When I first wrote about Alex Kahn in November 2001, he was a bright-eyed high school senior with very clear career goals. He impressed such local mentors as the late Roger Mollett at the Central Market Cooking School and Elmar Prambs at the Four Seasons while still at Westlake High and was determined to attend the Culinary Institute of America, hone his skills working for some nationally-known chefs in New York, and eventually have his own restaurant. Now he has accomplished just that. Post CIA, Kahn put in three years in high-profile New York kitchens (Le Bernardin, La Côte Basque) before returning to Austin for stints at NoRTH in the Domain and David Bull's Congress. In December of 2011, Kahn opened Trento with family and friends in West Lake Hills. Chefs Kahn and Andreas Exarhos (Zoot, Congress) run the kitchen. Alex's parents, Nina and Frank Seely, bring years of local business experience and social connections to the project, while longtime local restaurant manager Donnie Damuth (Roaring Fork, NoRTH) and businessman Ed Sadjadi round out the ownership team in the front of the house.
Nestled in the rolling hills above Lake Austin, Trento inhabits a space that formerly housed both a Gumbo's and a Chili's, but any vestige of chain-restaurant energy or décor has thankfully left the building. The comfortable bar hosts a popular daily happy hour with appealing wine and cocktail prices, and the attractive, dog-friendly patio is inviting in moderate weather. The large main dining room offers a view of the bustling kitchen and the private dining area is perfect for regular wine dinners and small events. Nina Seely's considerable charm and marketing savvy are coming in handy building community support – she points out the well-thought-out kids' menu to area families, markets Trento to West Lake business people as a convenient spot for working luncheons with plenty of free parking, and even offered shuttle service to nearby business neighbors during last week's oppressive heat. Targeted marketing and experienced front-of-the-house management create a welcoming atmosphere and sense of inclusion that are matched by friendly service and good food.
Though the Italian city of Trento is located in the Alpine foothills, in an area with strong Austrian and German culinary influences, Austin's Trento features a menu of dishes from several regions of Italy. In true Italian fashion, some of the best things on the menu are the simplest: slices of San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil, and imported buffalo mozzarella drizzled with a little extra-virgin olive oil ($10); excellent locally made pastas dressed with hearty sauces ($11-$16); and vegetables roasted and seasoned to maximize flavors ($6). The calamari fritti ($10) come with a lacy, gluten-free batter, and Prince Edward Island mussels ($12) float in a pesto-scented white wine broth that may tempt diners to drink out of the bowl. Handmade cheese ravioli ($16) are sautéed in brown butter and paired with fried sage, the house lamb sausage, and a perfectly poached egg for unctuous richness. The gnocchi ($14) are the best I've had in town – soft, delicate pillows married with toothsome, slow-roasted pork, mushrooms, peas, and plenty of Parmesan in a robust dish with roots in the restaurant's namesake region. Follow such richness with scoops of Teo gelato or sorbetto ($4), or a pistachio semifreddo ($7): chilly slivers of light pistachio cream matched with fresh berries and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Or if you've dined lightly, consider topping off the meal with the luxurious chocolate paté ($7), velvety dark chocolate ganache in a pool of hazelnut caramel.
At Trento, Alex Kahn and his family have created a complete package that is really a love note to the neighborhood where he grew up. As a brilliant magenta and gold sunset shimmered over West Lake Hills, I left Trento hoping that the notoriously fickle neighborhood will embrace it, so someday they can look back and brag about eating in Alex Kahn's first restaurant.
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