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Chef Rene Ortiz turns dinner into a house party at Launderette

Wind your way through the relatively calm evening streets of East Austin and you’ll find a flickering cursive sign from Neon Jungle pulsating like the heart of a party.

The conspicuous high-end sedans that fill much of Launderette’s parking lot and adjacent streets may feel out of place in the historically working-class area, but the energy and spirit of the new restaurant fit the communal neighborhood vibe.

A major reason for that is the man seated at the end of the expansive front patio on a couple of my visits. A trail of long hair draped over the neck of his plain white t-shirt and ballcap askew, chef-owner Rene Ortiz sipped a drink at a table surrounded by business partners and friends in between passes through the dining room and kitchen. He stopped and chatted with guests, appearing as much party host as culinary mastermind and boss. Work shouldn’t be this fun. Right?

The Houston-born chef who helped open wildly popular La Condesa and Sway following an early career in New York and Australia has an undeniable culinary vision. But he also sees his role as a creator of culture and facilitator of social energy. Artists, patrons of the arts, service industry veterans and the hipnoscenti have packed the airy space with hungry excitement since opening week.

You don’t usually show up at a friend’s dinner party expecting a clear explanation of the menu’s theme. People generally cook what they like to eat and hope you feel the same. That personalized principle appears to guide Ortiz and pastry chef and partner Laura Sawicki’s menus at Launderette.

Ortiz digs bold flavors and spice, fitting for a confident and absurdist chef who speaks of food and life in maxims that range from pragmatic to surreal.

The menu is as eccentric as the chef. He brings a confetti blast of heat to a translucent dish of red snapper crudo swathed in apricot oil ($14). That dish appears on the cheekily named “Snacky Bits” section of the menu that is headlined by Middle Eastern-influenced labneh and beet hummus ($8). The excellent dish shocks the palate to attention. Earthy crimson beet hummus balances tart, dense yogurt in a dish scattered with cubes of pickled golden beets, sweet raisins, the crunch of pine nuts and the refreshing salve of mint. Smear and scoop the piñata explosion of flavors with a brittle “everything” cracker.

The fluid menu’s flavors swing from the Arabian Peninsula across the Mediterranean to Italian-inspired dishes like a wet, jiggly mass of burrata cheese sprinkled by the soil and sweetness of olive tapenade and honeyed pine nut brittle. Small meatballs flecked with mortadella soaked in a bright tomato sauce that had simmered for hours, bringing its salt to the fore ($8), and firm tubes of garganelli and sausage ($18) made me wish Launderette made more pasta dishes.

Shareable starters included silky chicken liver pâté ($8) topped with the woodsy sweetness of huckleberry preserves and a cubist chop of beef tartare interspersed with acid and heat from mustard and pickled okra ($16). And no New American restaurant seems to be complete these days without trendy toasts. Launderette’s trio features a hearty semolina toast spread with fennel aioli and buried beneath the supple weight of crab meat and avocado.

Maybe my favorite savory dish at Launderette was the chicken thighs ($12). The tender meat soaked in the vegetal and acidic singe of cacciatore before a grill finish left them with crispy skin. The scotch bonnet aioli sauce was reminiscent of a playful upscale take on Buffalo wings. The grill also turned out rosy medallions of medium-rare hanger steak ($18) glistening with anchovy-kale butter, and serpentine tendrils of charred octopus ($18) with eye-opening chimichuri on a bed of hearty beluga lentils.

While it dodges traditional categorization, I’d call Launderette eclectic New American, and what is more American than a cheeseburger? Cooked a la plancha, Launderette’s bacon-packed, coarse-grind patty comes seared with a remarkable crust and laced with a tangy special sauce. In a city where $14 burgers are becoming de rigeur, the juicy $9 burger should be considered a value.

The burger is listed in the small “Specialties” section of the menu, which included a charred, sloppy and overcooked dish of crispy pork ribs ($20). But I found all of the menu’s dishes easy to share, and with only two plates exceeding $18, two people can sample a broad range of food without ascending into lofty three-digit heights.

The largest section of the menu, surprisingly (and refreshingly), is a roster of vegetables, with each dish priced at $9. The dishes have as much oomph as the meaty dishes, and some may have as many calories. Charred caramelized endive painted with honey that trapped thyme and crumbles of blue cheese could have been a dessert, as could a colorful salad of ribboned zucchini and a landslide of feta cheese and pine nuts drizzled with carrot-coconut dressing.

House parties don’t take reservations, and neither does Launderette (unless you’re a party of eight). That means you should expect at least a 30-minute wait on most visits. A small seating area at the end of the patio offers cocktail service, but inclement and insufferable weather may strain the patience of some diners.

The patio holds almost half of the restaurant’s seating, so it will be interesting to see how Launderette accommodates guests once summer’s punishing heat arrives. The inside is awash in calming, natural colors — the Baltic blue bar, set with succulents, is lined with white metallic scooped chairs, and the floor resembles a swimming pool. Seventies-era still life paintings of everyday plants and sporting goods reinforce the sense of home.

The friendly staff members work in easy tandem to service tables, communicate expected wait times with customers and pace meals with a casual ease. There are more than a few familiar faces on the staff of Austin service industry veterans, with several having followed the lead of Merry Prankster Ortiz to the eastside. The most obvious familiar face is that of bespectacled Sawicki, Ortiz’s culinary partner at Launderette.

Sawicki made a name for herself as one of the city’s best pastry chefs during her time at La Condesa and Sway, and it is great for her to once again have a permanent venue for her creativity. She hybridizes a few ideas with a fluffy and flaky take on apple pie ($9) laced with angular cuts of cheddar cheese on a plate made sticky with salted beer caramel. It’s at once an apples-and-cheese plate and a caramelized apple, and the unexpected sage ice cream on top is proof that nobody in town bests her in the ice cream game.

Sawicki exhibited more ice cream brilliance with the candied ginger ice cream on her English sticky toffee pudding ($9) and the cool, herbal blast of basil ice cream on a lemon curd tart ringed by compressed strawberries on a dish that glowed like an early afternoon at an Italian beach.

Completing the idea of dinner as a celebration, Sawicki’s dessert menu includes bite-size birthday cake ice cream sandwiches that taste like Mexican sheet cake ice cream wedged between soft layers of cookie dough.

Some diners end the meal with dessert, while others finish their night in the kitchen. As one can see on the restaurant’s social media pages, Ortiz has pulled many guests (both old friends and new) from the dining room to have their portraits taken in front of a kitchen wall decorated with the photograph of a waterfall. Because what party would be complete without a photo booth?

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