Barton Springs Road west of Lamar has the feel of a beach boulevard: casual restaurants, where flip-flops are de rigueur, line the entry to Zilker Park and Barton Springs. East of Lamar, the vibe is almost as casual, if more workaday, with small businesses, convenience stores, and office buildings dotted amid the restaurants. A new bistro on this stretch of road may be the first sign of its inevitable upgrade: Gypsy Italian restaurant. Even regular travelers on this street may not have noted its emergence, situated in a nondescript spot that seems to change hands regularly. Once inside the door, diners quickly realize this isn't a hastily thrown together venture but a discrete and ambitious undertaking into bistro dining.
The ambience falls somewhere between the arts centers that cast their literal and figurative shadow on Gypsy: the shiny, sophisticated Long Center and the funky, old-fashioned Dougherty Arts Center. Neither a meatball joint nor an exclusive dining destination, Gypsy seeks that sweet spot somewhere in the middle: the casual yet chic little room. Its intentions are clear upon entering, where the unremarkable exterior gives way to a charming little dining room of 18 or so tables. A small bar anchors the room, and the outdoors are brought in surprisingly via an exposed rear natural rock wall trickling with water. A skylight above the bucolic view provides ideal lighting prior to sundown. It would almost be twee if it weren't for real. In the works is a rooftop bar and nosh spot accessed via a rustic stone staircase next to the rock wall. It has the feeling of a secret hideaway, and when its full advantage is taken, it will be an ideal location to gaze at the ever-burgeoning Austin skyline.
Gypsy really makes its case with its menu, however. Chef Shawn Gamble learned his craft with the masters at Le Cordon Bleu and stirred pots in Italy before teaming up with Texas Culinary Academy grads Sherry Gordion and Janet Tran to open their dream bistro. With nary a red sauce in sight, Gypsy's inspiration comes from the northern regions of the boot.
Beginning options run the gamut from the ubiquitous calamari ($8.95) to an almost-French wild-mushroom terrine ($8.95). Round out the appetizer selections with bruschetta ($5.95), and you could easily make a satisfying meal from the top portion of the menu. Salad options are especially tantalizing. Apparently the rule of the restaurant world is that all menus must include Caesar salad ($7.95), and Gypsy isn't about to fight the law on this front. The now-commonplace caprese ($9.95) also makes an appearance, but things get more interesting with the house salad of arugula, radicchio, frisée, and Parmesan, tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette ($5.95). It's a lovely combination that provides a satisfying beginning to a meal. Even heartier, given its generous portion, is the arugula and pear salad with red onion, candied walnuts, and Gorgonzola, all tossed with raspberry vinaigrette ($7.95). Our eager and enthusiastic waiter suggested the salad be split between two diners, and even then, the portions were ample. Had we not been determined to delve into entrées, we would have sampled the Southwestern-influenced jalapeño corn bread panzanella ($7.95). Next time.
Entrée options are hearty and offer beef, veal, lamb, chicken, pork, seafood, and a couple of vegetarian options – quite a broad scope for such a small dining room. Despite the tempting offers on the standard menu, the daily special of duck breast with blood-orange glaze proved too tempting to pass up. Other diners tried the salmon papillote with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and herb couscous ($19.95) and the chicken piccata (veal is also available) with sugar snap peas ($14.95).
The blood-orange version of the duck à la orange was half a plump, boneless breast atop a grilled rectangle of polenta, napped with an orange glaze that erred slightly on the too-sweet side. The duck was moist and rich under the protective cover of skin, and the skin itself was nicely crisped. The plate was garnished with some carefully trimmed sections of blood orange and accompanied by simply and skillfully prepared vegetables.
Even more successful was the salmon in parchment, cooked with tangy kalamata olives and artichoke hearts. Prettily presented atop herbed couscous, the salmon remained moist as it was encased in the paper during the cooking process. The briny tang of the olives and artichokes contrasted nicely with the silky salmon, resulting in a bright dish with lively flavors. In the chicken piccata, a tangy citrus sauce was tossed with nicely al dente pasta and studded with briny capers. It's a reliable dish and was competently prepared.
The enthusiasm of the staff is genuine and contagious; our waiter eagerly offered to help us with a wine selection (a nice bottle of Zaccagnini Sangiovese for $34) and urged us to explore the unfinished rooftop dining area. A few details were overlooked: Even though the daylight faded, the candle on our table remained unlit. And perhaps as evidence of the heavily trafficked dining room, our menus were a bit shopworn. But overall, the waitstaff was attentive and solicitous. Despite the rapidly filling dining room, we were encouraged to linger and savor our experience.
Gypsy describes itself as a restaurant with a modern twist on Italian food. Many diners' preconceptions of Italian cuisine have evolved beyond spaghetti and meatballs, however, and to these people, the menu at Gypsy will appear more familiar than adventurous. There's not a lot of brand-new territory being carved out here. Nonetheless, it's obvious Gamble knows his way around a kitchen. The casual nature of Barton Springs Road is evolving with the sleek Palmer and Long centers and pastoral Town Lake Park. Gypsy has the potential to mirror the evolution to become a casual and chic dining destination fully at home on the newly polished Barton Springs.
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