Southern Comfort on SoCo
Combining the cozy with the bold at Lambert's
1716 S. Congress, 383-8877
Tuesday-Wednesday, 5:30-10:30pm; Thursday-Saturday, 5:30-11pm
It's unlikely that anyone would mistake Lou Lambert for Britney Spears. Midriffs aside, The New York Times revealed recently that La Spears had been just too busy to even taste the food served in her newish NYC restaurant, Nyla. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Austin's own Lou Lambert absolutely personifies the hands-on approach at his newish South Congress bistro, where his attention and sensibility are evident in every plate. Each time I've been there, he has either been at the stove himself or hovering purposefully on the cusp between kitchen and dining room, watchfully expediting with one eye while keeping the other on the small but hopping front of the house. Take a lesson, Britney.
After a distinguished career elsewhere -- as a Culinary Institute of America graduate, at Postrio and Hawthorne Lane in San Francisco, and at Reata in Ft. Worth (see Home Grown, April 26) -- Lambert has been a presence in the Austin food scene for several years: as resident culinarian at Jo's coffee shop at the San José Motel, as executive chef at Word of Mouth Catering, and as proprietor of Liberty Pies and Liberty Catering. Although I kept hearing about his talent, I somehow never crossed paths with his cooking, so I didn't really understand the Lou Lambert mystique. But since the opening of his eponymous restaurant, where I've practically become a habitué, I do indeed get what the buzz is all about. It's about simple, familiar food prepared with care, skill, and imagination.
Comfort food is a term (and a concept) that has been making me cross lately; so grossly overworked that it has become trendy and tired. We seem to be busy convincing ourselves and each other that we'll all feel better about the world's current ills if our mouths are full of mashed potatoes. But the fact remains that traditional food made special resonates universally, and simplicity almost always trumps. This is what Lambert's is about, and it appears that Austin is enthusiastically responding -- believe me when I tell you to make your reservations early.
To call Lambert's cozy is practically an understatement. There are only 12 tables in the L-shaped dining room, with a miniature quarter-round bar occupying the corner and a tiny open kitchen along one side; the emanating aromas are scrumptious, and interested diners can observe the quietly graceful cooks on the line doing their thing. The rather stark décor contributes to an illusion of more space than there really is; the real ambience of the place is the informal dance of making and serving and consuming food. It's true that the accompanying noise level can get a bit intense at times, particularly when the neighbors and regulars congregate at the bar. This is quite the jolly and communal scene, with lines somewhat blurred among kitchen, bar, and tables in the dining room. The waitstaff is generally attentive, competent, and knowledgeable about the menu, and I appreciate their willingness to seek further information from the kitchen or bar rather than make up convenient answers on the spot.
Elements of Lambert's menu change weekly with seasonal inspirations, but there are stalwarts. One of the most interesting appetizers is also the best deal on the menu at $3.85 -- a plateful of whole garbanzos infused with achiote, garlic, and tomatoes. While dining with a group, this was the undisputed favorite appetizer, although the gnocchi swimming in butter, pesto, and Parmesan weighed in as a close second. If you aren't sharing, either of these generous portions could easily make a meal, as can the mound of crisply fried, delicately seasoned calamari with herby roasted-garlic dip. Another robust selection fusing Texas product with French tradition is a country-style cabrito pté served with sourdough toast, sliced gruyere, and sharp mustard. Smoked fish lovers will be pleased by the thinly sliced house-smoked salmon served with caviar and crème fraiche, engagingly accompanied by a soft cornmeal waffle.
Another substantial and regionally inspired dish is salpicon (spicy, shredded beef) salad with fresh avocado salsa, romaine ribbons, red onions, soft crumbled Mexican cheese, and ancho vinaigrette, all for $6.75. Unfortunately, this dynamite combination was marred by dry and rather tasteless corn tortillas, perhaps because it was late in the evening. Freshly made hot tortillas would have carried this dish right over the moon.
Soups change regularly; the two I've tasted, tomato with tarragon and spicy carrot, were lovely. A new spin on an old summer favorite is a chopped salad of tomato and mozzarella dressed in mellow balsamic vinaigrette. The traditional steakhouse wedge-of-iceberg salad is happily updated with sherry vinaigrette, red onion, and bleu cheese crumbles.
Roast chicken is one of those deceptively simple dishes; it is indeed easy to do, but it's difficult to make it wonderful. Lambert's made-to-order version ($14.25) is sublime, with a juicy interior and a seductively crisp skin, described by one friend as "the best part." The diminutive lamb chops, served in a substantial pile, are perfectly grilled, nicely enhanced by a straightforward mustardy rub. On one visit, thick pork loin chops were seared with a coriander and black pepper crust and paired with a fire-and-ice cucumber, mint, and jalapeño relish ($18.25). On another occasion, pork loin chops were coated in a spicy, brown-sugary kind of barbecue glaze, served atop a stack of enormous, although slightly dry, wedges of home fries. This dish married quite admirably with the menu's Pilsner Urquell beer.
The kitchen really shines with well-prepared fish entrées; a menu regular is rare seared tuna steak with fennel salsa ($17.25). One dining companion went into rapture over a poached halibut filet in subtle tomato and garlic broth, served over pillowy polenta. On a different night, I was impressed by a succulent striped bass filet that was bathed in a rich mushroom and baby onion reduction and accompanied by a nutty mushroom risotto of impeccable texture. I admit to being something of a risotto snob, and this was one of the best I've had -- creamy, flavor-infused rice, not too soupy, not too dry.
In addition to a couple of the appetizers, the non-meat offering is a credible black-and-white, house-made linguine topped by olives, capers, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers. There is also a wide choice of simply prepared vegetable side dishes, generously proportioned and quite reasonably priced. These range from a homey baked casserole of macaroni and cheese to grilled asparagus and lemony, lightly steamed spinach. But don't worry; we're not talking cafeteria fare here. These veggies have soul, not to mention seasoning.
Lambert's offers a short but thoughtful wine list, and happily, more than two-thirds of the choices are available by the glass, many in the $6-$8 range. A particular winner is the $6.50 Pietra Santa Sasso Rosso, a sangiovese/merlot blend from California's Central Coast; another interesting choice is Sokol Blosser's Evolution blend of nine white Oregon grapes for $8.50/glass. Personally, I prefer drinking wine from a wine glass rather than a sturdy tumbler, but maybe that's just me, and if it helps keep costs down, I can live with it. (The sparkling wines get stems, anyway.)
I advise you to pace yourself throughout the meal in order to take full advantage of the dessert offerings, all in the $5 to $6 range. Apparently, the menu item most likely to run out is the quite traditional, wildly popular coconut cream pie. I haven't managed to snag a slice yet. I am, however, completely in love with the enormous serving of warm maple bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and I'm equally enamored of the vanilla bean tapioca with fresh berries (did someone say comfort food?), artfully served in a tall parfait glass. For the comfort of chocolate-heads, there is a dense and satisfying hazelnut and chocolate ganache concoction. The consensus among my table companions one evening was that the peach cobbler was a little deficient in the quantity of juice, but that didn't stop us from descending like a pack of hyenas on the buttery cake-like topping and so-fresh peaches topped by sweetened whipped cream.
If it sounds as if I like eating at Lambert's, it's because I do. I like the thought-through and well-executed preparation of fresh and friendly food, and I like the fact that you can eat well economically if you want to. Under the watchful eye of its proprietor and namesake, Lambert's elevates comfortable food to a new level, capably demonstrating that comfort can include vision, style, and imagination.