You enter a sleek, hyper-stylized space at an address where rent must be astronomical. A showy crowd ready for its glossy magazine party pics mingles. You swoon for the architectural detail on the walls and the hand-crafted pottery on your table. You inquire of your friends as to which restaurant group owns the place, who the agency was behind the branding and whether the chef is a Big Name.
Such can be the script for upmarket dining in modern Austin (and elsewhere).
That’s not Intero.
The Italian restaurant welcomes you with warmth, both in lighting and disposition; the unexpected tease of a glass case holding artisan chocolates; and a cozy but spacious bar where you find people not pomp. The reclaimed-wood tables, built by the chef you’ll come to discover, match the ceilings, and feel more pragmatic design choice than trendy cliche.
You feel like you could be entering a stop along the East Austin Studio Tour as you weave through the serpentine, low-ceilinged space to find the bifurcated dining room in this industrial building once home to a motorcycle shop and now the residency of several creative work spaces.
The various walls all feature different art work that feel disconnected from one another, enhancing the sense of an installation-filled art gallery. It all feels very DIY. Not in the overwrought self-aware way, but in the bootstrap way.
It is modestly handsome. Intimate. A word not often thrown around when discussing Austin restaurants. It feels as much like a (loud) dinner party or a pop-up as it does an upscale restaurant.
The co-owners — executive chef Ian Thurwachter, formerly of Jeffrey’s and Vespaio; chocolate maker Krystal Craig (she and Thurwachter are married); and general manager McVay Bennett — enhance that sense of intimacy and familiarity, each making their rounds to tables to check in with familiar faces and greet new ones. The immediacy of their attention and sincerity speaks to their investment in the restaurant they opened last spring.
Thurwachter’s dishes reflect the enterprise at large. Intero means “whole” or “complete” in Italian, so you will find one or two featured proteins iterized across the menu. Ditto with vegetables. So, pork may appear in four different dishes one night, as might a vegetable like cauliflower.
A confetti of cauliflower greens burst from the molten insides of a timballo (think an oversized and straight-lined arancini), the bitterness of the greens and the accompanying parsley balancing the richness of the mound of crispy and creamy risotto ($8). The cauliflower is grilled (though the texture was sadly more akin to over boiling), swathed in decadent beef fat hollandaise, and placed in a bowl of thyme-scented burnt onion jus that tasted like excellent French onion soup in another early course ($9). It was pureed and blended with the released starches of risotto to form a milky bed for roasted knobs of the crucifer and ruby seared duck breast brought to attention by a reduction of saba, a sweet cousin of balsamic, on a standout entree ($26).
The chameleonic cullinaryism showed a sense of utility and appreciation for ingredients and also exemplified what seems to be at the heart of Intero: While some restaurants do too little with too much, Intero paints as richly as possible while pulling from more limited resources.
As with much good Italian cuisine, there is a directness to the food at Intero. Yes, twirls of ribboned carrots and matching zags of puree circumscribing a supple cloud of burrata cheese make for an artistic plating flourish, but the dish dotted with pistachios and mint is really just a case of pairing the right ingredients and letting the sum of them equal more than the individual parts ($13). More perfection in simplicity can be found in a grilled romaine salad, the smoky waves of charred lettuce puckered with anchovy vinaigrette and slivered filets of the silvery fish ($12). I only wish the limp and doughy bruschetta with whipped snapper had received a similar brush with the heat to give it some body and crunch ($9).
Intero’s homemade pastas, from the tucked and ridged edges of the raviolini to the wiry but limber spaghettini, are executed precisely, the gnocchi plump and the wavy tagliatelle delicate but tensile. But their main roles are to support hearty flavors like the raviolini with duck confit, the mildly gamey meat balanced by the vegetal smokiness of roasted broccoli and amped with the earth of melted Sottocenere cheese ($17). The spagehttini ($14) twirled through a mix of broccoli and nutty aged cheddar ($16); the dish spotted with baked crumbles of cheese like chefy Cheez-Its tasted like a pasta take on broccoli-cheddar soup, if that classic concoction came studded with walnuts. And the pappardelle ($18) that wove itself through thinly sliced lamb leg contrasted with bitter arugula and salty, creamy feta cheese was probably the best of all of the pasta offerings.
The main courses carried the same intensity of flavors, like a crispy-skinned and meaty branzino suspended in a sunshiny fog of white wine butter that also held the licorice whip of roasted fennel and fork-tender potatoes ($25). The occasional overstep, whether in the pasta or the larger entrees, usually came from a question of editing. Maybe a handful fewer pine nuts on the tagliatelle with beef ragu and cauliflower gremolata ($17), and while I appreciate the beet-citrus salad accompaniment of the gently grilled lamb loin, the shredded beets in addition were a distraction from the glorious meat. In the kitchen’s defense, the flaws all seem a product of over exuberance as opposed to any error in conception.
A proper feast may conclude with an amari tasting from Bennett, who sources from a list of more than four dozen bottles of the after-dinner wines. He also oversees a wine list that makes up with character what it lacks in volume, like a bottle of the bright and assertive No Sapiens ($67), the wine from Mexican producer Bichi that is made with grapes of mysterious provenance. Bennett, a veteran of the Pappas Restaurant group in Houston and Kent Rathbun’s Jasper’s, brings the measured professionalism of those operations and blends them with the more casual and personable approach of a small operation like Intero and infuses his staff with a similar ethic and energy.
Those various amari pair nicely with the simple (but impressive) centerpieces of a restrained dessert menu: chocolate truffles from Craig, who founded Crave Artisan Chocolate more than a decade ago. You can choose from a roster of about a half dozen truffles ($2 each), with the star being a salted caramel that oozes from the glossy and slightly bitter chocolate bombs made with extra cocoa butter.
Don’t worry, if you’re too stuffed to consider dessert, you’ll likely be handed a couple of truffles or shiny pieces of chocolate bark on the way out of the restaurant. It’s just another personal touch that helps define this restaurant that aims to warm you more than wow you.
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