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.

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Austin Restaurant Reviews: Return from Exile, Garrido’s and Uchi

30 11 2009

The Belly is back after a long work-related hiatus.  I’m jumping right back into it with reviews of 2 of Austin’s most popular restaurants, Garrido’s and Uchi.

Garrido’s, in the swanky 360 building (Nueces and 3rd), is one of several high-end Mexican places that have popped up recently downtown (La Condesa and Cantina Laredo being the others).  I was pretty excited to try it out as the founder, owner, and head chef is David Garrido, who was head chef at Jeffrey’s in its heyday.

Like any respectable Austin Mexican joint, Garrido’s does an array of tequila-based drinks, heavy on the margaritas.

The Mexican Martini (basically, a margarita with olives) was very strong.  This is a good thing, as it’s a wallet-exploding $8.50, and it comes in a single glass, not a 3-glass shaker like at Trudy’s, purveyors of the original and standard MexiMart.  I hoped this one would be better than that cheaper but reliable classic, and it was.  There was a little saltiness from the olive juice, and the citrus flavors were aromatic rather than syrupy sweet.  Still, Trudy’s is a better value.

The Paloma, on the other hand, at $6, was my fave tequila beverage of the night.

With El Jimador, grapefruit juice, and a splash of soda in a tall glass with crushed ice, it was basically a greyhound with tequila instead of vodka: simple and refreshing, mildly sweet, perfect for a summer night.

For dinner I mixed it up with some bocaditos (literally, little mouthfuls, the heartier Mexican version of amuses bouches) and some tacos, which are the mainstay of the menu.

The pork tostadas with goat cheese, pepitas, watermelon, and chipotle ($7.50)

and coffee marinated ribeye steak tacos with queso asadero and chipotle horseradish aioli ($10.75)

were both clearly made with fresh, high-quality ingredients.  But the flavors didn’t jump off the tongue the way I expected them to.  With the tostadas, the pungent goat cheese completely dominated everything else, and the pork was dry.  With the ribeye tacos, the coffee, horseradish, and queso flavors were missing in action, leaving me with the Taco Cabana-esque taste of beef tacos with mayonnaise.

Garrido’s was a little disappointing given its lofty pedigree and reputation, but I’d go there again.  If you’re a taco purist, you’re probably better off hitting a cheaper 1st street or east side establishment, but Garrido’s has more going for it than against it–reasonable prices, high-quality drinks, nice decor, a great back patio with a view of Shoal Creek, and a sexy clientele.  And nice bathrooms.

Uchi, on the other hand, never disappoints.  Since its opening I have failed to find a better restaurant in Austin.  Add the hip architecture and decor courtesy of Austin local Michael Hsu, the chic but friendly service, and the extensive wine/sake list to the world-class food, and Uchi is the undisputed king.  (Also, for you star-chasers, once I saw Jake Gyllenhall and the guy who plays Sabertooth in Wolverine on the same night.  My wife almost had a heart attack.)

Uchi’s concept is Japanese/Western fusion.  Before founding Uchi, Chef Tyson Cole (who’s been on Iron Chef America but lost to the master, Morimoto) was a sushi chef at Musashino, Austin’s best traditional Japanese place, and he has trained in Japan with the best.  For some reason though, the more traditional Japanese fare here isn’t as good as Musashino’s and doesn’t hold a candle to the much more inventive fusion fare.

Every time I go, I try something new from the nightly menu, but I always return to a few mainstays from the permanent menu.  This time my go-to was the bond roll with salmon ($10).

The menu says it consists of avocado, sundried tomato, white soybean paper, and salmon.  That’s a simple ingredient list, but it explodes with flavor.  That’s because, like everything else on Uchi’s menu, the ingredients are the freshest and most expertly prepared in town.  The avocado is creamy and buttery, the salmon is tender but not mushy, and the rice (something lesser sushi joints neglect) is perfect–toothsome, not overly vinegared, rolled tight.  The accompanying mango sauce lends a wild kick of perfume that transforms this dish from merely fresh to unforgettable.

Another classic is the age dofu ($5), cubes of battered and fried tofu with dried bonito shavings and green onion in dashi (fish-and-kelp) broth.

Everything about this dish is perfect at Uchi–the hot, crispy exterior and gelatinous interior of the tofu, the heaps of bacony bonito shavings, the gentle and distinctly Japanese umami flavor of the broth.

One of the new things we tried from the nightly menu was the tara miso (casco bay cod with celery root and toasted almonds).

I loved the play between the sweet/savory almonds and caramelized exterior of the fish against the cool celery.  You can seldom go wrong with celery.

The star of the night though had to be the madai carpaccio (thin slices of raw Japanese black snapper, with shiso oil, san bai sweet vinegar, sea salt, micro greens, and green onions, $18).

The fish couldn’t have been fresher, and it had just the right combination of sea salt, vinegar and green onions to gently swathe it in a translucent sweet/sour/green cloak of flavor.  The salt, simple as it sounds, was key–it’s very rare that something will be perfectly salted in a restaurant, when the kitchen has to turn out plate after plate.  Somehow Uchi always gets it exactly right.

Some other new delciacies we had that night:

tomato katsu (fried green tomatoes Japanese-style in delicate panko breaking, with hot mustard sauce, $5),

hotate adzuki (diver scallops, adzuki bean, bacon, brussels sprouts), a combination of silky, sexy scallop and homey smoke flavors,

tempura ($12 for a vegetable combo, $5 for shrimp), very good, fresh, hot, and crispy, but again, for some reason, greasier and heavier than Musashino’s flawless rendition,

and jizake creme caramel with brown butter sorbet and ginger consomme, $9 (one of my all-time favorite desserts–it needs no explanation).