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Dallas and Austin - Trip report

  • m

Recently returned from a short trip to Texas.

Dallas - Dinner at Nic and Sams with a client, and good job (thank goodness for expenses, it is not cheap). It is a great steakhouse room, dark ,atmospheric and loud, in a good way. The steak was good, a dry aged rib eye on the bone served with all the sides (we lost control slightly). Portions way too big and I hate to think of the amount they must waste as there is no way 2 or even 4 peaple could finish off even a half portion. everything tasted great and it is certainly one of the best steak houses Ive been to.

Lunch the next day was at the healthy fast food joint Chipotle. Really great tacos with beef and saled. Highly recommended for a quick, cheap and healthy lunch.

Austin - Diner at Vespaio at the bar as i was on my own. Everyone said this was the best italian and maybe the best restaurant in Austin. Dissapointed. I had the special guinea fowl appy which was bland and not very impressive. I have the veal ravioli as my main and it was 3 huge veal meatballs roled in pasta. The pasta was not cooked properly, and I do understand the term al dente:) the veal dry and tasteless and the sauce was uninspiring. The bar service was not good and although I know they were really busy, i still didnt like the way the made me feel as though I was getting in their way. I have no doubt that Austin has better than this.

Breakfast was in the mexican restaurant next to my hotel (The san Jose). Ive never had Migas before but I certainly will in future!

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    1. that's sad about Vespaio. did you think it was undercooked? i've had undercooked pasta at their other restaurant Enoteca before.

      restaurant next to San Jose is called El Sol y La Luna

      1. Although I like both Vespaio and Enoteca Vespaio, there are some things that they consistently don’t do well. Their pastas are often “overspiced” and “overpriced” as a ‘hound called Lou once put it ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... ), and their desserts often leave much to be desired. Here’s a link to some of the threads where this has been discussed in detail:

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        This Monday I had a bad experience at Enoteca Vespaio with a pasta special of spaghetti with sardines, toasted bread crumbs, and fennel. This was supposed to be a variation on the Sicilian dish of spaghetti con le sarde (without the pine nuts) or maybe Mario Batali’s take on spaghetti con salsa (with anchovies, toasted bread crumbs, and caramelized onions). The dish was incredibly oily—from the use of oil-packed sardines, most likely, as well as tons of olive oil. Moreover, since the toasted bread crumbs seemed to have sat in the pasta sauce, rather than be sprinkled on top as it was plated, they just soaked up that much more oil. The dish also contained parmeggiano, if I’m not mistaken, which is a big “don’t” with a fish-based sauce. Lastly, there was something off about the sardines. Sardines can refer to a whole range of small white fish, but the key is small. There were large slices of fish (one-inch wide, four-inches long, 1/3-inch thick) sitting under the pasta, which looked like fillets of something much larger than a sardine. At least some sardines were used, however, since small tails were visible in the tomato-less pasta sauce. The concept of this pasta dish is authentically Sicilian, and the pasta was cooked al dente. But the seasonings themselves were overdone and key ingredients were wrong, leaving me with a huge plate of poorly-executed spaghetti with sardines. And it’s one of my favorite dishes when done right, too.

        My friend ordered the penne arrabbiata. The penne was likewise cooked al dente, but the spicy tomato-based sauce was incredibly watery. Since they oversauced the pasta—the bowl was almost half-full of sauce—the sauce’s consistency was hard to ignore.

        The fried calamari appetizer was not bad. The squid is lightly dusted in salty flour and then quickly fried, so there’s no heavy batter to become laden with grease. The squid around here is usually purchased in frozen pieces, so there’s no great punch of flavor when it’s cooked so simply. Fried calamari usually comes with a dipping sauce for that reason. At EV the sauce they served was truly disappointing. You would think that I’d asked for a side of mayo, spooned up fresh from the jar, to go with my burger. That’s exactly what I got. Perhaps this was an incredibly mild aioli, but there’s no excuse for that. The other appetizer sampled was a mix of five types of crostini, which are just toasts with toppings on them. They were all inoffensive: I’d say the two sweeter ones were better than the savory ones. The toasted bread, again, was incredibly oily. I assume they were trying to add flavor to their Italian bread, which is of the variety best understood as “ethnic Wonder bread.” By that I mean that though the bread may be shaped like an Italian loaf, it has the texture and mildness of the soft white bread you get at barbecue joints.

        The desserts were not impressive: an espresso éclair that had decent espresso flavor in the filling, but a soggy yet still cardboard-like pastry shell, and a chocolate-cherry torte, that was served way too cold and lacked the depth and richness of fine-quality chocolate.

