Eating Well in Austin Without Breaking the Bank
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., March 2, 2001
Tocai601 W. Sixth, 457-8880
Lunch, Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm; Dinner, Mon-Thu, 6-10pm; Fri-Sat, 6-11pm
Most of us among the Chronicle food staff love Tocai not only for its well-crafted cuisine and sophisticated wine list, but also for its affordability. Every night they offer a fixed-price meal composed of either three or four courses varying in price from $25 to $35. No two nights are the same at this smart little restaurant, one of those increasingly rare places in Austin where the focus is on food, not on spectacle. In a town bloated with fare that seems almost to implode under the strain of its own boldness, Tocai offers a cuisine where less is more. It's simple, understated menu reflects a pan-Mediterranean influence -- although some recent changes suggest that newly appointed Executive Chef Jessie Griffiths may be drawing inspiration from more northerly geographies as well. Spare, thoughtful dishes such as caraway crusted pork with spaetzle and cabbage, or grilled salmon with basil and horseradish crème fraîche refocus on basic, classic flavor combinations. These adroit conjunctions seem only enhanced by the simplicity of their dining room -- a warmly lit, billowy space with an almost Oriental ambience. Like an authentic bistro, their evening prix-fixe menu changes daily according to what happens to be freshest that day. Recent weeknight prix-fixe meals have begun with hearty risotto cakes, followed by a fresh mussel stew, and a lovely apple tarte tatin for dessert ($29.50). Another night's menu ($25) opened with fresh mozzarella and basil bruschetta, followed by monkfish simmered with tomatoes and olives. Dessert arrived in the form of a zingy lemon tart surrounded by raspberry sauce. The kitchen usually adds a fourth soup or salad course to the menu on Friday and Saturday nights. All meals are extremely proficient, and the portions are graciously sized for American stomachs. Great jazz humming in the background enhances the relaxed, easy-going atmosphere.