Mon-Thu, 6-9:45pm; Fri-Sat, 6-10pm
Culinary anthropology is becoming a trendy topic among academics these days. And why not? After all, food is an essential unit of all cultures. We are not only its biological dependent, but its social dependent, too; humans have always interacted around food. It is what defines us. But it is not just what we eat, but how we eat that signifies who we are as a society. Food is the stuff of quotidian habit, social taboo, and social ritual. But food is also the stuff of art. Webster's Dictionary defines gastronomy as "the art of making and serving dainty, luscious, and tempting foods." In Webster's definition, gastronomy is something rare, something unattainable to ordinary people. Indeed, Americans today are only now beginning to emphasize the art inherent in eating, a ritual well practiced in older nations now for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. And true to the red, white, and blue, we Americans are throwing ourselves into the hobby with patriotic zeal. Americans today love to dine out almost as much as we love shopping. Like our national character, our restaurants are bold, overstated, and entertaining venues. They are loud, casual, and homey. A new restaurant in Austin, however, may signal a sea change in the way that Austinites see themselves, not just as diners, but as a culture. Aquarelle brings to the Austin dining scene a studied elegance, and a decidedly Old World taste for unrestrained luxury.
There are certain details, such as the elegant, painted china, the replacing of cutlery with every course, or the dainty amuse-bouche served between courses that give the meal a refinement rarely practiced on Texas soil. Or maybe it is the carved potatoes, carrots, and squash, carefully beveled and artfully arranged on the plates, that encode a certain sensible delicacy to the aesthetics of the meal. Aquarelle is not just about gourmandise, it is also about art. It is about gastronomy in the Webster's sense of the word. It attempts to remind us that there is a level of dining that elevates the meal above nourishment and above ritual, transforming the dining experience into an autonomous, godlike expression of creativity. Aquarelle aims at no less than the apotheosis of the meal.
However, like young Icarus flying too close to the sun, such lofty ambitions can sometimes result in tragic failures. Aquarelle flies high, but unfortunately the higher it sets itself, the more prone to vulnerability it becomes. In fact, I have seen two Aquarelles. The first is an extraordinary epicurean treat. It is the type of restaurant where diners greedily count down the minutes before dinnertime. The second Aquarelle is wavering, petulant, and despite its polished surface, still a little immature.
If you are lucky enough to dine at the Aquarelle of the first order, prepare to be richly rewarded with delicacies such as home-cured buttery gravlax, sliced paper thin and gently enfolding a lemony cake of minted semolina couscous ($9). Or that gravlax may be served beneath Aquarelle's baroque Gourmandise du Gastronome en Superposition ($13) -- a lofty, acrobatic salad consisting of baby field greens, haricots verts, artichokes, roasted tomatoes, and a satiny slice of foie gras.
On the other hand, if you happen to stumble into the Aquarelle of the second order, that same gravlax may taste slightly sharp, even fishy, imparting its fishy flavor to the elements attending it. Or you may find that a roasted Côte de Veau ($28) has been misrepresented -- that in fact the meat is not a veal chop, but several odd bits of tough and grisly meat. Your spirits will sink when at last you find a small, tender bit among the silver skin and take a bite of the ensemble -- a mushroom accented, silky velouté sauce studded with haricots verts, moistening the meat in one heavenly yet earthy mouthful. At that bite, you will sigh and ruefully think it could have been so perfect!
On nights such as these, the kitchen can seem harried, overtaxed, and prone to embarrassing mistakes. For instance, a smoked trout ravioli dish I ordered ($18) was filled with an acrid-tasting fish mousse. I asked the waitress what was in it. When she replied that the filling was simply smoked trout and cream, I sent it back (the first time I have ever returned anything to a restaurant kitchen) -- obviously something in the mélange was off, as neither smoked trout, nor cream, should be bitter. At first, the chef that night (who is also a co-owner) insisted that I pay for the returned ravioli, arguing that he didn't think there was anything wrong with it. Then, after a change of heart, he removed it from the bill. Whether bitter was the intended taste of the dish or not, a tiff such as this should never have occurred in a fine dining establishment, where, except under extreme circumstances, the customer is always right.
Certainly Aquarelle is full of brass, and to some extent, it may be justified. This young Austin restaurant has the potential be one of Austin's finest. Its owners, former Basil's employees Teresa Foreman and Robert Brady, coaxed Jacques Richard from his former position as sous-chef in Aix-en-Provence's Les Frères Lani to come to the States and open a restaurant. As the executive chef at Aquarelle, Richard is responsible for designing the menu and developing the recipes. Meanwhile, both Foreman and Brady, proficient chefs in their own right, juggle the management of the kitchen and the day-to-day business operations. Together the three have created a restaurant that stands alone among Austin-area establishments, not only in terms of its sophistication but also in terms of its culinary ambition.
And when at its best, a meal at Aquarelle is simply divine. Its dining rooms exude an understated elegance. Its staff is efficient and knowledgeable (although some could use additional training, particularly when it comes to making informed wine choices). Its menu bespeaks a studied mastery of French haute cuisine, and unlike many restaurants today, Aquarelle bows low before the canon.
A cold vegetable terrine ($8) served as an appetizer offers diners an herby foray into Southern France. Combining eggplant with tomato and summer squashes, this dainty dish is a feast of freshness. The roasted quail stuffed inside a puff pastry shell with smoked bacon and foie gras ($29) is a treat to the senses. Accented by a light wine sauce and mushroom duxelles, the quail melts into its puff pastry cocoon, the bacon and foie gras fuse into the crevices. The dish is artful, sublime, and altogether more than the sum of its parts. Under the nurturing hand of the kitchen on a good day, a simple beef filet in bordelaise sauce ($30) metamorphoses into a shimmering jewel. Topped with a dollop of poached, sea-salted marrow, the beef finds a soulmate in the unctuous morsel of gelatin.
For dessert, Aquarelle prepares two of the finest creations I have yet tasted in Austin. The Petite Paris-Brest en Cage du Caramel ($6) is a crown of baked choux pastry filled with mocha butter-cream and drizzled with caramel. The butter-cream alone is a paradise of frothy, sugary delights. Mated with its crunchy pastry casing, and accented with caramel, the dessert is utterly sinful. The wine-poached pear ($7) my husband ordered on one occasion was cooked until tender, then adeptly wrapped in a crispy, homemade crêpe and served with a luscious honey sauce -- a Dionysian delicacy. Still, even with dessert, Aquarelle can fall from the sky with a resounding thud. Another occasion's crème brulée ($7) was served curdled.
Aquarelle is still a young restaurant, and I have learned that on the several occasions I visited this fledgling establishment, executive chef Richard was in France, delayed from returning to his American kitchen by visa troubles. Ideally, however, consistency should prevail, and I found it bitterly disappointing that I should have encountered glaring shortcomings during one of my visits. But perhaps after experiencing the good Aquarelle, I came to expect too much. Aquarelle is indeed a restaurant that promises wonderful things. Let us hope that in the coming months it lives up to them.
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