        Monday night (and even lunch) might be a risky time to order anything creative on the menu, given that Vespaio itself, with which EV shares a kitchen, is closed then. I do like Enoteca Vespaio and Vespaio. Unlike most places in town, they are modeling themselves on authentic Italian restaurants, and they make very good risotto. However, after my last two visits, I suggest sticking to their risotto, pizzas, and only the more straightforward appetizers.

        16 Replies
        1. re: MPH

          Great comments... last time I was in Austin I was between Vespaio and La Traviata. I chose La Traviata and I was quite pleased with the atmosphere (tight and lively) and the food. My entree was the spaghetti carbonara, which was a little rich for my palate but delicious anyway.

          Any other recommendations for moderately upscale Italian in Austin?

          1. re: interference

            I wish! I'm very picky about Italian food, which worked out fine when I was based on the East Coast (and even better when I was living la dolce vita in southern Italy).

            In my opinion Vespaio and La Traviata are the two best options in town for traditional Italian food—by which I mean the classic pasta sauces, risotto dishes, starters, and secondi, as well as general flavor combinations and cooking techniques. Vespaio flubs key details sometimes, but more often than not, they deliver. La Traviata can also be hit or miss, but the food is great when they get it right. I’m glad you ordered a winner with their spaghetti alla carbonara. (Is it just me, or do Italian restaurants in Texas do a better job with cream-based sauces?)

            Cibo, a new place by the former chef of Austin's now-closed 7 restaurant, should be opening any day now. With any luck, it will turn out to be delicious. We’ll keep you posted either way.

            Best,
            MPH

            1. re: MPH

              Is Cibo actually open now (i.e. 7 November)?

              1. re: njbelkin

                Yes. I just called to confirm. They're open all day, too, from about 7 A.M. until 10:30 P.M. If I didn't have so much work to do tonight, I'd head down there for dinner. I'll definitely swing by within the next few days.

                By the way, according to their website, Cibo is located at 918 Congress Ave.

                If you're in Austin and you go soon, please report back!

                MPH

                1. re: MPH

                  I went for lunch at Cibo today (Wednesday, 8 November, their one-week anniversary), and was very pleased. We were a group of seven, they seated us promptly and nicely without a reservation, and treated us quite well. The food was very good. We had various small plates (sarde al saor, a nice baccala mousse, a couple of different vegetable, papardelle with rabbit sauce, a couple of kinds of risotto and a couple of kinds of gnocchi. I don't know any other Italian restaurants in Austin, but I found the quality about equal to Otto in New York and almost as good as Dopo in Oakland. This is reasonably high praise, so my advice is, go for it.

                  Nick

            2. re: interference

              I'd put Siena up there in the top three with Vespaio and La Traviata. The lunch menu is an especially good deal.

              I think Asti is definitely in a lower tier than those three.

              1. re: Kent Wang

                What Siena does best is meat-and-potatoes Italianate food for meat-loving Texans. This is a different category than authentic Italian, despite the restaurant's claim to be doing Tuscan food. On my two visits some of what they offered was decent to good (the Florentine steak, for example); much of it was average at best (desserts, pasta sauces). I don’t plan to return. With me, it’s two strikes and you’re out, at least until something definitively changes in the kitchen.

                Being better than Asti—or even being arguably the third-best Italian restaurant in town—doesn’t confer deliciousness on Siena’s chow. In some categories, like authentic Italian, French, or organic/slow cooking, we Austin diners are lucky to find a couple of decent options. Thus, “top n rankings” (whether n=3, 5, or 10) are often meaningless. After the first one or two choices on the list, the remaining selections can range from average to downright bad. But being on a “top n list" implies truly outstanding chow.

                Back to Siena. What people seem to love most about it is the ambience: the "romantic" Tuscan-style architecture, the faux rusticity, etc. They're not selling home furnishings, however; they're selling food. Yet when Siena has been mentioned positively on this board in the past few months—according to a search, the recent Siena recs have come from you, Kent—it’s been referred to as "romantic" much more often than "tasty."

                Far be it from me to be anti-romance-ambience. If Siena serves a specific dish that is far and away the best version to be found in town or even in the state, or if they whip up something that’s (dare I dream?) as good as what you’d find in Tuscany, I have neither tasted it nor heard about it. Until I do, the lack of truly amazing chow will keep me from recommending Siena to discriminating out-of-town visitors (like interference and Moz) or local ‘hounds looking for the very best of Austin's authentic Italian.

                1. re: MPH

                  I secretly find Siena's faux country house decor cheesy. It reminds me of all those nouveau riche "Tuscan" homes. But the lighting, silverware and linens are still romantic if you can get over the architecture.

