Attention to Detail

The Little Things Make a Big Difference at Tocai

Tocai of Austin

601 W. Sixth St., 457-8880
Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm; Mon-Thu, 6-10pm
Fri-Sat, 6-11pm

Tocai of Austin

photograph by John Anderson

During the mousse-heavy Eighties, restaurateurs tried to make a go of the upscale wine-bar concept, offering a deep selection of fine vintages to the newly moneyed yuppie population. As a concept, the logic seemed sound — sample rare French wines and develop an arcane descriptive vocabulary ("cloying, yet lacking that telltale hint of lingering pretension...") without traveling to the Continental wine regions or stocking a home cellar. Ten years later, however, the upscale wine fad has been replaced by an endless parade of subsequent trends (microbrewed beers, single-malt scotches, small batch bourbons, artisan cigars, oxygen bars), and wine bars no longer fit into the "What's Hot" column of the glossy lifestyle rags.

But the lack of high-fashion status hasn't put the American Wine Fanatic on the endangered species list. Instead, present-day wine culture has become an accepted element of the fine dining scene, and the occasional low-key wine bar-restaurant surfaces with an exceptional selection of vino and a staff to match. This is the niche occupied by Tocai of Austin, a recent addition to the rapidly developing West Sixth Street corridor. With an intriguing wine list and Italian-influenced menu, Tocai provides solid (if somewhat uneven) Mediterranean fare to accompany its well-tended selection of fine wines.

As you'd expect from a restaurant named for a popular varietal grape, the staff knows their wine cellar and offers well-informed suggestions on request. With about 30 wines available by the glass, there's a lot to know, but both the waitstaff and resident wine expert steered our table to wines most appropriate for "open border" diners (curious folks who taste freely from each other's plates).

On our first visit, the waitress suggested a glass of French Chardonnay (Domaine Brunet, $6.50/glass) to complement our starters, fried calamari and a daily special of gnocchi in asiago cream sauce. On its own, the wine seemed a bit on the astringent side and less appealing than our independent selection, a sweeter and more full-bodied Loire Valley Vouvray (Vigneau-Cheveru, $7/glass). But halfway through the appetizers, we realized the tables had turned — the clean tone of the Chardonnay perfectly complemented the starter's substantial textures (cream and garlic aoli), and our Loire wine seemed overly sweet in contrast. Like a veteran skeet shooter who knows how to lead the target before firing, Tocai's staff knows their range of flavors and hits the mark every time.

Another example of this "leading" technique results in the appeal of Tocai's exemplary fried calamari appetizer, prepared in the kitchen's single-batch fryer. Dedicated squid-eaters know the disappointment of overcooked, rubbery rings of their favorite seafood, or worse, a portion which starts out tender and hardens minutes later as the hot food continues to cook on the plate. Tocai's chefs, attentive to the effects of "carry-over cooking" on the temperamental squid, "lead" this dish perfectly, so both first and final forkfuls maintain a perfect texture. Add to this a well-spiced breading (an earthy hint of chili powder and just enough red pepper for a subtle afterkick) and twin dipping sauces (a sweet, fragrant roasted pepper marinara that borders on chutney and stout garlic aoli), and the calamari becomes required eating during any visit.

The restaurant's other starter items show a similar sensitivity to texture and flavor combinations. The asiago-sauced gnocchi ($14, also available in entree portions) combines the pungent cheese with crunchy broccoli florets, sautéed button mushrooms, and thin disks of sweet Italian sausage. Each of these components remains separate and distinct, which allows the diner to mix and match the complementary flavors bite by bite. Spearing a single thin potato dumpling with a quartered mushroom results in a pleasingly earthy taste, while substituting a broccoli floret for the fungus turns the tables toward a rich primavera. The well-balanced cream sauce also acts as a perfect foil to the fennel-spiked sausage.

