LaV: Simple and elegant French dining comes to East Austin

LaV_Vilma, Alison and Janina

This story was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Austin Women Magazine. It looks great in print, so grab it from your closest newsstand. 

One of the most hotly anticipated new restaurants of 2014, laV Restaurant & Wine Bar, has opened on E. Seventh Street, bringing a second upscale dining location to a neighborhood that is already accustomed to the fantastic cuisine of Qui, located a stone’s throw away.

laV is born of talent. Three women bring impressive restaurant pedigrees to this new chic restaurant. Managing partner Vilma Mazaite cut her culinary teeth at several top restaurants throughout the country, including Michael Mina’s Las Vegas restaurant, Corsa Cucina, Mario Batali’s Babbo and The Little Nell.

Executive Chef Allison Jenkins is a graduate of Culinary Institute of America and previously served as executive chef at the Ajax Tavern in Aspen. Executive Pastry Chef Janina O’Leary, a graduate of The French Culinary Institute with a Grand Diploma in Pastry Arts, joined laV from Trace at the W Austin. The creation of laV didn’t happen overnight. Mazaite shares the inspiration for laV.

“My business partner, Ralph Eads, was a regular guest of mine at The Little Nell in Aspen,” she says. “We decided to start a business with the original idea [being] to open a wine bar in East Austin. After many conversations, that concept developed in to a French bistro and then to laV.”

The result is a refined restaurant that is more gracious than a bistro yet more casual than fine dining, with a stellar wine program. Mazaite describes laV as warm and casual.

“We want it to be approachable, so we skipped the table cloths and fancy table settings,” she says. “We are not compromising fine-dining standards. We provide excellent service, but not in a stiff way. It is the kind of place where you can order a small plate along with a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux.”

LaV Dining Room Graceful Atmosphere

Simplicity and elegance rules the design inside and out. The converted brick warehouse has been refurbished to bring it new life without making it look out of place in the neighborhood. The architecture and design team of McAlpine Tankersley Architecture and McAlpine Booth & Ferrier Interiors created a space that is both grand and unassuming at the same time.

Comforting and inspiring, the interior is impressive. The soaring ceilings, the gorgeous light fixtures, large paintings of the French countryside and huge, bright windows give laV a grand feel. The fabric-covered seating and velvet drapery add to the grandeur while absorbing sounds to reduce the din to a murmur. Towering wine racks grace the walls as a constant reminder that a luscious bottle is always at the ready.

“The restaurant surprised all of us with how beautiful it is,” Mazaite says. “The architect and designers’ background is residential and this is their first restaurant that they have done. That comes through with laV. It feels like home.”

Guests are greeted with five distinct, cozy seating areas, starting with pergola-covered seating in the outdoor garden. Once inside, reservation-free seating in the tasting bar and adjacent bar and lounge lets guests pop in for a glass of wine or cocktail in a communal-seating setting to inspire conversations. The dining room and great table in the enclosed wine cellar offer more intimate seating available by reservation.

Guests can order from the full menu no matter which room they choose, but there is also a bar menu with delightful nibbles. From the bar menu, try the fennel-cured steelhead or the salt cod and chickpea fritters with a frothy glass of Val de Mer Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling rosé.

LaV Wine LoungeUnparalleled Wine List

Sometimes simple is really hard to pull off when elegance rules. (Case in point, laV has an impressive wine list of more than 1,200 labels and more than 7,000 bottles.) The restaurant managed to do both with this incredible wine list. That’s quite an accomplishment.

laV raised the bar for wine programs in Austin to have the largest selection of wines in town. To simplify the wine-selection process, laV has organized the list in to sections, starting with two groupings of moderately priced wines: Tour de France and Tour de Monde. The Tour de France section has 25 French labels categorized in sparkling, white and red that are chosen to be affordable and food-friendly. The Tour de Monde section is similar, but is made up of charming bottles from the U.S., Austria, Corsica, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

If you don’t have the time or desire to thumb through an encyclopedia of wine, you don’t need to go further than the first few pages of the list. Oh, but you should dig deeper. There are more than 20 wines by the glass. This spring, there are more than two dozen dry rosé wines, perfect to dissolve away the heat and stress of any day. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the most extensive collection of Burgundy wines in town.

Rania Zayyat, laV sommelierThese food-friendly wines made of either chardonnay or pinot noir make up the bulk of the menu. There are some droolworthy gems like three well-aged vintages of Domaine Leroy, “Clos de Vougeot,” Grand Cru and an extremely rare 1976 Jayer, Henri, “Les Meurgers,” Premier Cru. The Bordeaux section is enough to make a wine lover downright weepy, with selections from every one of the region’s first-growth châteaux. The list also features a strong lineup of California cabernets from venerable producers like Dominus, Caymus Vineyards, Opus One and Silver Oak.

While French wines dominate the list, there is also a solid selection of Italian, German and Austrian wines to suit a variety of tastes. Yes, there are many wines to make collectors giddy, but there are also more than 250 labels that sell for less than $100. It’s hard not to find a wine for any palate. The sheer breadth of the list—the Tour selections not withstanding—can be daunting. To simplify the selection process, laV has three talented sommeliers on staff. Mazaite is an advanced sommelier leading the wine program, and she has brought Sommelier Darren Scott from Mario Batali’s Babbo Ristorante in New York City and Sommelier Rania Zayyat from Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston.

“Our job is to break down that big, fat wine book and find wines that make sense for everyone,” Mazaite says. “We are here to make wine fun and approachable.”

