The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/food/2024-02-09/review-nomade-is-a-tropical-dining-destination/

Review: Nômadé Is a Tropical Dining Destination

Experience a melting pot of flavors at this Yucatán-inspired oasis

By Jessi Cape, February 9, 2024, Food

Finally entering my travel era, I’ve so far only made the acquaintance of one real jungle – the tropics of Dominical, Costa Rica. My big life plan includes trips to everywhere, but in the interim, the promise of a restaurant founded by “wanderers” and inspired by their travels feels like a targeted draw. I’m also a sucker for beautiful photos of dreamy oases. Nômadé, a new dedicated gluten-free eatery focused on the flavors of Yucatán, offers a vibrant destination outside our usual spaces.

Situated near Elizabeth Street Cafe, on the corner of Monroe and South First, there is a small parking lot in the back, an adjacent paid garage, and occasionally some space on the street if you’re lucky. Once you pass the transportation hurdles and make it to Nômadé, depending on your seat selection, the vibe can be the lovely “escape to a jungle oasis” it aims to be. It can also feel a little squeezed, more trendy-must-try than kick-back-relax.

“Wander-ins” are accepted, but on both times, I was glad we had rezzies – first, inside the casita, and second, outside on the patio. I’m not entirely sure which it was called – the Garden, Cabana, Terraza, or Cantina – but by a landslide we preferred that covered outdoor area over the revamped home interior, a tiny space on sensory overload. On the upside, Nômadé’s interior is gorgeous: Black leather accents contrast all sorts of natural and stained woods; carved stone tchotchkes perk up each table. Everywhere you look, there are subtle details of terra cotta, smooth concrete, matte black, gray gravel, intriguing straw, and bamboo. Beautiful lush greenery is a central theme, and like their thriving plants, the restaurant is full of life.

Let’s get to the food. As a wheat-free diner, it is a mix of relief and excitement to know I can order anything on this menu without any concern of cross-contamination. Nômadé, which opened in October 2023, is a dedicated gluten-free restaurant, safe even for celiacs, they say. With a severe pineapple allergy, it’s a bit more precarious. Pineapple is rich in bromelain, an enzyme largely thought to assist digestion for those with gluten issues, assuming of course, you’re not anaphylactically allergic to the popular tropical fruit. Pineapple is all over the menu here, but staff is tuned into dietary restrictions and kindly, expertly accommodated me on both visits. Always, always inform your server about your allergy stuff.

Nômadé’s flavor profile is described as inspired by the diversity of Yucatán, Mexico’s cuisine, which includes many bold spices found in Lebanese, Portuguese, and African fare. Their huge wood-fired grill scents the air and both food and drink; the raw seafood bar boasts a super-fresh bounty from the Gulf of Mexico. Nômadé is owned by the same folks as Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen, a SoCo restaurant dedicated to sustainable seafood offerings. For us ocean-minded shrimp lovers, this is a huge selling point. Alternately, the veggie dishes are just as compelling as the meaty selections. (Upon arrival, a plant-based menu – instead of, or in addition to, one that continues meat – is offered.) The teams are knowledgeable and efficient, and if service was a little wobbly during our first occasion, by the second visit the team had found their sea legs.

Right off the bat, I had my sights set on eating a helluva lot of flatbread since I hadn’t had any for over a year. Very interestingly, the difference in their flatbread situation was a drastic change between our visits. The first coconut flatbread iteration was incredible: delicious and warm and fluffy with the perfect chew. We enjoyed it on its own, and also dipped into the Mayan-inspired sikil pak, a hummus-esque puree of pepitas, this one dotted with tangy blistered cherry tomatoes. I absolutely devoured it and requested extra to horf down at home.

Our second-visit flatbread experience was, quite literally, a flat letdown. Coconut flatbread was on-menu but not available; instead it was a guajillo version that landed with a thud. Feeling comfortable with our down-to-earth server, I inquired about the deflation: Is it different every time? Why is it so heavy now – more Eeyore than Winnie the Pooh? A gluten-free flatbread is very tricky – subject to changes in weather, technique, oven temp fluctuation, etc., he said. Late last year, Nômadé’s recipe was made with rich coconut milk, but it was incredibly inconsistent, so they nixed it. Now it’s a combo of tapioca, rice flour, and masa, resulting in a much denser, but apparently more consistent, flatbread. We can buy predictably sad flatbread anywhere – bring back the delightful coconut flatbread magic, please.*

The bar menu is smart and heavily centered on agave concoctions. La Antigua boasts both tequila and smoky mezcal, enhanced with orange and a twinge of mole, served in a covetable crystal lowball with a textured rainbow motif. My favorite was the BanJaJa, a happy cocktail featuring coconut fat-washed Lalo tequila, charred banana, and crème de banana, which was somehow not too banana-y. We really enjoyed the habanero heat in both the K’uk’ulkan and El Yucatecan, and were surprised to find an interesting bittersweet floral combination in the gin-based fuchsia Jamaica Fizz. Being Damp January, I’d hoped to try a zero-proof bev, but they were out. On both visits there was a notable lack of available food and drink menu items. Some nights you simply run out of popular dishes – and that can be a good thing with food waste concerns in mind. But when multiple items from every menu section are 86’ed at 7pm on a Friday, someone’s planning math is off.

The Tikin Xic daily catch was a meaty swordfish, grilled and topped with tomato confit, pickled red onion, and xnipec (like a habanero pico), on top of mogo-mogo – a new-to-me side of mashed plantain – and wrapped in banana leaf. Loved it. I’ve avoided eating cephalopods since 2020’s My Octopus Teacher, but I caved and ordered the charred pulpo. Not an easy protein to cook, they nailed the texture here – crisped exterior and soft inside – so good. If anything, the elote recado negro and escabeche had some salt inconsistency. Leaning into the fresh seafood, you cannot go wrong with the eye-catching tuna crudo, served in a fun coconut half-shell; yummy and bright, the aguachile and ceviche were a big hit. Usually battered-and-fried is off-limits for gluten-freers, but not if it’s masa batter, as with the crispy jaiba frita (masa-fried soft-shell crab).

A major standout was the wonderful, deeply flavored enmoladas verdes. With a choice of either cochinita pibil (pork) or hongos (mushroom; here, lion’s mane), most anyone can enjoy this stuffed and saucy blue-corn-and-cheese main course. We cleaned every morsel of our respective plates, and mine, the veggie version, was so satisfying – I’d return to Nômadé just to gobble that alone. Grand finale “Mango Passion” – sphere of coconut-lime sorbet, sliver of mango, custardy passion fruit-mango, gorgeous dots of prickly pear gel, and a dragon fruit crumble – is exactly what I hope for in a dessert: fresh, sweet-tart, fruity, pretty.

Overall, this is definitely a pricey dining experience, but we left completely full and content, eager to return and see what these creative folks unveil next. If, like me, you’re craving big bold flavors sans gluten, Nômadé is still more affordable than a plane ticket to the lovely Yucatán Peninsula.

Nômadé

1506 S. First

nomadecocina.com


Update, Feb. 9: Chef Jay Huang informs us that Nômadé has returned to the original flatbread recipe.

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