The whisper-thin slices of carpaccio ($6.75) also receive added flavor notes with a variation on the dish's traditional dressing (oil and lemon). Again, subtlety reigns here, with white truffle oil and rosemary-infused vinegar providing their respective flavors to the slices of tender, uncooked beef filet. These wonderful additions make for a complex taste and pronounced counterpoint to the traditional garnish of tiny capers and finely minced red onion. A single yellow pepperocini, presented as a fully functional decoration, introduces another layer of taste for those who care to cut it up and give it a shot.

As for Tocai's entrees, the most consistent group seems to be the "House Specialties" section of the menu. The Bouillabaisse Portugaise ($14.95), a light-bodied Provençal seafood stew flavored with saffron and fresh vegetables, stood out as a find, tasting like an exceptional Spanish paella in liquid form. The dish featured substantial chunks of fresh halibut and calamari, along with whole clams and shrimp cooked lightly in the perfectly spiced seafood stock. (The sweet house sausage made another appearance here, adding additional depth to the bouillabaisse's flavors.) Color from the dish's crunchy vegetables (delicate French-cut green beans, slivered carrots, and strips of bright yellow squash) made for a dish as attractive as it was delicious. Like the gnocchi, the overall flavor varied pleasantly by the spoonful, with each chunk maintaining its individual character while contributing to the whole. In terms of texture, the only real casualties were the shrimp, which were on the chewy side of fully cooked, while the other shellfish (especially the clams) fared quite well.

The kitchen's variation of Ossobuco ($17.95) accompanies the braised veal shank with an intense Masala demi-glace (wine-based brown sauce) and a serving of creamy porcini risotto. This offering is best for folks in the mood for an earthy, substantial dining experience, since our portion size bordered on the immense. (No skimping here.) The slow-cooked meat fell apart under fork pressure and melted on the tongue. The rich demi-glace imparted a complex flavor to the meat and the side of wild mushroom risotto. Accompanied by a deep red wine (Bogle Old Vine Cuvee, $5/glass, and Galet des Papes Chateuneuf de Pape, $8.50/glass), the ossobuco proved to be very filling and the enormous serving size required a post-meal takeaway box. As a bonus, the dish fared remarkably well in the "eaten next day" category — an indulgent breakfast enjoyed cold from the fridge.

The kitchen's standard pasta offerings, unfortunately, turned out to be just that: standard. On a subsequent visit, a romp through the menu's "Pasta Perfection" section yielded no real standouts. The Spaghetti with Guinness Meatballs ($8.95), heavy-gauge pasta topped with two huge, spicy hunks of lean ground meat and roasted tomato marinara, was servicable but not particularly stellar. Likewise with the Chicken Gorgonzola on Fusilli ($11.75), the light cream sauce of which lacked any discernible flavor of the notoriously strong Italian blue cheese. (To the staff's credit, however, the situation was corrected promptly and cheerfully once noted.)

On a more pronounced down note, Tocai's overall ambiance barely qualifies as such. The main dining room feels like a glass-front early Sixties office building with fixtures and atmosphere fitting to a hotel banquet facility. It's obvious that in developing the room the decorators tried to work with the existing structure (which features picture windows on the zooming traffic of West Sixth), but cut corners on fixtures, decorations, and the specifics that make a restaurant comfortable. The tablecloths are white oilcloth, the napkins high polyester, and the wine glasses thick-lipped. The overall effect falls just short of kitsch — not quite stark enough to be sleek and not quite cozy enough to be nuevo-bistro — which makes for a distractingly incongruous "Mediterranean fine dining experience." It's a shame that the attention to detail that typifies the wine presentation and house specialties doesn't translate to atmospheric considerations and the more standard dishes. *

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

New Orleans Fairgrounds

photograph by Pableaux Johnson

When most folks head to New Orleans during Jazzfest weekends, they go for the music. It's a chance to see umpteen bazillion bands from every possible genre performing in the spacious infield of the city's uptown horse track. With 12 stages running full-tilt from late morning to early evening, there's never a moment when fantastic music (home-grown or otherwise) doesn't flow across the Fairgrounds, calling shirtless locals and blinding-white Midwesterners to celebrate Louisiana's hyper-humid springtime.

