Austin Restaurant Week is just coming off the first of two Sunday-Wednesday stretches. The second four-day run starts this Sunday and goes through Wednesday, with more than 70 restaurants offering three-course dinners for $25-$35. Some are doing lunch for $10-$15. Find the list and menus at www.restaurantweekaustin.com. Here's a look at three tiers: a $15 lunch at La Sombra Bar & Grill, a $25 dinner at Zandunga Mexican Bistro and a $35 dinner at Urban an American Grill.
La Sombra Bar & Grill
4800 Burnet Road. 458-1100, www.lasombra-austin.com .
Restaurant Week pricing: $15 lunch, $35 dinner
La Sombra's tiered brick facade and floral abundance made me think of Machu Picchu. And no, I'm not tripping on Peruvian farm exports. If you can plant a new building along the dusty rumble of Burnet Road and make people think of ruins a world away, good for you. It's how La Sombra transports you to a Latin place. The Old World with shimmers of the New. A bold and simple white sign, framed in red against tan stone. A patio shaded by whispering billows of cloth, low-cushioned couches in pipe-trimmed light fabrics and animal prints, polished tree-bark tables. The sharps of Latin horns. Mojito music. Hello-ladies music. Bahm-bahm-BAHM. Roll with it.
I'm guessing that a $15 Restaurant Week lunch or brunch doesn't fully express what Peruvian-born executive chef Julio Cesar-Florez can do. But it's more than a soup and sandwich. Well, it is a soup and sandwich, but a soup with the sweet-and-sour-tang of plantains, orange against a linen-colored broth with yuca and hominy. The sandwich stands out like those brassy horns, a humble ham-and-cheese Cubano raised to crescendo with buttery pulled pork and cucumbers with the vinegary defiance of the freshly pickled. As a side, more yuca, this time with aji amarillo, a sauce of yellow chiles as direct as the noonday sun.
Washed white, linen, beige, tan. Then the color, the sharps. La Sombra brings the color for effect against its neutral color palette. A deep purple corn punch called chicha morada drinks like a sangria, with a tannic pull and mulled-spice brio. It's $3.50 as a juice and plays a part in a few cocktails. Then the finish, the dessert, a drizzle of antique red over a rice pudding with raisins and crunchy almonds. The red is a reduction of port wine and chai, the effect is instant cinnamon serenity, a snooze button between the wide-awake-up calls of horns. So many horns.
Zandunga Mexican Bistro
1000 E. 11th St. 473-4199, www.zandungamexicanbistro.com .
Restaurant Week pricing: $15 lunch, $25 dinner
What was supposed to be a restaurant surge on East 11th Street has entered its afterlife, with 11th Street Station and Zandunga Mexican Bistro taking over where Ms. B's and Primizie failed to thrive. Zandunga took Primizie's spot, a big room with concrete floors and full-length windows (and again, so many horns), an interior Mexican venture from the same family that brought us the Tex-Mex taqueria Mi Madre's.
A menu card tells us Zandunga is `a Spanish descriptive meaning elegance and grace' and that in Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, the name refers to the region's charismatic matriarchs, who no doubt would like the Negra Modelo on draft, maybe a frozen guava-agave margarita. That second part was mostly me.
Explaining the name and the restaurant behind it will be Zandunga's biggest challenge. That's where Austin Restaurant Week can help. For $25, there was guacamole (usually $9) and a pork chop (usually $18) that would have cost $27. I've made back my money and change already, and then comes dessert, flan dressed out to taste exactly like the cinnamon-sugar coffee I love at Mi Madre's.
Zandunga's struggle, like so many other interior Mexican restaurants, will be rallying converts to the high-end possibilities of Mexican cuisine. I'm still just a student of the menu, where main courses start at $12 and go to $23, but I'll get professorial on a grilled bone-in pork chop with a chopped hybrid of ratatouille and pico and a Saltillo-tile orange spaetzle spiked with chile de arbol. Spaetzle with chiles, yes, crunchy outside, tender inside with that low herbal heat.
