New Kid on the Block
ASTI Trattoria & Wine Bar Is the Perfect Addition to Hyde Park's Busiest Corner
ASTI Trattoria & Wine Bar408-C 43rd St., 451-1218
Mon-Fri, 11am-11pm; Sat, 5-11pm
The corner of 43rd and Duval streets has been the retail hub at the heart of the Hyde Park neighborhood for more than half a century. The retail lineup has altered from time to time, reflecting changes in shopping trends and tastes, but for many years there was a grocery store, a pharmacy, a coin laundry, a dry cleaners, and a couple of places to get an ice cream cone or a bite to eat. The last of the old-line stores to go was Dismukes Pharmacy, succumbing to lower prescription prices at grocery and drug superstores. Already firmly established in Hyde Park, husband-and-wife restaurateurs Bick and Erika Brown took over the Dismukes space and created a Japanese noodle house called Manga. Manga's noodles and anime concept never quite caught on, and the Browns found a buyer for the restaurant early last year. Another dynamic local husband-and-wife restaurant team, Wm. Emmett and Lisa Fox, were in hot pursuit of the perfect location for their first independent venture, and the sale turned out to be the best deal for everyone concerned.
The Foxes took possession of the corner space last spring and set about turning it into their dream restaurant after years of toiling in other restaurateur's operations. Locals will remember Emmett Fox from his long tenure as executive chef of the San Gabriel Restaurant Group, where he oversaw the kitchen operations at the popular Granite Cafe, Bitter End Bistro & Brewery, and both Mezzalunas. Meanwhile, Lisa Fox built a reputation for innovative desserts as the pastry chef at 612 West, Coyote Cafe, and Sardine Rouge. During all those years, the hard-working couple dreamed and planned for the day when they could do their own thing, and the Hyde Park space provided them the opportunity to do just that. One of their many challenges was to make sure the neighborhood would welcome the new kids on the block.
ASTI's sophistication and polish reflect those years of preparation and training; it is obviously the creation of seasoned professionals. The division of labor at the new restaurant has Emmett Fox overseeing a handpicked and very talented kitchen staff while Lisa focuses her energies on design, business management details, and the continuing research on ASTI's wine list. Lisa's interior design ideas establish ASTI's atmosphere with cool colors and stylish silver accents. The room is both classy and casual, lively and very inviting. Patrons can eat at the bar with a front-row seat to the restaurant's hot line or relax at booths and tables in the long, narrow dining room. Chef Fox's seasonally changing menu is structured, both in price point and portion size, to encourage the sampling of several courses. (Some early criticisms centered on the small portion sizes of some dishes such as various risottos, but those problems seem to have been corrected.) Signature items such as flavored olive oil, focaccia, breadsticks, sausages, and desserts are all made in house. The wine list reflects Lisa's missionary zeal in searching out overlooked and affordable vintages to pair with ASTI's hearty Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. There are some expensive reserve selections for those who want them, but the list is heavily weighted toward affordable Italian wines such as the stellar house Sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio from Due Uve and the remarkable Castiglioni Chianti.
We've dropped into ASTI several times since the midsummer opening and been more satisfied with each visit. It's a particular favorite lunch spot when I've got business to conduct in the Hyde Park area. The lunch menu is a scaled-down version of the dinner offerings and is available from 11am until 5pm. The Romaine Leaf Caesar ($4) features a pile of fresh lettuce leaves bathed in traditional Caesar dressing, topped with crisp, homemade croutons and luxurious shavings of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's possible to make a meal out of this salad with the addition of a grilled chicken breast or the semolina fried calamari ($3 extra) but I prefer it as the opener for pastas such as the simple and delicious Capellini Neopolitano ($7.50), with a fresh sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil, or one of the signature polenta bowls. Polenta is a plebian dish, nothing more than corn mush, but the ASTI kitchen has elevated it to an art form. Large bowls are filled with steaming soft polenta, redolent of sweet corn, and then topped with grilled pieces of Emmett's own sausages and Parmigiano shavings ($7) or thick, juicy grilled portobello mushrooms, eggplant, and Texas goat cheese ($7.50). Mama mia, talk about your comfort food!
Dinner at ASTI offers a tempting array of choices. Pay special attention to the description of off-menu specials because they're likely to include fresh, local produce items of limited availability such as an incredible salad we enjoyed in November. Succulent baby spinach leaves were tossed with fig slices, toasted nuts, and cheese in a fruity vinaigrette. Another remarkable starter that same evening featured whisper-thin ruffles of authentic Proscuitto di Parma fanned around a delectable serving of warm potato and artichoke heart salad. Those marvelous items pointed dinner in a thoroughly positive direction, and we proceeded to pasta dishes and lamb shanks with great anticipation.
True Italian trattorias build their reputations on a few simple, well-executed traditional dishes, and this is also true with ASTI. The kitchen here takes well-known favorites like penne Amatriciana ($11) and lasagne Bolognese ($13.50) and really makes them shine. The big bowl of al dente penne is bathed in a robust sauce of tomatoes, garlic, pancetta, parmesan, and just enough red pepper flakes to create a pleasing warmth on the palate with every bite. The lasagne is a wonder with sheets of toothsome homemade spinach noodles filled with a rich and meaty Bolognese sauce napped in creamy parmesan béchamel. Excellent ingredients, simply presented. Sensational. The braised lamb shank ($16) done "osso buco" style arrived at the table in a flat bowl, the flavorful meat fall-off-the-bone tender. While the meat was wonderful, the revelation for me in this dish was the combination of rich meat juices and the bed of soft polenta beneath the shank. Neither elegant nor glamorous, it was just divine to the very last spoonful.
No evaluation of a restaurant involving Lisa Fox would be complete without consideration of the dessert offerings. Her style tends to dishes that aren't cloyingly sweet, often accented with bright fruit flavors. Her specialty is frozen confections. While Fox has turned over the day-to-day preparation of focaccia, breadsticks, and desserts to a pastry chef, she designed the dessert menu and spends time in the kitchen at least once a week. So, by all means, do save room for dessert. We were lucky enough to score one of her personal creations in November, a velvet gelato studded with hazelnut praline ($5.75), and it proved to be one of the best things we ate all year. Gelati and sorbetti should not be missed no matter when you visit ASTI. We also heartily recommend the house version of Chocolate Cannoli ($5.75), crisp delicate chocolate tuiles filled with a decadent chocolate mousse.
Friendly, accomplished service is yet another hallmark at ASTI. I'll admit to having some concerns about front-of-the-house operations in a restaurant run by two people who've spent the better part of their careers in the kitchen, but the ASTI dining room runs smoothly, with professional waitpeople well-versed in all aspects of service. The Foxes have invested the time and money necessary to familiarize their staff with both the foods and wines they're serving, which means patrons can be more confident in their suggestions. ASTI is the kind of place you can drop in on your own for a glass of wine and a bowl of polenta or show up with a crowd for dinner and be assured of a warm welcome and a good meal in either situation. In just a few short months, it appears the new kids on the block have been embraced by their Hyde Park neighbors while making ASTI a destination restaurant for quality-conscious diners from all over the city.