Restaurant Review: L'oca d'oro
Italian concept brings luxury without the pomp
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., Sept. 2, 2016
Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5-9pm; Thu.-Sat., 5-10pm; Brunch: Sat-Sun., 10am-2pm
In this age of increasing income inequality, it can be difficult to parse out what actually deserves to be called luxury. Most of what we get is ostentation. From the gilded vulgarity of the Trump penthouse to the thrift-store fantasies of Golden Goose sneakers, the prevailing attitude is that wealth has to assert itself through caterwauls and bludgeons. Like the ostrich fan in a burlesque act, it's all for show.
But consider a dish from another golden goose, Mueller's L'oca d'oro. I've been advised three times of the various processes that make their wood-roasted mushroom lasagna ($16) taste as rich as foie. But that technical information always dissolves in a fog of Taleggio and mozzarella. Luxury isn't preening, but when you find it, it's hard to notice anything else.
It may seem odd to frame chef Fiore Tedesco and hospitality vet Adam Orman's restaurant in these terms. The main dining space is unassuming, dominated by Urban Patchworks' practical installation of two or three dozen potted plants (some growing chives or other edibles). But if the moulted restaurant flock of the last few years is any indication, maybe it's better that L'oca is focusing less on sourcing wallpaper than preparing the food.
The concept is Italian, but more lower case than last year's crop. There's not really anything here that exists outside of those traditions, but there are no belabored attempts to make everything autentico. Like that haunting lasagna, showiness isn't really the point.
The omnivore antipasti ($19) is a Renaissance still life of charcuterie, cheeses, and preserved and grilled vegetables. That and the daily bread plate ($5-9, depending on size) – a caraway-flecked rye and a spongy focaccia served with a quenelle of good salted butter and preserves (nectarine on my first visit, pickled blueberry on the last) – almost make a meal unto themselves.
Even the small plates and crostini have more heft than most snacks (save for a watermelon, mustard green, and sungold tomato salad [$10] on the current menu, L'oca doesn't seem to particularly care if you leave cradling your stomach). The crispy pancetta and roasted onion crostini ($9 for two) goes a smidge overboard with a treacly balsamic reduction, but the roasted tomato's ($8 for two) natural sugar is tempered by stracciatella and basil. On the piccolini side, a moist trio of meatballs ($13) nestled in fragrant tomato jam are served with a buttery garlic-rubbed toast steals the show – although I can't help thinking of how cinematic the meet cute would be with L'oca's house pasta.
Tedesco knows his way around a ragu, and his riffs on the classic ground meat sauce inform half of the pasta menu. The octopus ragu, anchored by bone marrow, uses campanelle ($18) and is the most luxurious, balancing the sea brine with fat. Curly ribbons of reginette ($12), tossed in a pepper ragu, surprise with a sprinkle of red onion. A more workaday pork ragu starts with thinner trenette and sweet potato greens. Arabesques of casarecce ($13) break the mold with whole blistered tomatoes, basil leaves, fennel sausage, and beefy button mushrooms. In Austin's weirdly temperate, wet summer, it invites the last languor before fall.
After the pasta, the only reasonable thing to do is take a break, gather your thoughts, and have a glass of wine. Orman's beverage menu is small, focusing on twists of classic cocktails and mostly Italian varietals. It's all affordable, with the indulgences in the $70-80 range, but the $33 liters of Nero d'Avola can't be beat for easy conviviality. Sip it slowly before moving on to the mains.
Those are divided into family-style feasts designed for 2-4 people and single entrées from the wood grill. My lack of entourage kept me from trying the larger dishes, but I was plenty satisfied with the composed elegance of the eggplant parm ($18) and the picnic pleasures of the fried rabbit ($26), whose cornmeal crust would have been at home on a Southern catfish (still, I might have added one more sprinkle of salt). A side (thank Bey they eschewed organizing them by the gawkishly à la mode contorni) of grilled okra added bonfire cheer, especially when dipped in the buttermilk aïoli Orman jokingly called "Italian Ranch."
Since all of the other dishes make no concessions to premature health problems, you might as well add diabetes to the mix by tackling the Tuscan column of s'mores tartufo ($8), whose description (hazelnut caramel, graham cracker, gelato) only hints at its chocolate and marshmallow fluff-coated decadence. Those who like less-sweet desserts will find much to like in the lemony olive oil cake ($8), whose lightness would be right at home in L'oca's newly launched brunch. The cookie plate ($8) is worth ordering for a later snack, if only for the happy astonishment of rainbow cookies.
The common theme amongst all the dishes is that the punchy distilled flavors are achieved by both carefully selected local ingredients and intensive technique, though none of those things are advertised. To borrow from Coco Chanel, "Luxury must be comfortable." L'oca d'oro may not be the flashiest addition to Austin dining, but it fits like a handcrafted pair of Italian leather loafers.
L'oca D'oro1900 Simond, 737/212-1876
Wed.-Mon., 5-10pm; weekend brunch, 10am-2pm