Dining Up and Down West Lynn
Venerable spaces and new faces
1204 West Lynn, 477-5584, www.jeffreysofaustin.com
Monday-Thursday, 6-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30pm; Sunday, 6-9:30pm
Happy-hour menu in bar, Sunday-Friday, 5-7pm
There's no question that Jeffrey's is the flagship restaurant of the West Lynn neighborhood (in some people's opinion, of the city). Since 1975, when fine-dining was thin on the ground in Austin, it's been the restaurant's goal to set the standard for excellence, and much ink has been spent over the years waxing eloquent about the food, the ambience, and the service. From early on, Jeffrey's has been the destination dining spot for many loyal customers and visiting celebrities; in many ways, the place exudes the feel of an exclusive private club. Reservations for dinner are a must. Valet parking is virtually required unless you live within walking distance there's no parking lot and it isn't the place to go if you're concerned about expense.
This exclusive atmosphere extends to the warren of small dining rooms that are quiet, dark, candlelit, hung with softly spotlighted paintings, and semisecluded by floor-to-ceiling black velvet curtains. The formally clad waitstaff is deft, professional, and appropriately knowledgeable about the menu and the wines; some of them have been serving for years and have dedicated customer followings. The spacious, curved, dark-wooded bar is elegant, dimly lit, and graced by a large Malou Flato tile mural; the bar offers some alternate dining options, but more about that later.
The exit in 2005 of longtime Executive Chef David Garrido and the well-deserved ascension of longtime chef de cuisine Alma Alcocer has resulted in a departure from Garrido's signature haute-Southwestern dishes to a less focused, more eclectic menu that reflects both European and Asian influences.
An excellent way to sample both the kitchen's talents and the breadth of the wine list is the Chef's Tasting Menu with wine pairings ($108; $72 sans wine). The courses change regularly with seasons and availability; the dishes on my winter menu included Petrossian caviar, foie gras, black truffles, ahi tuna, lamb, pears, and pecans. Each of the five courses was accompanied by a wine from a different area: France, Germany, California, Italy, and Australia. Except for the lamb T-bone, the portions of all the dishes were truly tasting-sized, and the course progression was leisurely; therefore, while the offerings were rich, complex, and geographically all over the place, the overall experience was not gastronomically exhausting, but satisfying and interesting. The standout course of that evening was a medallion of foie gras complemented by sweet-potato custard and an earthy truffle-and-chocolate sauce. It sounds strange, I know, but it was terrific and was beautifully paired with a glass of Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett.
One of Alcocer's menu innovations is to offer some less complicated, more bistro-style dishes. A winner is her version of beefsteak and fries: Kobe Hanger Steak and Pommes Frites ($13.50 on the happy hour bar menu). The sliced hanger steak (a favorite cut in France but not too popular here) was served with a smoky paprika salsa; it was beautifully tender and wonderful, and the irresistible, darkly crisp potatoes with house-made ketchup informed us what "French" fried potatoes ought to be.
My favorite appetizer remains the Jeffrey's classic fried oysters served on thin, crisp yucca chips with a mild habanero honey aioli ($13). Less successful were the Duck Spring Rolls With Cabbage and Chilean Papaya Slaw With Dipping Sauce ($13). The wrappers are crisply brown, and the slaw is excellent, but the ground duck inside the rolls was dry and lacking in flavor. I found the Risotto Croquettes ($12) to be filling but essentially boring; I just couldn't taste much sausage or manchego, and the dots of paprika aioli weren't enough to spark it up. The Salade Niçoise ($8.50) was also a bit disappointing, and while the salad greens were beautifully dressed, there was no dressing and no discernible salt on the surrounding haricots verts, potato wedges, grape tomatoes, and quail eggs. However, the greens were topped by two interesting, thin-sliced rolls of slow-smoked ahi.
Neighborhood regulars know that a more economic and less formal way to enjoy Jeffrey's ambience and cooking is via the happy hour in the bar from 5 to 7pm on Sundays and weekdays. In reverse of most happy hours, the drinks are full price, but the bar-menu items (a short list of apps and entrées from the regular menu) are half the regular price. No reservations needed, and it's an elegant spot to meet for drinks and shared samples. The bar offers an extensive list of wines by the glass (most $10-15); I've found that the Bourgeois Sancerre ($11) and the Künstler Riesling ($10) pair very nicely with many of the food offerings. I have to say that on my last visit, the service and attention in the bar fell short of the acclaimed dining-room standards, but maybe it was an off-night.
All in all, Jeffrey's remains the grande dame of Austin's fine-dining restaurants, and it's pleasant to experience the quiet, leisurely, service-oriented, and somewhat formal ambience that is so lacking in many of the city's newer, trendier competitors for the big dining dollars.
Cipollina West Austin Bistro
1213 West Lynn, 477-5211, www.cipollina-austin.com
Every neighborhood ought to have a good place for pizza, and Cipollina more than fits the bill with its wood-fired oven; thin, crispy, flavorful pizza crusts; and tasty high-end toppings from Gorgonzola to artichokes to balsamic onions ($7-15, 10- and 14-inch). However, as good as these boutique pies are, I have to agree with the menu that promises "Not just pizza anymore!"
