Restaurant Review: Mini-Review
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., March 28, 2008
Sagra Enoteca & Trattoria1610 San Antonio St., 535-5988
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-5pm
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm
Brunch: Sunday, 11:30am-4pm
Happy hour: 5-7pm weekdays with $2-off cocktails and half-price pizzas in the bar
This new Italian eatery first showed up on the local radar a few months back when word got around that the sous chef was observed shopping for produce at Boggy Creek Farm. Starting out with a commitment to feature local organic produce whenever possible augurs well for any aspiring new restaurant. That, coupled with a name that reflects an emphasis on the celebration of regional foods, encouraged me to take on this review assignment myself. "Sagra" is the Italian word for small food festivals built around the finest local ingredients, such as specific cheeses, olive oils, nuts, or meats. Owner and Executive Chef Gabriel Pellegrini chose the evocative name for his first Austin restaurant and transformed a cozy cottage in the Judges' Hill neighborhood between Downtown and UT into the setting for his cuisine. The simple, understated interior decor subtly suggests Tuscany, replacing any hint of the former tenant from the Red Planet.
As eagerly as I had anticipated dining at Sagra, our first visit was a study in missed opportunities. Some friends joined me for lunch, and we discovered many enticing items on the menu. Unfortunately, almost every dish managed to just miss the mark. Nothing was really bad, but almost everything could have been better. For starters, the breading on the Calamari Fritti ($8) was too thick, the dressing on the Insalate Cesare ($6/$9) lacked the bite of anchovy or any brightness of acidity, and the topping on the Bruschetta del Giorno ($8) needed salt. (In fact, everything could have used a little salt.) We chose an Aglio & Salsiccia Pizza ($10) from the list of Neopolitan-style wood-oven pizzas but found no hint of garlic and precious little sausage or fresh mozzarella in the topping, though the dough itself was tasty. When our panini arrived, my sandwich made with crisp sliced pears, piquant arugula, and tangy local goat cheese was a marvelous mélange of contrasting textures and tastes. One of my guests was not so lucky – she received an overly toasted, board-dry portobello-mushroom panini that she deemed inedible. Another friend fared better with a flavorful cup of cream of parsnip soup ($3), made with a root vegetable rarely seen on Texas menus. The most puzzling dish was a side order of the house meatballs ($5), three juicy orbs studded with pistachios, napped in the house marinara. The nuts provided a distinctive flavor and texture component, but the impact was marred by several bites of unappetizing gristle in the meat mixture. I would have gladly done without the novelty of the nuts in exchange for a better grade of meat. Our luncheon did finish on a high note, however. We shared a serving of warm chocolate cake ($5) topped with a dollop of whipped cream and painted with an interesting blood-orange caramel. It was attractive to both the eye and the palate.
I had gone to Sagra with such high expectations that the disappointing first meal really had me worried. I appreciated the concept and found the place itself to be comfortable and inviting, with service that was friendly and informative without being cloying. Somehow I knew there was a good meal to be had at Sagra; I just had to find it. On our second visit, my perseverance was rewarded with a much more satisfying dinner. The Zuppa di Cozze ($9), mussels in an aromatic white wine and garlic broth, were plump and tender, the broth perfectly seasoned for dipping toasted focaccia croutons. Fans of good mussels will want to drop in to Sagra for happy hour on Tuesdays, when these beauties are available all-you-can-eat for $12. Each entrée around the table represented the quality I had originally expected to encounter here. The special Herb-Roasted Colorado Lamb Chops ($24) were tender and toothsome, perfectly medium-rare on a bed of asparagus pieces and crispy roasted potatoes, dressed with a balsamic reduction. The wild-mushroom risotto ($14) was an earthy bowl of creamy spring perfection, studded with sautéed mushrooms and asparagus. The tangle of Linguini Alla Carbonara ($12) arrived crowned with an egg yolk – stirring the yolk into the piping hot dish gave the pasta a velvety, unctuous coating complemented with crispy bits of pancetta and fresh spring peas. The sauce on the Penne Alla Arrabiatta ($12) delivered a spicy kick of red pepper to enhance the crumbles of the tasty house sausage.
To end the meal, we shared three desserts around the table and found that each choice had something to recommend. The biscotti plate ($4) presented three cookie varieties, the best of which were the orange and hazelnut traditional twice-cooked pastry sticks suitable for dipping in after-dinner coffee or Vin Santo. The Sagra version of tiramisu ($6) is a luxurious, espresso-spiked cloud of sweetened mascarpone dusted with cocoa. But the crowning dessert achievement here has to be the poached pear ($5). The lightly poached whole fruit maintains a firm texture that offers just the right counterpoint to the pool of sweetened ricotta cheese below it and the creamy dollop of cheese on top. It was a light and lovely ending to a truly delightful meal. Though the kitchen still has yet to hit its stride completely with regard to executing the entire menu, I was pleased to find that Sagra does offer much to celebrate.