There were moments with the pork chop, too, when the glaze and fat fell in perfect proportions, that I knew we weren't on the border anymore. Like when the deconstructed guacamole came, a molcajete of mashed avocado on a white plate with swatches like a painter's palette: chopped green jalapenos, roasted tomato, diced mango, pickled onion, tiny wedges of orange and lime. A few squeezes and a few folding stirs later, and it's a world-class lesson in Zandunga, both the description and the restaurant.
Urban an American Grill
11301 Domain Drive. 490-1511, www.urbanatthedomain.com .
Restaurant Week pricing: $15 lunch, $35 dinner
Urban is new to the Domain, the restaurant at the Westin hotel that would like to be more than a hotel restaurant. I say that because they just hired former Bess Bistro chef Mizael Saucedo to run the kitchen. With that and a free-food blogger event, Urban has a little buzz going.
Most Restaurant Week places post their menus online, but Urban was running a little behind (they're up now). When I checked (from my civilian phone), a man said he'd call back with the menu. He did, reeling off every dish, every garnish, and it sounded ripe. Quail with guajillo honey, flatiron steak with chimichurri, tiger shrimp penne, avocado tres leches cake. That last one again? That's right, avocado.
It's not like tres leches ever needed anything except to be done right, with all that sweet cream and spongy cake to soak it up. What we didn't know until now is that it needed avocado. It adds a little floral color, a little textural backbone, a little fuzz. Then things get baroque: the cake gets a topper of crème fraîche with the consistency of firm yogurt, the color of coral and the raisiny tang of sundried tomato. Milk, bread, vegetables. Everything a body needs, disguised as dessert. Genius.
Except for that dessert, Urban was an anywhere experience. It looks like anywhere, sounds like anywhere, tastes like anywhere. It's every color of the rainbow, from light brown to dark brown, the lights washing the wood and stained concrete with a faint orange aura. Shrimp cocktail/ceviche arrives in a martini glass with cubes of avocado and mango. The cumin vinaigrette is a mistake. The aggressive spice just takes over the whole glass. It's a foolproof spa dish, complacent but serviceable, until somebody says, `Hey, I know what we can do. Cumin.'
They left the flatiron alone. It's a beautiful cut of beef, called Bar Steak on the menu, with the texture of tenderloin and the flavor of strip. They grilled it a ruby-red medium rare, sliced it on the bias, sauced it with spicy green chimichurri and plated it with thin-cut fries. If this is anywhere, then anywhere is fine with me.
A note for the bargain stalker: At lunch, I could have ordered the same dishes, substituting corn bisque for shrimp cocktail, for $15. That's a real deal at lunch, a real stretch for $35 at dinner.
Restaurant Week menu highlights
At the $15 lunch level
• Handmade linguini with cremini mushrooms and truffle oil at Siena
• Beef-and-lamb burger with blue cheese at Fino
• Rainbow trout with brown butter at both Roaring Fork locations
At the $25 dinner level
• Pan-roasted rabbit with housemade spaetzle at Annies Cafe & Bar.
• Coconut shrimp with mango sauce and a tamal at Corazon at Castle Hill.
• Beef tenderloin with béarnaise at Fabi and Rosi.
At the $35 dinner level
• Axis deer and house-cured bacon at East Side Show Room.
• An appetizer of bacon-wrapped quail, orange pork en croûte and goat cheese-chicken sausage at Green Pastures
• Pecan porter-braised pork belly at El Arbol
Go Texan Restaurant Round-Up
The Go Texan Restaurant Round-Up starts Monday and runs through Oct. 1. Hundreds of restaurants statewide will offer Texas-grown food and wine. The Driskill Grill, Southwest Bistro and both Roaring Fork locations are among the Austin restaurants participating. Restaurant list at www.gotexan.org/restaurantroundup .