Cipollina, Jeffrey's little sister across the street, is an upscale counter-service and takeout bistro that makes everything from scratch in its small open kitchen: breads, sauces, sausages, desserts, varieties of vegetables and entrées. It manifests a heavy Italian influence in its plates of spaghetti and meatballs, frittatas, panini on house-made focaccia ($6.75-7.25) the panini of braised lamb, provolone, and balsamic onion ($7.25) is especially wonderful. There are always a couple of soups, some salads, and a few vegetable dishes available, such as green beans and marinated artichokes, and an array of rich desserts like panna cotta, dense chocolate torte, or tres leches cake, along with muffins, cookies, and a selection of house-made breads (including demibaguettes, ciabatta, and wheat-loaf) baked daily. A bijou choice of wines, mostly Italian, are available by the glass or bottle to take out or drink in with your meal. The ambience is quite casual, although romantically lit at night; huge framed mirrors and vintage Italian food and posters complete the scene. The high ceilings and concrete floor cause the place to be either a bit noisy or acoustically interesting, depending on your point of view.
For a number of years, Cipollina has hosted live music two evenings a week a popular tango night with Glover Gill on Thursdays and jazz on Fridays. I just learned that the musical performances will cease in February, and a list of additional entrées is to be added to the menu.
Nau's Enfield Drug
1115 West Lynn, 476-3663
Monday-Friday, 7:30am-4:15pm; Saturday, 8am-2:30pm; breakfast till 11am
Nau's Enfield Drug on West Lynn is Austin's last remaining drugstore with a bona fide soda fountain. And not just a soda fountain, but a great soda fountain. In addition to the pleasures of an independent neighborhood pharmacy for prescriptions and bandages and greeting cards, fortunate area residents have a comfortable spot (at the curvy counter, ancient wooden booths, or metal ice-cream tables) to sit down for a quick bite, linger over a cherry Coke, or chat with the steady stream of neighbors passing through. On my last visit in the middle of a rainy afternoon, my counter companions were a couple of unaccompanied 10-year-olds slurping down milkshakes and reading comic books and a solitary white-haired gentleman enjoying a cheeseburger and coffee with his Wall Street Journal. It's that kind of neighborhood place. (Did I mention that Nau's has an impressive magazine rack and newsstand?)
My total lunch favorite is a perfect grilled cheese sandwich with sliced dill pickles ($2.75) and a fresh-squeezed limeade ($1.95 or $2.50). You can choose a fried-egg or a pimento-cheese sandwich for the same low price. Many people are partial to the various club sandwiches ($4-5) and the levels of burgers double cheeseburgers and bacon cheeseburgers ($4-6) served on a classic, soft grilled bun with mayo, shredded lettuce, and tomato. Nau's breakfasts are also classic: eggs any way, omelets, huevos rancheros ($3.95), and breakfast tacos ($1.50-2.25). The cheerful uniformed counter ladies who both cook and serve are efficient, unruffled, and just about permanent fixtures; they could do it blindfolded.
OK, the soda part of the soda fountain: They've got your milkshakes, malts, Coke floats, and ice creams. The big splurge is the banana split at $5.75. Is there any wonder that several generations of Austinites visit Nau's knowing that it is just like it always was? And what better comfort while waiting for the pharmacist to fill your prescription?
1110 West Lynn, 482-0950, www.cosmiccafeaustin.com
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm; Sunday, noon-9:30pm
It seems to me that, more often than not, there's a goofiness factor inherent in vegetarian restaurants. Sometimes it's the decor; sometimes it's the food; sometimes it's the waitstaff. At the Cosmic Cafe, it's the names of the dishes on the menu. Someone had a good time riffing on "cosmic" Ñ the Socrates Plato, Herban Renewal, a Fold in Thyme, Raisin Consciousness, Souper Nova, Sidereal Allah Carte ... you get the idea. Goofing aside, the food bearing these silly names is so tasty that this is an ideal spot for vegetarians to bring nonvegetarian dining companions. There's a serious Indian influence on many (but not all) of the dishes, and the kitchen has a dab hand with spices and herbs; everything is so deeply flavorful that carnivores won't even notice what they're not eating.
From the Primordial Energy (appetizer) list, I'm in love with the enormous, crisp samosas ($4.50) stuffed with spicy potatoes and peas and served with a tamarind/mint chutney. These make a meal. The hummus plate ($5.40) is a humongous portion plenty for two of creamy, garlicky chickpea puree served with a small mountain of naan triangles. While delicious, it seems a bit naked; the plate would be improved by some colorful crunchy vegetables, like tomatoes, cukes, or carrots. Dahl (yellow lentil soup) is spicily yummy and accompanied by naan ($2.97 and $4.95).
