This new Lavaca Street restaurant specializes in fresh, uncomplicated food
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Nov. 18, 2011
Lavaca Teppan1712 Lavaca, 520-8630
Tucked into the quiet, unassuming stretch of Lavaca Street that bridges Downtown and the University is an old-school teppanyaki restaurant that offers just as much a feast for the eyes as for the appetite. Opened quietly in July, Lavaca Teppan is the new venture by Toshiyuki and Yoko Niizeki, who once owned a Japanese steak house in San Angelo, Texas, and their son Taichi, a recent graduate of Le Cordon Bleu here in Austin. Designed by Jamie Chioco – the architect responsible for other sleek, modern spaces such as Galaxy Cafe and Perla's – the restaurant is worth a visit for the space alone. The attention to detail is deeply impressive, the gray-and-yellow palette woven subtly through the restaurant from the light fixtures to the thread on the banquette cushions. A translucent wall filled with Japanese salt divides the room, and the seating is minimalist yet comfortable. Such an elegant and beautifully designed space might suggest an upscale dining experience, but in reality, Lavaca Teppan is quite accessible thanks to both its menu and its prices.
We made our first visit during lunch hour on a Wednesday, the restaurant comfortably full but not so busy that we weren't seated right away. We started with the edamame appetizer ($3.25) and house soup ($2.75). The soup was a tasty blend of beef broth, mushrooms, scallions, and tempura flakes; the edamame was cold and came without an extra dish for the husks. We also got the beef tataki appetizer ($9.25) from the dinner menu, eight beautifully seared slices of filet mignon with a light, refreshing dipping sauce; it was easily the most popular dish on this visit. While the nicely cooked teriyaki beef ($9.75) and shrimp stir-fry ($9.75) were fine, the tempura don (six pieces of tempura shrimp and vegetables served atop a bed of steamed rice; $8.50) was lukewarm and a bit soggy. Worse, though, was the shrimp salad ($7.75), six salty shrimp pieces resting on a stingy portion of iceberg lettuce mix. While the sweet ginger dressing was delicious, the salad itself lacked cohesion. All of the entrée bowls come with a universal vegetable mix of carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, and onion; the accompanying rice is perfectly cooked.
I took my family with me on my second visit, curious to see how well the restaurant accommodates children. I was surprised to find the place nearly deserted on a Saturday evening, with only one other table occupied. Our server, who happened to be Taichi Niizeki himself, explained that business is most brisk during weekday lunches. Ironically, the food on this visit was markedly improved from my previous lunch. We started with the tempura ($7) and the tori kara ($5.50), a large serving of Japanese-style chicken nuggets lightly breaded with potato starch. Our food arrived hot and fresh, the tempura batter crisp and delicately flavored. Our son, a shrimp lover, claimed fully half of the shrimp tempura on offer, leaving his father and me with the lion's share of the vegetables. For entrées we ordered a bowl of the vegetable soup with tofu ($5.50), the tori kara don ($7.95), and the beef stir-fry ($9.75). The soup is a larger portion of the house soup with added carrots and zucchini served with a shaker of Japanese chili powder called nanami togarashi, enabling diners to spice the soup to their liking. The tori kara don, a deconstructed frittata of sorts with fried chicken pieces on a layer of fried egg over a bed of steamed rice, is a very filling portion of protein that wants only a bit of moisture (perhaps a splash of the tataki sauce?). My husband's beef stir-fry was simple, fresh, and flavorful. Yoko Niizeki was working the kitchen that night and prepared a very generous side order of shrimp and vegetables ($5) for our son, which was greatly appreciated.
At the end of the meal, we treated our children to the lone dessert on the menu, soft-serve ice cream, opting for the small chocolate-vanilla swirl ($2.50). While the ice cream is quite yummy, I find its inclusion on a traditional Japanese menu inexplicable unless it's a nod to ice cream's popularity in Japan. And why serve plain old chocolate and vanilla, which diners could get at Dairy Queen on the drive home? Why not something like black sesame or green tea? Perhaps it's Lavaca Teppan's simplicity ethos that prevents it from splashing out on a more adventurous flavor. Indeed, adventurousness is not the hallmark of this menu; rather, Lavaca Teppan specializes in fresh, uncomplicated food, which speaks directly to a bustling lunch trade or a reasonably priced – and very quiet indeed – dinner.