Restaurant Review: How the West (Lynn) Was Won
Chef Daniel Hunt's revamped menu offers surprising, transcendent flavors
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Sept. 17, 2010
Cipollina1213 West Lynn, 477-5211
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm
Happy hour, 5-6pm
Cipollina has long been a beloved neighborhood bistro, serving up wood-fired pizza and other specialties to a loyal Clarksville clientele for more than a decade. This spring, Cipollina got a new chef, Daniel Hunt, a 32-year-old graduate of the Texas Culinary Academy here in Austin. Hunt, who has worked at Aquarelle, Asti, and Cibo, as well as having served as sous chef under Cipollina's previous chef, Parker White, has brought a new energy and fresh perspective to Cipollina's menu. The entire staff genuinely exudes confidence and pride in the changes Hunt has made, and business is booming.
"Cipollina has always tended to have a bit of a lull over the summer and do its peak business in the cooler months," says Hunt. "But this summer, we have broken all previous records; it has just stayed busy. The beauty of it is this is a real neighborhood, and people talk to each other. If you are doing good food, you don't need to advertise."
Hunt began his tenure by tightening up kitchen technique and revamping the menu, making changes in roughly 85% of the dishes. "I wanted to make things a little more fun and bring in more seasonal elements," he explains. A good example is the small plate of mussels. Previously, they had been steamed in a saffron/Dijon broth. "Everybody does that," says Hunt. "It is a bistro standard and, frankly, a little tired. I decided to do a riff on one of my favorite soups, the Thai soup tom kha: We are now steaming the mussels in a broth of fresh ginger, garlic, and cilantro with preserved key lime."
These mussels ($11) are transcendent, their fresh, savory flavor brought out fully with wonderful bright citrus and ginger notes.
The other small plate I sampled, the steak tartare ($8), was equal to the mussels. Prepared in the traditional way, it was a generous mound of freshly chopped steak, with a few capers and a little minced onion folded in. Topped with a warmed egg yolk, surrounded with Dijon vinaigrette, and served with rustic toast points, it was magnificent.
The butterleaf salad, made from butterleaf lettuce dressed with lemon vinaigrette, caramelized onions, oil-cured Barnier olives, and fresh feta ($7) is another triumph. The romaine salad is also well-executed, though obviously less inventive; crisp romaine, Caesar dressing, grana padano, and croutons ($6).
Cipollina has always been celebrated for its pizzas, and the two I sampled were excellent. The overnight tomato, house mozzarella, and basil pizza ($12) was perfection, the cheese flavorful and the crust crisp. The lamb, harissa, feta, and mint pizza ($14) was topped with delicate slices of Loncito's lamb, classically complemented with the flavors of mint and feta.
The harissa chicken entrée – served with couscous flecked with arugula, olives, preserved lemon, mint, and yogurt ($17) – was tasty, but the bone-in chicken was slathered with chile-pepper paste and quite difficult to eat. To make up for it, dessert was sublime: The fresh ginger cake à la mode with caramelized pears ($6) was haunting, the rich, bold ginger cake cooled by the melting vanilla ice cream. The goat cheesecake with caramel sauce ($6) was, if possible, even better. Made with local Wateroak goat cheese, it had a surprising depth of flavor blended beautifully with the chocolate-chip-cookie crust and dark caramel sauce.
For the next few months, Cipollina's happy hour special will be half-priced small plates between 5 and 6pm, making dishes like the mussels and steak tartare available for $4-7.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org