From the Big Bang Entrées, the biggest for your buck is Buddha's Delight ($8.91), a sampler plate that contains a large portion of mixed yellow-curried vegetables, a cup of dahl, a samosa, a crispy lentil pappadam, and a pile of basmati rice. The usual vegetarian suspects of lentils, cheese, mushrooms, black beans, avocado, and stir-fried vegetables turn up in various menu combinations, but everything I've tried has been satisfying and flavorful. There's a variety of fruit smoothies and shakes ($3.96) on offer, along with fresh juices ($2.97), ginger beer, and "tease." You can BYO beer or wine.
I must mention the decor. The building was originally a gas station; when it was first reworked into a restaurant space in the early Nineties, it won awards for its innovative, elegant design. When Cosmic Cafe took over, some unfortunate aesthetic alterations were made: The building's beautiful bones are still there, but they're obscured by superfluous and distracting decoration. On the inside, all I can say is that you look up through the rafters into a blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds and Indonesian flying goddesses.
1000 West Lynn, 478-3434, www.galaxycafeaustin.com
Some might argue that West Lynn needed the old laundromat more than it needed the retro-hip, counter-service restaurant that now occupies the rather cavernous space once filled with washers and dryers. However, it's clear that a lot of people don't agree, because the Galaxy Cafe is bustling most of the time.
Perhaps the most family-friendly of the West Lynn eating establishments, multigenerational groups seem to be a ubiquitous presence: The rather stark, informal atmosphere, noise level, bright colors, and tongue-in-cheek Jetsons' decor complement the nonthreatening menu of burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and a panoply of comfort-food sides ranging from mac & cheese to toast. Sweetening the deal for parents, the children's menu of $4.25 items like fish sticks, chicken tenders, and cheese quesadillas includes a free beverage. There's something to be said for a noisy neighborhood place that isn't a chain where Mom or Dad can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner while the kids chow down on burger-ettes and milk in a carton with a straw.
After 5pm, six dinner entrées become available. I'm sorry to report that the two I tried were forgettable, at best. The Chipotle-Apricot Glazed Pork Chops ($9.95) were thin planks of tasteless, leathery meat slathered in a generically sweet sauce, and the mixed steamed vegetables had no salt (or other discernible flavor) whatsoever. Grilled Skirt Steak With Chimichurri Sauce ($9.95) fared slightly better, but the meat was still tough and uninteresting.
Better to stick with the all-day menu of specialty burgers, sandwiches, and wraps, which range from $6.25 to $7.50. The Galaxy Fish Wrap, filled with crisply breaded tilapia, coleslaw in cilantro-lime sauce, and grated cheddar, makes for a hearty meal that comes with a choice of sides. The Mexican Lime Soup ($2.25 or $4.75) is a tasty, citrus-spiked chicken broth with chunks of chicken and avocado. Probably the best side dish is the crisp, salty sweet potato fries ($2.95); the aforementioned mac & cheese ($4.25) is just bland.
Breakfast, served till 11:30am on weekdays and until 4pm on weekends, is another popular family-fare bet. Many variations of egg dishes, including wraps, scrambles, and quiches, range from $3.50 for a slice of spinach-feta quiche to $6.95 for a Big Breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and toast. Kid breakfasts, including eggs, oatmeal, and French-toast sticks, are all $3.75 or less.
1101 West Lynn, 524-5049, www.caffemedici.com
Monday-Friday, 6am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 6:30am-10:30pm
Caffé Medici was a tantalizingly long time coming the sign promising coffee in a former dress-shop window was posted for months before the doors finally opened in late summer but it was well worth the wait. The West Lynn neighborhood now hosts the site of the best new coffee venue in town. And believe me, it's all about coffee and nothing but. No liquid desserts of peppermint, caramel, or pumpkin; no fruity freezes; none of the silly overpriced junk that upscale coffee chains whose names I won't mention pass off as "coffee drinks" in shopping malls, airports, and too many neighborhood venues.
At Caffé Medici, it's unadulterated espresso, latte, and cappuccino, pure in expression and execution, unambiguously served small, medium, and large. Oh sure, you can choose from a select few biscotti, muffins, and pastries to accompany your java, but I can't imagine anyone coming here for any reason other than to savor the most flavorful, carefully prepared coffee around.
And what makes the coffee so special? To begin with, it's the beans themselves from Cuvée Coffee, roasted in Spring, Texas. While there is a selection of whole beans for sale, the coffee used at the bar is a luscious, full-bodied, seven-bean blend called Meritage. Second, the baristas really know their chops on the gleaming, curvaceous, dark-red La Marzocco machine; it's obvious they love coffee and care about the quality of each cup, serving the finished products in traditional white ceramic cups and saucers.
The ambience reflects the signature drink: simple, classy, not tarted up. The old bungalow's ceilings were removed to open up spacious headroom under the dark-stained wooden roof. The clean lines of polished wooden furniture and accoutrements are complemented by the appropriate coffee colors of black, cream, and brown. It's a calm and pleasant place.