. Seats usually book weeks in advance, but on most Sunday nights you can still make a last-minute reservation.
While the regular menu is always a $38 fixed-price, three-course meal featuring choices at each course, Sunday nights eliminate the choices, offering instead a single four-course meal for $40. Like Olive & June, the savants at Lenoir use their ever-changing Sunday menu to play with ideas and roll out new dishes. The kitchen at Lenoir is so small that it's not always easy for the chefs to execute and plate all the things they can possibly dream up. So Sunday suppers have become a proving ground. "Our diners put themselves completely at our mercy," says chef and owner Todd Duplechan. Sure it is a bit like a trust exercise, but there are few kitchens I would rely on more to come up with original, soul-satisfying meals so consistently. One other reason for Lenoir's one-size-fits-all Sunday meal is simple: The restaurant itself is a family enterprise, which closes on Monday. Sunday night suppers allow the Lenoir staff and family an opportunity to wind down the week with elegance and ease. After all, isn't that what Sunday supper is all about?
Reservations for all Sunday suppers are strongly encouraged.
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.