                  I find that none of the Italian restaurants in Austin to be anything close to authentic, so there is no point in arguing which is more traditional, only which is tastier.

                  Siena's grilled items are really superb, like the grilled salmon (not exactly an authentic Italian fish). Cooked to the perfect doneness, crispy crust with a lot of "grill" flavor.

                  They also make a truffle oil angel hair pasta that has so much truffle oil in it that the smell alone almost knocked me out of my chair. Maybe I just got lucky and the cook accidentally poured too much in.

                  I'm glad we agree that Asti is so-so.

                  1. re: MPH

                    Have not been to Siena, but since its heritage is Brick Oven, I think I can pass without missing much.

                    Re: Vespaio and Traviata; I've been to both and won't go back. They each miss the mark. (Did not have Traviata's carbonara, but it should NOT be a cream sauce, if they use cream, it's not the real deal Roman carbonara. Someone posted something yesterday about Texas places doing cream sauces better than the tomato sauces...so I inferred a cream thing there...maybe the poster simply meant tomato vs. non-tomato???)

                    Anyway, since I can do "authentic" Italian at home, without the concessions to trendiness or the utilization of incorrect ingredients to jack up the check, better than either of these two places, I'd rather eat at home than pay their price for what is really inferior food. So I typically eat out at places that prepare things I can't do at home...so, it's usually Asian. And I don't care about "romantic" ambience.

                    For contrast, fly up to Portland OR and eat at Alba Osteria which is one of the VERY few places I've been to in this country that offer food that, were I blindfolded, would confuse my tastebuds into thinking I was in Italy, Piedmont in the case of this particular place (Biba's in Sacramento is another, but she leans toward her native Bologna). Alba does their food EXACTLY as it would be done in Piedmont, without trying to frill it up or down to suit the market. Exquisite agnolotti, carne cruda, bagna cauda, etc. The chef, unlike those here in Austin, does not feel the need to exercise his ego or his "artistry" to screw up this time-tested cuisine. And that is the problem I see here in Austin...no one has the guts to do this food the way it is done in Italy, which is to utilize 3-4 fantastic ingredients, modestly, and let them carry the load. I think the fear is that the American market needs more bells and whistles, and those bells and whistles also allow for higher prices, thus increased margins. And people scratch their heads when confronted with the real deal. I sat inside Alba one night and watched a BMW full of beautiful people pull up front, look at the menu posted in the window and walk away from the place because the food was all "foreign" to them, probably not flashy enough...too bad because they truly missed the best Italian in those parts...
                    Just my take on all this. There is no Italian in Austin that I know of that is worth spending money on...for me... one last jab: I had a "porchetta" sandwich at Manola's which was abominable. Should be simple roasted pork with maybe a touch of salt, pepper and rosemary. Well, that's too simple, so this think had all manner of crap on it that destroyed whatever flavor the meat once had...I can't even remember what it had, but it was horrible. I'll give the place one more try (have been twice) and then no more...I thought it would have been better since some of the TV episodes of Ciao Italia presented fairly "authentic" preparations...oh well...

                    1. re: sambamaster

                      Very true. If anyone did simple, authentic Italian as you say they would have to charge Chinese food prices.

                      1. re: sambamaster

                        sambamaster, I secretly agree with your dark view of Austin's Italian scene. Mandola's is awful, which I've posted about at length previously. Don't try the porchetta at Vespaio. It's an odd "pork guisada," if you will. I've written about that before, too, so I won't rehash it here.

                        I was the one who referred to the carbonara at Traviata as cream-based. As you guessed, this was simply to differentiate it from tomato-based sauces, which are even worse than “creamy” ones in this town. I was simply remarking that I was glad that interference found something tasty on the menu at La Traviata, though I haven't tried their version of carbonara myself.

                        I love Italian too much to wait to eat it on the East Coast, where you can also find places that utilize a few simple ingredients to great and authentic effect (such as Babbo, Lupa, L'Impero, Tempo, No. 9 Park, that place in Philadelphia--I could go on, but I don't want to get too off-topic on the Texas board). Tradition, chef training, customers’ expectations, and availability of quality ingredients all are factors in their excellence. None of them, you'll note, are charging "Chinese food prices" for their authentic Italian food.

