1612 Lavaca St. 284-9954, CherryStreetAustin.com
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Antipasti and salads, $7-$16; Panini and pizza, $8-$12; Pasta, $14-$18.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Cherry Street shines when it keeps things simple, but will need to execute with more precision if it’s going to turn into a destination dinner spot or neighborhood favorite.
Notes: Happy hour specials on small plates and cocktails 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.
The corridor between the Capitol and the University of Texas can feel like a gastronomical purgatory — lodged between the casual options of campus life and the more refined sensibilities of downtown. It’s an area that you pass through, not one where you think to stop.
Indian restaurant The Clay Pit has earned ‘destination location’ status and the triumvirate of Texas Chili Parlor, El Mercado and Dog & Duck have established themselves thanks to character and specializing in things Austinites have always loved (chili, Tex-Mex and beer), but the area can make for a hard sell for newcomers. Just ask the nearby Japanese-inspired Lavaca Tappan.
Having created Péché, a buzzy Prohibition-era cocktail bar and restaurant in a strip of the Warehouse District more known for partying than professional execution, Rob Pate and chef Jason Dodge opened Cherry Street in the dated and dusty stretch of Lavaca Street.
Hugged between exposed brick and limestone walls, Cherry Street, its named derived from the original name of nearby 16th Street, has a casual neighborhood warmth, with a vibe that goes from pragmatic and professional in the day to a relaxed Italian ease in the evening. A leisurely dinner on one visit stretched later into the evening than we’d anticipated, but the service was never less than personable and prompt without making us feel rushed.
Cherry Street’s menu pulls from Dodge’s experiences during a sojourn to Italy last year and attempts to play to the strengths he developed during his five years at South Congress Avenue’s Vespaio and Enoteca Vespaio. Like Enoteca, Cherry Street features a handful of antipasti, salad, sandwich, pizza and pasta options. As with most good Italian cooking, Cherry Street is at its best when it keeps it simple.
Savory wood-roasted pork and veal meatballs ($7), flecked with herbs, retained all of their juiciness, arriving in a warm ragu-style tomato broth with carrots and celery. They are the type of stand-out appetizer that would lead to multiple surreptitious returns to a tasting table at a food event or endless praise at a home-cooked family dinner.
The clementine-sized arancini ($8) held a firm woodsy funk of risotto, mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese behind a thin bronze crust of bread crumbs.
Pizzas at Cherry Street find a fluffy-chewy balance of yeast and salt, the thick dough stretched thin to allow air pockets to puff throughout the pie and leave a bubbled and charred crust. I had a minor quibble with the scooped plates, which allowed air to flow under the pizza, where it was trapped, leading to a steaming process that left the middle of the pie limp.
But the soft center did not diminish the strength of a margherita pizza ($9) topped with roasted tomatoes like a sunburned clown’s nose adrift amid pools of melted mozzarella. Generous leaves of fresh basil lent a floral coolness, though I found the splashes of pungent pesto sauce unnecessary. I took issue with the texture of large chunks of mushy potato on a pizza with smoked bacon, leeks and thyme ($10). When compelled to order a pizza with potato, I like the spuds cut thin and laid flat with a browned edge.
A few months back Cherry Street was serving pannuozi, a stuffed and baked sandwich, but they have altered course and now focus on the more familiar panini. I love prosciutto and I love brie, but putting the two together in the gently pressed panino I had ($8) led to salt overload and had me wishing that the bitter arugula could pierce through the gooey mass trapped inside unremarkable ciabatta. Or that the brie had been replaced with fontina.
The kitchen confounded me when it started putting unwanted twists on familiar dishes. Pasta puttanesca ($18), named in honor of the world’s oldest profession, just felt dirty. The briny flavors of capers and what resembled canned olives butted heads with garlicky and tough mussels in the bucatini dish, but all of the flavors suffered beneath a curious blanket of breadcrumbs. The dish tasted like it had been dropped on a Sicilian beach (or, closer to home, a shuffleboard table) and thrown back in the bowl.
Pasta primavera ($14) generally comes with expectations of some lightness, but the olives and capers returned again in a dish that left the white plate awash in an oily shine. I appreciated the crunch of julienned zucchini and squash, but their flavors had to share the slippery bowl with an abundant amount of red pepper flakes that made for an unusually hot spring. Take out the olives and capers and throttle back on the oil and I’d take another spin with the dish of firm penne even with the unexpected heat.
Péché turned some heads when it opened in 2008 because of its offering of absinthe, and the green fairy has found its way onto the Cherry Street menu, where it gives a nice licorice kiss to a classic Sazerac ($8). Despite Cherry Street’s boozy pedigree, it may want to take it easy when it comes to dessert — the lady fingers in my tiramisu were probably too drunk to send a text message (once I pried them from the frigid glass in which they arrived).
People in Austin often bemoan the lack of casual Italian options, so there’s obviously room for another pasta player. But the location, especially at night, will force Cherry Street to distinguish itself with its food. If Cherry Street continues to deliver on what they do well and edit some of their mistakes, Pate and Dodge may convince the neighborhood that the restaurant is just what it’s been waiting for, whether people knew it or not.