When people discuss the current epoch of evolving East Austin, they will likely point to the March opening of LaV as a turning point and potential catalyst for expedited change.
Some will argue about the propriety and audacity of a high-end restaurant moving into a modest neighborhood historically home to working-class families, but as the city grows, Austinites can expect to see a wider array of options spreading outside of the city’s downtown core.
Despite what must have been a costly build-out, the grey brick building has a stoic simplicity befitting its location across the street from the slate gray tombstones of the Texas State Cemetery. The mood lightens inside the trifurcate space that unfolds from a wine bar lit by teardrop baubles to a lounge and bar area glistening with chandeliers, before spilling into the main dining room.
I prefer the lounge area, where downy cowhide-covered stools as white as Aspen Mountain in January line a bar backed by a gorgeous painting of heather fields from Atlanta artist Michael Dines. At twilight the misty painting reflects in the floor-to-ceiling windows that face the cemetery, wrapping the room in a spectral aura.
The dining room at the restaurant’s east end, colored in muted tones of silver, gold, caramel, and taupe, is crowned by one of the city’s most spectacular private dining spaces — a wine cellar ringed by two floors of bottles.
It feels like a dining room in a house, and with good reason. LaV is the first commercial project by the restaurant’s architects and designers, who created LaV owner Ralph Eads’ vacation home in Aspen. It was in that mountain paradise that the Houston-based investment banker met LaV director of wine, Vilma Mazaite, and executive chef, Allison Jenkins. (Both have ownership stakes in the restaurant.)
The two women worked together at the ski town’s highly praised Little Nell hotel. Mazaite, a native of Lithuania, arrived in Colorado following stints working in Las Vegas and New York for famed chef-restaurateurs like Paul Bartolotta and Mario Batali, while native Texan Jenkins’ résumé includes time in Martha’s Vineyard and Santa Fe.
LaV, its name a nod to the French word for “life,” as well as a play on its location across from the cemetery, bills itself as a Provençal restaurant. The menu dips its toe into the Mediterranean as it crisscrosses from France to Northern Africa, Italy to Turkey.
A blush of jam jiggled atop a toned and robust chicken liver pate ($14) boozy with bourbon, port and Madeira but grounded by lush fat. It’s one of the best appetizers in the city, and with a pinch of salt or splash of citrus, so would be an ample serving of aromatic lamb tartare ($14) piqued by curry, cooled with yogurt and mint, and textured with a pistachio crumble.
Small plate hits continued with a milky homemade ricotta that burst from the ribbed edges of al dente pillows of ravioli surrounded by the acidic snap of ratatouille tempered by beurre fondue ($15). Pasta impressed again at another dinner, with a special of mushroom-and-cheese-filled ravioli draped with sweet feathers of shaved Hungarian honey truffles in a silken dashi broth that hid tart pickled chanterelle mushrooms.
A gritty Marcona almond gazpacho punctuated with the pop of green grapes and brightened by crab meat ($11) served as a textural speed bump, but Jenkins’ creativity shined in an escargot appetizer ($12). Instead of hitting the palate with the comforting and expected hug-and-kiss of butter and garlic, the chef layered the flavors, infusing the butter with tomato and curry, giving the dish acidic allure instead of its normal fatty smother.
The rustic entrees at LaV are highlighted by an oven-roasted chicken for two ($48). Crackling skin wrapped supple meat on a bird that sat in a bed of bitter arugula and small tomatoes that popped like Mediterranean water balloons. LaV serves a smaller grilled chicken ($26) on its new Sunday night menu, but despite being wood-grilled, the dish stung with the chemical whispers of a gas grill.
That same Sunday an herb-brined pork chop ($30) in brown butter zucchini puree that sang with both sensuous and vegetal notes proved a minor struggle, but I found nothing with which to quibble on another dinner visit.
Grilled whole black sea bass, with its flaky, charred skin enlivened by charred lemon, was a master class in Mediterranean simplicity ($32), an accompanying tapenade of raisins, peppers and eggplant providing a sweet and earthy complement. More eggplant arrived alongside tender lamb T-bones ($31) I picked clean while finishing with my hands.
LaV boasts a massive wine list, and Eads hopes to create one of the best wine programs in the country. Mazaite curates the list of more than 1,000 wines, aided by sommeliers Darren Scott and Rania Zayyat, and imbues the restaurant with her spirit.
Mazaite winds through the dining room with precision and grace, emanating the transfixing and disarming charm of a silent movie star. When she pierces the fourth wall and shares her love of wine, she speaks with the effervescent enthusiasm and wonder of a scientist revealing recent discoveries.
Whether recommending a medium-bodied Domaine Comte Abbatucci ($63) that stretched across a dinner that included seafood and chicken or a lighter Sicilian Frappato ($86) from female Italian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti that stood up to lamb, Mazaite revels in the experience, guiding diners through the wines’ provenance and subtle tasting notes. I can only imagine the enthusiasm she and her fellow somms bring to the table when exploring the higher reaches of a list that contains dozen of offerings that stretch into the four-figure range. It will be interesting to see whether Austin has a demand for an elaborate list undoubtedly lusted after by wealthy oenophiles.
Service staff often emulate Mazaite’s polished and personable professionalism, though harried indifference marred one of my five dinners at LaV. I also arrived one night for drinks to find friends whose estimated wait had doubled in length while they sat crammed at a small table near the entrance. If LaV wants to portray neighborhood hospitality, as it suggests, staff should treat every diner as if they are a VIP.
Mazaite paired a nutty 2007 Vinsanto del Chianti Classico from Castello di Volpaia one night with a dessert of coconut tart and chocolate sorbet from executive pastry chef Janina O’Leary, the former Trace pastry chef whose illustrious stops have included time in the New York City kitchens of chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.
O’Leary does funky as well as she does fresh, as evidenced by a Stilton bleu cheese ice cream drizzled with port-fig reduction and crunched by candied pecans one night ($8) and an artful tart and creamy lemon and mascarpone budino with buttermilk swirl ice cream and crumbly shortbread the next ($9).
Her desserts delivered bold performances with elegant bows, capping each night with confident and comforting grace notes. The dishes embody the restaurant that will give class warriors another arrow in their quiver for the battle against gentrification, while giving lovers of fine dining a reason to reshuffle their top tier of Austin restaurants.
1501 E. Seventh St. 512-391-1888, lavaustin.com
Rating: 9 out of 10
Hours: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, followed by supper from 6 to 9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and small plates. $11-$18. Entrees, $31-$40. Desserts, $8-$11.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: With an extravagant wine list curated by Vilma Mazaite, elegant Mediterranean dishes from chef Allison Jenkins and an excellent pastry program helmed by chef Janina O’Leary, LaV sets a new standard for sophistication on Austin’s evolving east side.
Notes: Wish they’d replace some of the odd European house music with Chet Baker or Charles Mingus.