Four of Austin's most reliable downtown restaurants keep on pleasing
Reviewed by Barbara Chisholm, Fri., March 12, 2004
La Traviata314 Congress, 479-8131
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 10am-2pm
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-10:30pm
There's a rhythm to every neighborhood. It might be the earlier morning clamor and midday quiet on a suburban cul de sac. It might be the steady hum of a busy thoroughfare. And it might be the jazzier beat of what is unmistakably downtown. The word evokes a glamour and pace that is singularly seductive. It's urbane, it's chic, it's fast. And sometimes even groovy, laid-back Austin can conjure that sensibility.
We breezed into La Traviata on a recent Friday for a pre-dance concert meal and experience that was decidedly downtown. We had made reservations for an early seating (6:15pm). Good thing. The place was filling rapidly and packed to capacity before our drinks arrived and a parking place was secured by the driving member of our party. We had reservations for an 8pm show at the Paramount, and we let our genial server know as we perused the menu. He seemed accustomed to our situation. While the crispy polenta with gorgonzola sauce was tempting, we were warned that the preparation for the dish was still in its early stages and was likely to impede our prompt departure. We opted instead for the Fresh Mozzarella With Roasted Red Peppers ($8), and we were rewarded with an abundant, fresh plate whisked to our table within what seemed like seconds. No easy task for our waiter, who had to snake his way through the growing and boisterous crowd. The simple appetizer was a harbinger of things to come: simple, delightfully executed food, with real attention to quality. The peppers were cut into thin strips and retained enough texture to provide a contrast to the ultra mild, ultra fresh cheese. A small pool of virgin olive oil and an assorted sprinkling of briny olives balanced the dish nicely, while a stylish basket of artisan bread provided a delicious conveyance. Our busy but never harried waiter informed us as we ordered our entrées that the polenta was almost ready after all, so we were able to enjoy this outstanding and succulent dish ($6). The supercrisp crust of the polenta gives way to a surprisingly light interior perfumed but not overpowered by rosemary. The tangy, rich cheese sauce was made for mopping.
Our entrées consisted of Spicy Shrimp Pasta ($17.50), Duck Confit ($19), and Chicken Parmesan ($15). It's hard to say which impression was the most vivid: the exemplary execution or the ample portion. The stylish but not pretentious presentation of the dishes belied the size of the portions. While roadhouse cafes across Texas take pride in chicken-fried steaks that hang over the edges of plates, the full chicken breast was split and attractively balanced so that the portion appeared almost modest. Spaghetti with a lovely tomato sauce accompanied the chicken. The crust was crackling crisp, the interior moist and flavorful, and a tasty fontina subbed for the usual mozzarella. The duck dish held two leg quarters of ultra tender duck with a deep fig sauce and an equally rich potato gratin. The almost raw green beans were underdone to a degree that I usually find off-putting, but in this case provided a satisfying crunch to the meal. The small mountain of spaghetti that composed the special was simply resplendent with shrimp; every forkful yielded a superbly fresh crustacean in a fiery, fresh sauce.
The din of animated conversation and the constant stream of foot traffic outside the windows on the sidewalk set the pace for a brisk (though never rushed) meal, so we were able to share a dessert of Profiteroles ($6), which served three nicely. Three luscious cream puffs were split and filled with dainty scoops of rich vanilla and chocolate ice cream, topped off with the cream puff caps and finished with a hearty dollop of hardened chocolate sauce. It's a simple, straightforward finish that is utterly indulgent and delicious.
Thanks to the careful attention and pacing that our waiter provided, we exited the restaurant and joined the city throng as we made our way on foot to the Paramount. It was a quintessentially urban experience: a vibrant trattoria providing simple, stylish food filled with a cosmopolitan clientele on a busy downtown street within sight of a glittering new skyscraper. It's an experience that can only happen in this neighborhood: downtown.
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