French Fare with Mediterranean Flare

Basil Escargot laV“People rave about the décor of laV, which sets the expectation that the food has to be as good as the place is beautiful,” Mazaite says. “We have to deliver excellence every step of the way. That’s why we brought in an excellent chef. Allison and I worked side by side at Little Nell in Aspen. She is a soulful cook who likes to put her touch on traditional French dishes. She also pays a lot of attention to how food and wine go together hand in hand.”

From the house-made breads through the small plates and entrees to the desserts, laV presents solid French dishes that each have a surprising little twist. The presentation may seem straightforward and gorgeous, but there is always an extra touch, an unexpected ingredient that takes the simple and elegant to unassumingly complex and really interesting.

It would be easy to make a full meal out of the scrumptious hors d’oeuvre, grouped as appetizers and small plates on the menu. It’s hard to choose between appetizers like black bass crudo and the grilled spring asparagus wrapped in smoked prosciutto, but it’s impossible to pass up the chicken liver pâté. Particularly when the pâté is a flagship dish made from Chef Jenkins’ mom’s recipe using shallots reduced in an interesting way with a mix of bourbon, port, madeira and a healthy dose of butter.

A must-have small plate is the surf-and-turf pairing of diver scallops and veal sweetbreads served with a surprisingly vibrant leek spaetzle in a rich red-wine sauce. Our server gleefully told us, “People go nuts for this dish.” It’s fantastic with a glass of lush and mineraly Vincent Careme, Vouvray, from the Loire Valley.

For a truly French experience, don’t miss the escargot served in tomato butter. These little guys feasted on a diet of basil leaves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains before being shipped fresh to laV. Pair them with a crisp, refreshing, bubbly glass of Jean-Louis Trocard Sémillon Cremant de Bordeaux.

Grilled Lamb T-bone laVThe entrees present the next challenge in decision-making. For groups or couples, there is a 24-ounce bone-in strip steak to share or a wood-fired, oven-roasted chicken for two to tuck in to.

Standout dishes include the wood-oven bouillabaisse with squid, clams, blue prawn and rouille and the grilled lamb T-bones with warm spring farrow salad and fava-bean hummus. The lamb is cut thick and delicately tender. The surprisingly savory taste of pickled fiddleheads combined with the pesto gives it a Southern French feel with a big Mediterranean kiss. Any of the pinot noirs from the huge selection will pair well with the fresh herbs and slight gaminess of the lamb, but the Croatina Riserva, Osvaldo Verdi, “Buttafuoco,” Oltrepo Pavese is an affordable, fruity and fun choice with it.

Elements of the menu will change often to ensure seasonally appropriate ingredients are available. It’s a shame that dessert comes late in the meal because Chef O’Leary creates enticing sweets that shouldn’t be missed, no matter how deflated your appetite may be. And laV serves nine dessert wines by the glass and has a selection of more than 30 by the bottle. Maybe dessert and dessert wine should be an entire meal. The Meyer lemon cream served with mascarpone and maldon salt shortbread is as lovely as it is delicious. The rich nuttiness and sweet tartness are enhanced by a glass of Ratafia de Champagne “Solera” that has a sweet almond flavor.

Meyer Lemon Cream laVThe chef’s much-admired brioche doughnut holes are a crowd pleaser. Their cloud fluffy, buttery sweetness pairs incredibly well with the bold flavors of the Donkey & Goat “Wayward” late-harvest chardonnay. Yum! Hot nights call for a cool treat. The house-made salted caramel and pistachio ice cream fits the bill and is even better with a splash of La Spinetta Moscato d’Asti with a light fizz to excite the creaminess. laV serves Blue Bottle Coffee from Oakland and Tealeaves Tea from Vancouver for the perfect amount of caffeine to ease the digestion.

Simplicity and elegance are the driving principles in the design, the wine list and the menu. This makes for a unique and satisfying dining experience on Austin’s Eastside. There is always an extra touch, an unexpected ingredient that takes the simple and elegant to unassumingly complex and really interesting.

Austin Woman’s Red Wine Picks

Everyday Showstoppers

  • 2011 Zweigelt, Claus Preisinger, Burgenland, Austria, $49
  • 2012 Cousin Leduc, “Pur Breton,” Anjou Cabernet Franc, $56
  • 2010 Château La Croix de Moines, Bordeaux, $66
  • 2011 Croatina Riserva, Osvaldo Verdi, “Buttafuoco,” Oltrepo Pavese, Italy, $58

Collectors’ Dreams

  • 1947 half bottle Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Émilion, $3,998
  • 1961 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, “Grands-Echézeaux,” Grand Cru, $3,864
  • 1945 Château Latour, $20,500
  • 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild, $12,500

Where: 1501 E. Seventh St., across from the state cemetery

When: laV accepts reservations and walk-ins Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, beginning at 5 p.m. Brunch is served Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

How: Reservations can be made by email at reservations@lavaustin.com or by phone at 512.391.1888. Complimentary valet parking is available.

Photos of Vilma, Alison and Janina and the dining room by Buff Strickland. All other photos by me. 

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary dinner for this review. 

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Matt McGinnis

As a marketing strategist for Pen & Tell Us, Matt McGinnis provides marketing, branding and communications counsel to food and beverage as well as other clients globally. He is also an avid beverage enthusiast, chronicling his interests as a Food & Drink contributing writer for CultureMap, as the Food & Drink columnist for Austin Man Magazine, and as a blogger for What Are You Drinking?. He is passionate about the wine industry having previously worked at a winery in Oregon and in wine sales. He has served as Guest Host of Sommelier Cinema at the Alamo Drafthouse, and is a Certified Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. His writing has been recognized as a Top 10 Food Blog by the Austin Chronicle in 2013 and 2014, with a 2011 Texas Social Media Award from the Austin American-Statesman.

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