                        So, like you, I cook Italian at home all the time. But I can appreciate a good Batali-inspired pizza at Vespaio, which is authentic (for U.S. Italian restaurants) in its toppings and seasonings. Their arancini appetizer is both authentic and good, even though it would be better if they’d lose the accompanying sauce, which would necessitate proper seasoning of the rice filling. Vespaio often does a fine traditional risotto, though like many restaurants on the East and West Coasts, they get creative with the main ingredients. And once, I had a classic, simple, authentic Italian appetizer of fresh anchovies—a special that day, and so fresh that they needed nothing more than seasoned flour to coat them, a quick dip in a frying pan, and a squirt of lemon juice on the plate. It was as good as the fried fresh calamari you find in seaside joints all over the Italian peninsula.

                        Being committed to finding the best in Austin means enduring some duds, but we can still focus on what’s truly delicious here. And this includes discussion of authentic dishes (arancini) and execution (traditional risotto) versus less-authentic ones (like the bad Italian soups served everywhere: don't get me started on pasta e fagioli). I can't always catch a plane to fulfill my chow desires, though I love to do that, too. I hope you realize now that I'll be expecting your advice—on the appropriate boards—should I head to the West Coast any time soon.

                        MPH

                        1. re: MPH

                          phewwwww! I thought i'd get raked over the coals (brace) for my "dark" views of Austin's Italian scene. It just ain't happenin'. I had a great carbonara, as a matter of fact, just last night. No cream, no nuttin' but "bacon" and eggs...and cheese, of course. I have to think Traviata does, in fact, add cream, since so many American recipes call for it...and it's a handy crutch to guarantee the creaminess of the "sauce". Anyone care to comment on their use, or not, of cream? Just curious.

                          Yeah, Chinese prices: I'd rather take the money I'd spend at Vespaio and eat Sichuan stuff at Asia Cafe, or some great stuff at Sunflower. Or, 6-7 meals at La Michoacana which would all be more satisfying, and "honest", if you will, than the puffery at Vespaio. Sorry to sound so negative, but I'm trying to make limoncello out of these lemons...by suggesting some tasty and "authentic" alternatives...albeit not Italian. For that, you'll need to DIY in this Blue county. (FWIW, about ten years ago, I initiated the process of buying an Italian restaurant, the deal didn't go through, maybe a good thing...BTW, the restaurant was in Montalcino (SI) in Tuscany, the building was 500 years old and didn't need a historical marker since every other building in the town was equally historic...yes, this gringo thought his chops nella cucina toscana were good enough to practice "in situ".)

                          1. re: sambamaster

                            I can’t say for sure if there’s cream in La Traviata’s carbonara, either. Like you, I wouldn’t be surprised, since many U.S. Italian restaurants add cream to almost all their sauces—carbonara, bolognese, even the ragù napoletano, which I find particularly offensive. Part of the reason for the use of excessive, superfluous cream in pasta sauces must be the perceived or actual desire for it on the part of the customers, who associate cream with all sorts of dishes that don’t need it. Even many Indian dishes, for example, taste like creamed baby food, with all that milk fat in them.

                            I love Tex-Mex, too, and other inexpensive options around town. But I am optimistic about the fact that some delicious individual Italian dishes can be found here and there. Since chowhound.com exists to help locals and visitors separate the best-available from the just-okay choices, some of us will have to take a hit every now and then. Not everyone knows how or is able to make really good Italian at home.

                            When you re-open a version of your Tuscan restaurant here in town, you can help on both fronts!

                            MPH

                            1. re: MPH

                              Are there any good Italian markets in town? I live in Steiner, but I'll drive if I must to get some good ingredients...

                              1. re: Bababooey

                                There are Italian markets in town, but they aren't really "good Italian markets." Mandola's bills itself as an all-purpose one, but I think their selection is pretty poor and their prepared foods even worse. Here's are links to a couple of older threads on the subject:

                                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/310934

                                http://www.chowhound.com/topics/310139

                                Enoteca Vespaio has a small, well-chosen selection of Italian staples and smoked meats. Austin’s upscale grocery stores (Whole Foods, Central Market) carry selections of Italian charcuterie, olive oils, etc., but I only buy there when I have to. Usually, I order online—after I run out of items that I’ve lugged back from the East Coast and/or Italy.

                                Still, you’ll find more of what you need in Austin than you will in Steiner. If you come to town to shop for Italian foodstuffs, be sure to treat yourself to a pizza at Enoteca Vespaio or an Italian sub at Hog Island before heading home.

                                Best,
                                MPH

                                1. re: MPH

                                  I was at Enoteca Vespaio the other day and I saw they keep their olive oils displayed in the window so the sunlight can get in. This is terrible for the oil--light and heat both make it turn rancid more quickly. Overall the state of olive oils in Austin is appaling--Whole Foods downtown is the only place that seems to carry much fresh stuff from good vendors and even then you really have to check the dates.