Austin Restaurant Review: La Condesa

4 01 2010

Tuesday night was a great night to go to La Condesa to celebrate wifey’s birthday.  There was absolutely no wait, which is probably unusual for this restaurant du jour.

With its super-glossy, turqoise-wood-and-steel interior that looks like it was done by “Flipping Out” star Jeff Lewis, La Condesa is the most luxuriously appointed restaurant space in Austin.  The proof is in the at-times sublime level of the food, and of course the prices.

I’ll start with the second-best thing about La Condesa: the drinks.  They have the most creative tequila-based drink list I’ve ever seen.  All of them involve high-quality tequila, some kind of citrus for acid, and some kind of weird (in a good way) combination of herbal/floral/fruit accents to set the drink apart from your standard margarita.

I had the El Cubico: whole leaf tobacco-infused Hornitos, navan vanilla liqueur, lemon, grilled pineapple juice, mezcal essence, volcanic saffron-infused salt rim.  It sounds like something Dos Equis spokesman “The Most Interesting Man in the World” would drink, and I think I did feel myself growing a salt-and-pepper beard as I drank it.  I’m not sure if it was necessary to  fly to a volcano to get the saffron, as I couldn’t taste it at all, but the strong butter, char, pineapple, and vanilla flavors were enough to make this one of the best tequila drinks I’ve had in many a moon.

The Spicy Paloma was also delicious: herradura blanco, fresh grapefruit-ginger juice, piloncillo (Mexican dark brown sugar), splash of jarritos de toronja (grapefruit soda).  The ginger at the end gives it a kind of velvety, mysterious incense-smoke finish.

The best thing about La Condesa by far is the trout ceviche (Trucha con Aji Amarillo, $14) .

You can’t tell from this picture, but this dish explodes with more flavor per inch than just about anything in Austin, Uchi included.  The ingredient list is, like the drinks, exotic: ocean trout, tomatillo salpicon, aji amarillo (sweet yellow chili) sorbet, hoja santa (a Mexican herb), and dried lemon slices.  The raw trout (really, it’s sashimi, not ceviche) is perfectly fresh, and sliced thin to melt in your mouth.  The most important ingredient of the dish though is actually the dried lemon slices.  The complex, concentrated combination of bitter and sour is much more interesting than simple fresh lemon, and I wonder why I don’t see it more often.  The acid of the tomatillo and the gentle spiciness of the sorbet add additional layers of flavor.  It may seem ridiculous to pay $18 for a few small slices of fish, but trust me–everyone should make the pilgrimage to La Condesa just to try this dish.

Unfortunately, once you have the trout and the drinks, there isn’t much else worth trying.  The one exception is the fantastic guacamole, which comes in three flavors.  We had the crab and green apple ($8), and the chipotle and toasted almond ($6).

You wouldn’t think that crab and apple would work with avocado, but actually, the sweetness of the apples substitutes for the traditional tomato, and the mild crab meat is nicely complemented by the buttery avocado.

Not pictured here are porkbelly, apples, and goat cheese on thick corn tortillas ($16), hamachi ceviche ($14),  and for dessert, goat cheese cheesecake with pineapple, and cafe caramel pot de creme with coca nib shortbread and cinnamon crema.  These dishes all sound incredibly exotic and mouthwatering on paper, and they were certainly good, but for these prices, it’s fair to ask for sublime.

Despite the unevenness of the menu, you need to visit La Condesa.  I’d recommend coming during happy hour when the weather’s nice, so that you can sit on their patio and people-watch while you enjoy some delicious food and drink, without having to take a dinner-sized hit in the wallet.