But for any food lover, the real action goes on between the stages, at the million different food booths set up by restaurants, community organizations, and catering companies. Along the rows of identical blue nylon kitchen tents, any culinary explorer can capture New Orleans' cuisine in a microcosm, with specialties that betray the state's Cajun, Southwest, and international influences. You can also easily eat yourself into a coma by what normal people consider lunchtime.

The options are nothing short of overwhelming and come in appetizer-size portions in the $4-6 range. You can wander from booth to booth enjoying everything from straightforward Cajun specialties (deep-fried boudin balls, jambalaya chunky with spicy andouille sausage, too many gumbos to count) to the more refined staples of urban Creole cookery (smothered okra with shrimp, oyster and artichoke soup, catfish amandine). Consistently creative Louisiana cooks also put their own improvisational twist on different food genres, resulting in such offerings as crawfish beignets, alligator sausage po-boys, and pastas tossed with everything from blackened chicken to crawfish cream sauce.

As you'd expect in the spiritual home of po-boys, the sandwiches of Jazzfest adapt seamlessly to the festival's "moveable feast" atmosphere and are the perfect one-handed meal. Layers of fried shrimp form the basis for a consistent crowd-pleaser, the Red Fish Grill's Barbecued Shrimp Po-boy. Lightly battered shrimp was topped with a peppery barbecue sauce (no smoking), then "dressed" in the traditional style (lettuce, tomato, and a healthy glob of "my-nezz" to smooth everything out). The Century Café's cochon de lait (roasted "milk pig") po-boy, served by the Century Cafe of Covington, featured melt-on-the-tongue slices of baby pork layered on a gravy-soaked French roll that maintained the perfect amount of crunch. Likewise with Pedro Milla's Cuban Sandwich, which added savory layers of ham, white cheese, and a bit of sweet-hot mystery spice to the mix. (We would have analyzed the spices a bit more carefully, but we had a lot of ground to cover....)

Another popular festival food category was the "tiny Styrofoam bowl with plastic fork" format. It's the only real way to sample Louisiana's soup- and stew-based classics (and there are many), but things get a little dicey in front of the stages, where oblivious listeners sometime mix dancing and dining. (If you've ever seen a "fork to the lip" injury, you know what I mean.) Standouts in this genre included Jadye's butter-heavy shrimp etoufeé (a roux-thickened smothered shrimp dish that bordered on homemade sin) and Prejean's Pheasant, Quail, and Andouille Gumbo (a game-based stew that highlighted the best of the prairie Cajun cuisine).

Cooling off in between courses turned out to be easier than one would expect, thanks to the city's traditional sweet-cold addiction. Since the only beer available was of the "nearly water" variety, I managed to console myself with a handful of coconut snow provided by William's Plum Street Sno-Balls, the renowned purveyor of syrup-drenched shaved ice. Ever in search of variety, I also dug into a cupful of Mango Freeze, the official Jazzfest sorbet hawked by WWOZ, the sponsoring community radio station.

But the pinnacle of the weekend, as far as I'm concerned, came with two rightfully famous JazzFest specialties: Panorama's Crawfish Bread and Galley Seafood's Soft Shell Crab Po-boy. The crawfish bread combines the tender tail meat of Louisiana's sacred crustacean with onions, garlic, and cheese, wrapped inside a crispy brown crust. (Two words: Cajun calzone.) The crab po-boy doesn't look so much like food as it does a fully articulated alien pastry. To create the simple delicacy, a tender fried crab is tucked inside a moist, crunchy po-boy roll with the legs sticking out the sides (earning it the nickname "leg sandwich"). "Soft shell" means there's no shell to crack and your crunchy little spider is perfect when seasoned with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of hot sauce for kick. It's the perfect surreal walkaround meal and the highest expression of the bug-cooker's art.

The music can wait 'til next year. For now, just call me a gurney.... — P.J.

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More by Pableaux Johnson
The French Kitchen Cooking School

Feb. 23, 2001

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