l is for lenoir

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toasted masa gnocchi with preserved lime and pasilla garlic oil

Named after a native Texas grape with dark skin and an earthy aroma (crossed with a Mediterranean varietal), the aptly-named Lenoir leverages local ingredients into seasonal cuisine of the hot-weather French colonies. Created in 2012 by the married duo Todd Duplechan (chef) and Jessica Maher (pastry chef), Lenoir only served a prix fixe menu (field, sea, land, and dream [dessert]) up until last month when they changed to a la carte. There is still a prix fixe, but one without choices.

To sample as much as possible, we went a la carte but chose something (or a couple somethings) from each part of the menu: snacks, small plates, main dishes, desserts. For snacks, we selected the blue corn hush pups with aerated gruyere ($8) and the chicharrón de queso (with mushroom conserva, house hot sauce, and celery salad; $9).  The hush puppies were outrageously good with the thinnest veneer of outer crispness with soft pastry-like blue corn goodness inside. The aerated gruyere—a cloud of a sauce—added richness to the blue corn complexity. The chicharrón de queso was good, if not a little odd, and sported the smallest celery we’ve ever seen.

For the small plates, we chose the spring vegetable salad with carrots, brassicas, and labneh ($9) and the toasted masa gnocchi with preserved lime and pasilla garlic oil ($11). The salad exploded with flavor in our mouths as our teeth muddled the various leaves and stems, some of which we hadn’t tasted before. The labneh—a Greek yogurt—worked well with the aromatic leavery. The cornmeal gnocchi was delicious, an ingenious fusion of Mexico and Italy (via the Mediterranean) with tasty dressings.

By the time we hit the main plates, we only needed one, and the Rouge de Bordeaux tagliatelle with chicken liver, cacio e pepe, and cured egg yolk ($22) was our choice. The tagliatelle was truly an amazing dish. The pasta, made with local flour from Barton Springs Mill, was earthy and perfectly al dente. The sauce was deep with flavor and savory. As the bride said, we could have eaten another seven plates of it (and slept it off in the alley).

We don’t usually have dessert when we go out, but we ordered the grapefruit & almond cake with a wedge of CKC Farms baby caprino cheese (from Blanco, $8). It. Was. Fabulous. The grapefruit and almond cake was splendid with flavors, and the cheese—which appeared to have been aged a hundred years in a Pyrenees cave—perfectly matched the cake.

The wine list has gotten rave reviews, but we stuck with a Spanish garnacha (cava rosé; $12 a glass) to pair with all the dishes. The prix fixe ($60 a person) comes with the option of paired wines (an additional $40 a head).

The service was quietly attentive yet unobtrusive–genuinely first rate. And speaking of quiet, the restaurant—tiny with undulating shabby-chic surfaces–was also conversation (and sweet nothings) friendly—rarer and rarer in this town where a plate commonly comes with a complimentary side of scream therapy. We did wish that the staff were armed with mini-spatulas like Barley Swine because we did not want to leave any sauce behind.

I like to tell the story of how Denison’s T.V. Munson and Texas’ Mustang grapes saved the French wine industry after a North American plant louse (phylloxera) devastated the French grape-growing countryside. Vintners grafted phylloxera-resistant rootstock from Texas, including roots from Lenoir grapes, to French vines to save them. French grapes–and hence French wines–literally have Texas roots. Lenoir the restaurant achieves the same: French food with Texas roots. Here’s to warm weather and deep, Texas soil.

This review is part of our sequential tour-through-the-alphabet of Austin’s restaurant scene. Now you know our ABCs!

web&where: interwebs; 1807 south first, menu
what’s the deal? Hot-climate locavore French cuisine; table service
overall: **** (food****; drink***; atmosphere***; service****; instagrammability****)
cost: $$$$

our scale:
–          meh [think twice]
*         OK [it’ll get the job done]
**       good [solid neighborhood joint]
***     damn good [we’ll definitely be back]
****   yippity-yikes that was amazeballs [fantastic; one of the best]
***** holy sh!t [transcendental; best of the best]

each $ = $10; cost is based on a typical dinner entrée and appetizer (no drinks)

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IMG_8180chicharrón de queso

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blue corn hush pups with aerated gruyere

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spring vegetable salad with carrots, brassicas, and labneh

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Rouge de Bordeaux tagliatelle with chicken liver, cacio e pepe, and cured egg yolk

IMG_8197grapefruit & almond cake with a wedge of CKC Farms baby caprino cheese

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