I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a meal a memorable one, due mostly to the fact that I'm reading a French novel about a dying restaurant critic who, if only for a fleeting moment before expiring, obsessively attempts to call up from memory a single, life-altering taste sensation -- one he has tragically forgotten. While I've never embarked upon such a singularly significant culinary memory quest, I can, like most food lovers, conjure up a handful of fond food memories. Thinking hard enough about them, I am able to return to those rare and special tables of my past, remembering not as much one dominant flavor as I do all-around exceptional meals where flavors collided harmoniously.
What does this have to do with Louie's 106? I guess the connection comes from the fact that, over the past few weeks, as I've casually made mention that Louie's 106 was my latest Chronicle assignment, I've heard one "Mmmm" after another, the affirmations usually punctuated by longing "Aahhs." People love Louie's. Proof is that the restaurant has been around a while, a thriving downtown address for many years. Louie's signature Mediterranean fare claims a strong spot in the city's collective gustatory memory. Indeed, for many Austinites, Louie's 106 provided initiation into the world of Spanish tapas and introduced the vibrant, if now omnipresent, "Mediterranean" cooking style.
Oddly enough, in my six-year stint as a Chronicle restaurant reviewer, I've slipped behind Louie's dense, red velvet curtain only a handful of times, each time to share a quick plate or two of tapas, then linger over a glass or two of wine. So having a couple of meals to look forward to in the restaurant's soaring dining room was something I was happy about.
My first full meal at Louie's, a dinner with friends, began slowly. We labored over the restaurant's long, relatively expensive wine list, ultimately settling on an excellent Oregon pinot noir before turning our attention to the menu. Organized like an Italian trattoria's menu, Louie's lists nine "antipasti" offerings (familiar to me from the tapas menu) and six "primi" options (strictly soups and salads), before moving into pasta, "pesce," and "carne" entrées. We kicked off our meal with a tangle of fried calamari ($6), an alpine portion of tiny rings and curly tentacles lightly fried and served with a roasted red pepper rouille and a powerful aioli. The former is a piquant condiment dip that typically accompanies bouillabaisse, the latter a classic Provençal mayonnaise thick with garlic that is forever reinterpreted today.
Although in the throes of an Austin winter, we also tried the tomato and fresh mozzarella salad ($5.75), hoping for a taste of summer. We got our wish, if not from the off-season tomatoes, then from the lively kick we got out of the fresh shreds of basil and bits of red onion swathed in a light coat of olive oil pressed against pillowy rounds of fresh mozzarella. An appetizer that left us considerably less impressed was the Wild Mushroom Ravioli ($7.25; $14.25 as an entrée). In it, tough squares of cheese- and mushroom-filled pasta are buoyed by a well-browned sauté of onions and peppers only to ultimately drown in a mucilaginous, liqueur-heavy Madeira lobster sauce. Choose something else. The Grilled Rosemary Flat Bread ($6.25) with its sweet shrimp, diced tomatoes, and silky Fontina cheese is a far better option. This great little dish really shines for all its simplicity.
In the entrée category, we managed to hit a pasta, fish, and two meat dishes, covering all of Louie's bases. Our fish was a special, a grouper fillet "crusted" with Kalamata olives and a generous amount of crushed red chile pepper ($18). It was an unusual dish, but it worked -- sort of like eating a delicately sauced white fish and a high-quality black olive pizza in a single bite. Garlic and rosemary were the leading components of the Linguine With Grilled Chicken ($14.25), a dish more satisfying than its name might indicate. The linguine were slick and just tender, the perfect roost for golden strips of rotisserie-grilled chicken and wisps of wilted baby spinach, all of it sealed together by caramelized garlic Pecorino cheese cream sauce.
Unlike the other entrées, whose flavors melded together congruously, the meat dishes warranted deconstruction. Far from presenting a unified front on the palate, the meat preparations we sampled were made up of layers of independent flavor components, many of which worked, a couple of which failed. In both instances, the meats themselves were fabulous -- cooked as ordered with great grilled flavor. The New Zealand Rack of Lamb ($22.75) showcased chops that were fat and earthy, brightened by a glossy auburn-tinted jus headily spiked with mint. An accompanying three-bean ragout circled the plate, quite literally, and added to the dish's classic composition. Only the butternut squash risotto disappointed. We weren't fooled by the sticky mound of snow-white rice plugged with cubes of firm orange squash. The beef tenderloin ($23.50) proved similar in its multipart plate composition. Again, the meat itself shone -- cooked medium-rare to rare as specified. The remainder of the plate was filled with homey creamed spinach and the standard roasted garlic mashers, which were fine. Less praiseworthy was the red wine demi-glace, which had burned, and left a tinny, metallic coating on the tongue.
Lunch at Louie's 106 is quite an executive affair. The place bursts at the seams with lawyers and business types and also draws a few recognizable tables of the younger high tech crowd. Although we arrived before noon, the handsome vintage bar was two deep in places, with highballs lining the glossy surface. Louie's lunch menu resembles its dinner menu, with prices and portions scaled down appropriately. Like my dinner experiences, my lunch at Louie's was both excellent and mediocre. My Moroccan-spiced salmon fillet came a little too caramelized on the outside for me, and had a rather strong, oily aftertaste although it teetered atop a saffron-laced mound of paella-styled rice studded with peas and carrots and topped with a spiral of al dente green beans -- all of it delicious. A butter-riddled lemon cream sauce with capers completed the dish, and was a great complement, better in my estimation than the fish itself. A friend opted for the Penne a la Fungi, a deep bowl of pasta tossed in a subtle tomato cream sauce and dabbed with basil-Ricotta pesto ($11 with shrimp; $9.50 with Italian sausage). Striped across the pasta tubes were roasted bell peppers and caramelized onions, and the featured "fungi" were of the standard white button variety. The preparation was good, but it was far from earth-shattering.
I won't pursue memories of my recent meals at Louie's on my deathbed, but that's not to say the restaurant can't dole out memorable meals. Food apart, lots of things come together to make a meal a lasting experience. Louie's atmosphere and service are top-flight, and the restaurant features a unique cigar/after-dinner-drink room upstairs as well, an ideal haunt for the late-night nightcap. Although my meals at Louie's 106 didn't entirely jibe, the digressions seemed minor. Overall, my time spent at Louie's 106 was enjoyable. This leaves me convinced -- and no doubt the restaurant's vocal fans I encountered around town would agree -- that when Louie's 106 is "on," it strikes a resoundingly positive chord, one that does occasionally echo.
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