Veterans behind Red Ash take an old concept for a new spin

11:00 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 Austin360 Eats
Industrial touches give a modern feel to Red Ash. Ricardo B. Brazziell/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There are lawyers working downtown who have traveled the world, appreciate a nice bottle of wine and want an approachable meal in a lively atmosphere. They may not subscribe to Bon Appétit, and their Instagram feeds are populated with pictures of their adult children and grandchildren rather than filtered snaps of tweezer-plated cuisine. But just because a big night out on the town ends before midnight these days doesn’t make them squares. Some of them saw Willie Nelson perform in the ’80s. And ’70s.

While many modern Austin restaurants seem to cater to young trend-spotters and the easily duped, these folks who are open-minded but still rightly suspicious of the new also need a place to eat. I know because I’ve recognized a few acquaintances who fit that description on each visit to Red Ash.

Owners Larry Foles, Guy Villavaso and executive chef John Carver also knew the need was there. That should come as no surprise. Foles and Villavaso’s vision has helped shape Austin’s dining scene over the past three decades. They rode the Southwestern craze of the late ’80s to success with their Z’Tejas; elevated Austin’s seafood-steakhouse game with Eddie V’s in 2001 (before selling the mini-chain for a king’s ransom to Darden Restaurants in 2011); and capitalized on fancy burger fascination with Hopdoddy.

With Red Ash, they’ve shifted their steakhouse model to a modern context, putting it in a concrete-walled, gallery-style space downtown complete with silly graffiti. Yes, the “When in Austin … don’t forget to make some trouble” tag on the wall, finished with oversized lipstick marks, has about as much edge as your grandfather in a leather jacket and is about as comfortable as reading a sex scene in a political thriller written by your dad. But the guys are trying to thread a fairly narrow needle here: staying relevant while still doing what rightly earned them a seat at the table to begin with.

The result is a place that kind of feels like Austin Grill, a restaurant that could be found in Scottsdale or Orlando. But at least there aren’t biker boots to go with the leather jacket. Red Ash is Eddie V’s younger Italian cousin after a couple of drinks. Its shirt is untucked, but it’s still one of those nifty newfangled dress shirts that has a uniform hemline.

The ambient noise of the dining room sounds like it’s had a couple of drinks as well. And, while there is some restraint — most notably in a dish of silky red snapper crudo that takes on the anise flavors of serpentine shaved fennel ($14) stretched across bits of avocado, or a simple, springy spaghetti brightened with crushed tomatoes and basil ($14 for the smaller portion) — chef Carver’s kitchen leans on aggressive flavors.

A brigade of beans infused with smoky bacon flavor surrounded marshmallow-soft tendrils of octopus cooked sous vide, finished on the plancha and smartly piqued with chili and arugula oils ($15). The meatballs, a holy trinity of veal, wild boar and beef, were equally succulent ($12). We watched from our front-row seats as a cook plucked them from (I’m assuming) a marinara bath and plated them on a bed of sweet and creamy mascarpone polenta.

The seats overlooking the open kitchen offered a warm view of the impressive grill, but our perch mostly made us feel in the way, the handful of stools seemingly more a consideration of economics than aesthetics or service. The seats also made us easier to forget. My head swiveled like a nervous person waiting on his blind date as I searched for our busy server. I preferred a booth in the main dining room, but those looking for a slightly quieter meal may opt for the elevated platform dining space in the middle of the room.

The biggest reveal at those counter seats? Massive hand-cut, dry-aged steaks the size of your head as they went from butcher paper wrapping to a spot on the wood-fired grill (its puffed red ash the restaurant’s namesake). Outside of 12- and 16-ounce dry-aged bone-in fillets — which run $42 and $48, respectively, and came out seared to a striped crunch and slathered in shallot butter — the steaks, which range in epic sizes, sell for $2.50 an ounce. While that rarely seen style speaks to hand-cutting on site, it also means few options below $100 on our visits. We misspoke and, instead of ordering a 30-ounce strip, we got the 50-ounce bone-in rib-eye, delivered to the table sliced in cascading slabs of meat dominoes with a deep violet center that betrayed one minute too few on the grill. Was it a disaster? No? Was it the best use of $125? Definitely not. The supple lamb steaks, electric with a confetti of garlic and mint ($28), and the crispy snapper with its briny pop of capers and olives ($32) were a better use of our money.

We ordered pasta as a second course each meal, though it arrived in an avalanche with proteins one night, but these dishes are less about supplementing a meal than a meal in themselves. The jagged pappardelle, exquisite but very overcooked, with lush wild boar bolognese ($16 for small, $26 for large) was as rich as the steaks. Waves of speck sliced through creamy gorgonzola sauce in a plate of plump potato gnocchi ($15/$25). My favorite — expertly folded, tucked and pinched capelletti filled with spinach and ricotta — turned to brown butter, sage and walnuts for wintry seduction ($17/$27).

Even the excellent olive oil cake, often a lithe dessert option, got in on the excess, with its perfumed marsala syrup and a wobbly crown of mascarpone zinged with orange zest ($9). But, there’s really only one way to end a meal of steaks and wine priced for expense accounts: with the molten flow of gooey hazelnut spilling from a slicked mound of chocolate cake ($9).

The dessert, much like the restaurant, may not be what Austin’s culinary cognoscenti has been clamoring for, but its appeal and function for a certain segment of Austin is hard to deny. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel at Red Ash; they’re just trying to make what was old new again. And you don’t even need to have a suit on to appreciate it.

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