The Austin Chronicle

La Traviata

Reviewed by Wes Marshall, July 6, 2007, Food

La Traviata

314 Congress, 479-8131

Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm; Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30pm

We're spoiled here in Austin for great Italian food. Sure, we'll never reach the sheer numbers of New York's Little Italy or Boston's North End or St. Louis' Hill, but we have a holy trinity of dazzling dining with Asti, La Traviata, and Vespaio. Among the three, you can cover the best of what Italy offers and do it in locations that feature smart surroundings and a wonderful staff.

La Traviata has been a popular Downtown fixture since it opened seven years ago. Part of its appeal comes from its homey charm. The space is small, long, and narrow, with a gorgeous rock wall along the left side. On the right side is a bar, where you also can order dinner when the place is crowded. The dining area is tight but never uncomfortable, and it's distributed nicely so you can still have a quiet conversation. Dining at La Traviata is always cozy and relaxing. That comes from a combo of dark wood and rock decor, a happy buzz of conversation, and the rare fact that the prompt waitstaff has the friendly/formal ratio down perfectly.

But the real reason for a night at La Traviata is the menu. Chef Marion Gilchrist has been making top-level food for so long, it's easy to take her for granted. We shouldn't. Not only does she make great food, day after day, but the restaurant is actually better for every year it has been open. So many places feel tired after a chef has spent a long time slogging through the daily grind of operating a business. Not La Traviata, which always feels alive with excitement and anticipation.

We went on two recent nights, and both times, even the waitstaffers seemed as excited about the creativity of the food as we were. Given what many of these professionals have seen over the years, you might expect them to be blasé. Instead, they're like joint participants in the dining fun. It's a breath of fresh air.

I could make a happy meal out of Gilchrist's openers. Her Roasted Beets With Pistachios ($3.50) are the model of simplicity. The beets are cooked flawlessly, succulent and just slightly crispy, and the crunchy pistachios add sweetness to the earthy beets. Also simple but perfect, her Beef Carpaccio With Fried Radicchio ($9) is a classic presentation with radicchio providing a bitterness that is sweetened by both the beef and Parmesan cheese. A small hit of truffle oil had me scooching the plate over to my wife with a "Wait till you taste this!" Everyone does steamed mussels, but again, heaven lies in the details. La Traviata's version ($10) is cooked precisely, and the accompanying crostini is crispy and ideal for dipping into the delectable sauce.

The main courses were just as pleasing. Spring Risotto ($14.50) features a toothsome combo of fresh produce in a perfectly cooked risotto. Where some restaurants end up with glop from trying to half-cook and keep their risotto, La Traviata's tastes as though it is cooked from scratch, as it should be. The ultradecadent Beef Tenderloin Wrapped With Pancetta ($25.50) has a tangy Gorgonzola sauce and sits on the plate with rich mashed potatoes and sautéed greens. I was surprised to find that my favorite thing on the plate was the greens. Whoever is working on the vegetables in the kitchen knows their art. My greens came infused with garlic and just enough of the cooking juices to make each bite a treat.

The only deviation from the consistent level of food prep came with the Veal Scaloppine With Truffled Cream Sauce ($24). It is a heaping portion of meat, and the sauce is a delicious amalgam of mushrooms and cream, but my sauce was just a bit overdone and pasty. Delicious flavors, but I like to dip into my sauces.

La Traviata's wine list is short but contains some surprises. Tommasi Ripasso ($38) is the ideal wine for Amarone lovers on a budget. After they've made their Amarone, Tommasi adds more juice on top of the old skins. This gives their Ripasso some of the flavor of an Amarone without the expense. White-wine lovers should jump at the Terlaner Classico ($11 per glass), an aromatic combination of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and dry Riesling.

When dessert rolls around, I can't get past the Polenta Pound Cake ($6.50). This is one of the best desserts I've had anywhere. The cake is moist; the texture is crumbly like a muffin but dense like a rich pound cake. The lightly lemony flavors and sweet corn undercurrent just dance on your palate.

Seven years ago, Virginia B. Wood reviewed La Traviata, and, even then, she wrote, "La Traviata is a young restaurant, which hopefully has many years of innovation and success ahead." I'd say that has proven right on both counts.

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