Restaurant Review: Cantine
Asti meets Fino in Lamar Union
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Aug. 7, 2015
Lunch: Mon.-Thu., l1am-10pm; Fri., 11am-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm and 4-10pm
Chef couple Emmett and Lisa Fox knew exactly what kind of place they wanted when they opened their first restaurant in one of Austin's oldest suburbs back in 2000. Their Asti Trattoria was soon established as a quintessential neighborhood eatery, an integral part of the heartbeat of Hyde Park. It remains so to this day. When the Foxes saw the plans for the South Central Austin Lamar Union development in 2013, the couple recognized an opportunity to create another neighborhood staple. The Foxes are on their way with their third restaurant, Cantine, named for a casual wine bar and gathering place they discovered on one of their regular visits to Italy.
Cantine occupies a street-level corner at Lamar Union. The sleek yet comfortable Michael Hsu design utilizes a combination of industrial metalwork on the ceiling and polished wood panels on the walls and bar. The loblolly pine panels were milled from trees felled during the Bastrop wildfire in 2011 and provided by a friend of the owners, adding to their appeal. The busy open kitchen, warm wood accents, and communal tables in the bar make for a very inviting space. An abundance of hard surfaces tend to render dining rooms where ambient noise is so intrusive it's impossible to have a conversation at the table, but we were not assaulted by the noise level on visits to Cantine. According to Emmett Fox, that was part of the design plan from the beginning. "We told Michael Hsu we wanted good acoustics, and that's what he gave us," Fox said.
We found the staff to be friendly and knowledgeable about the food and were only mildly annoyed by one server who continually referred to our party as "we" as though she was a guest at our table rather than an employee of the restaurant. It was odd, but not a deal breaker. The menu at Cantine draws inspiration from around the Mediterranean, offering up dishes from Italy, the Middle East, even the south of France. Fino fans will be pleased to see some dishes from the Foxes' former Mediterranean eatery that closed in March, and there are house-made pastas and small, crisp-crust pizzas reminiscent of Asti. Cooks in the Cantine kitchen are making the most of the rotisserie, turning out whole ($42) and half ($24) chickens bearing the rusty hue and tingling kiss of harissa, in addition to porchetta ($20) and roasted vegetables. The plans always called for takeout food to be a feature at Cantine, and when we stopped in for brunch recently, the restaurant was filling and delivering the first orders of appetizers and chicken to Lamar Union residents enjoying themselves by the pool.
We found the brunch menu much to our liking, with three dishes well worth a regular spot in anyone's regular brunch rotation. The house version of a salade Niçoise called the Nizza ($15) showcases oil-cured Spanish tuna, white beans, toothsome potato cubes, fried capers, and briny olives on a bed of baby spinach leaves dressed in an astringent citrus vinaigrette, complemented by a soft poached egg rather than the traditional boiled one. The Cantine Benedict ($16) arrives on tender, house-made English muffins with lacy ruffles of crisp prosciutto and sprigs of piquant arugula cuddling perfectly poached local eggs under a mantle of lemony hollandaise. The standout brunch dish is likely to be a revelation to Austin diners who have never encountered shakshuka ($12, $15 with chorizo). The popular Israeli breakfast dish offers up eggs baked in a casserole with two very spicy sauces, a bright red harissa tomato sauce, and brilliant green z'hug, a fiery green-pepper concoction made with garlic and cilantro. This tasty bowl of combustion comes with pieces of pita for sopping up the sauces. It's for folks who really want breakfast to give the taste buds a wake-up call.
Although I found the pasta dishes here a little too al dente for my taste and the house sausage a salt-bomb attack on the palate, there were certainly highlights at dinner. The aforementioned half chicken was moist and flavorful, paired with roasted potatoes and an à la carte side of wilted spinach topped with toasted garlic and Parmesan ($6); it also made great leftovers. The pan-seared Verlasso salmon ($25), however, really stole the show – pale pink flesh glistening under crispy skin, nestled in a pool of silken whipped cauliflower accented by the sweetness of golden raisins and the tang of fried capers. While it's also possible to order half a head of roasted cauliflower ($6) as a side dish here, the whipped cauliflower on that salmon plate was the most impressive vegetable treatment I've seen so far this year.
For the uninitiated, always check out the desserts in any restaurant belonging to Lisa Fox, a talented pastry chef in her own right. Stellar dessert offerings here include the house take on baklava in the form of phyllo pistachio cigars ($8), a classic tiramisu parfait ($8), and festive bombolini ($8), Italian doughnuts filled with pastry cream, resting in a pool of dark chocolate sauce. A dreamy soft-serve ice cream is a specialty of the house at Cantine, and it's a component of two liquid desserts – the affogato ($8) drowned in a shot of espresso, and the sgroppino ($12), with limoncello, vodka, and Prosecco. Coffee lovers will not want to miss the affogato. Good service in a relaxed atmosphere and unique touches such as delectable soft-serve and takeout rotisserie items should have Cantine feeling the warm embrace of this neighborhood soon.
Cantine1100 S. Lamar #2115, 512/628-0348
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri., 11am-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm, 4-10pm