When you hear that Vixen’s Wedding specializes in Goan cuisine, you might think that a culinary moment had arrived without you realizing it. That maybe Goan was the latest "it" global cuisine on the U.S. dining scene, like Scandinavian, Peruvian or Filipino before it.
But the small subset of Indian cuisine is not highly visible even in the big American cities you might expect: New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago. Why Austin?
If you’ve made more than one visit to chefs Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher’s Lenoir in South Austin, you’ve likely noticed a fish curry on the menu each visit. Dallas native Duplechan worked for Floyd Cardoz at the Indian chef’s Tabla, a since-closed fine dining restaurant in New York City. Duplechan’s experience working for the chef, whose family is from the former Portuguese colony of Goa, inspired those fish curry dishes and fostered in the chef a curiosity about the complex cuisine of the West Indian state bordered by the Arabian Sea.
When the owners of the Arrive Hotel on East Sixth Street’s Condo Canyon approached the husband-and-wife team about creating and managing a concept for the hotel, Duplechan told them he wanted to open a restaurant dedicated to the flavors of the Indian state, which is smaller than Delaware. He probably then had to explain what Goan cuisine was. His ability to convince them to follow his vision inspires admiration alone.
Austin is not home, as far as I know, to any Goan restaurants. It would be exciting and educational to have a Goan chef open their own restaurant in the city. Duplechan's concept, which is a celebration of a cuisine he’s studied both in the kitchen and as a traveler, doesn't have to detract from that hope.
Without Vixen’s Wedding, many diners might not discover this subset of Portuguese Indian cuisine, with its wine and garlic vindaloo (from the Portuguese "vin d’alho"), pork and seafood dishes and expressive chilies and tart fruit, which the imperial Portuguese brought over. Portugal controlled Goa for more than 400 years before the state received its independence in 1961; colonizers introduced influences from the Caribbean, South America and Africa to the area's cuisine. However, a few of Vixen’s Wedding’s servers could better inform guests on the foodways by brushing up on their understanding of the cuisine’s roots.
The Portuguese Indian dishes appear in both small and large format dishes well suited for sharing. The funk of fermentation floats off chorizo that colors the red-hued broth of plump mussels ($18). Order some of the crusty and spongy sourdough ($5), tingly with turmeric, to swipe at the sausage and oil. That sourdough is part of a fantastic bread program that includes the crepe-like methi paratha, which you can dip in an assortment of chutneys and spreads priced at $2; I’d guide you toward the wonderful smoked fish raita and away from the spiced apple coconut butter that tastes like something from the Yankee Candle company.
A tough spackle of coriander and other aromatic spices served as a dry rub for overcooked vindaloo pork ribs ($20) on one visit at the restaurant that opened last summer, but the kitchen, led by executive chef Greg Zanotti (who worked as chef de cuisine at the late Red Medicine in Los Angeles under now-world-renowned chef Jordan Kahn) recently transitioned the tangy ribs to a wet marinade which did a better job of insinuating flavor throughout the supple bites.
If you want one of the hallmark Portuguese-influenced dishes, you’re going to have to shell out some dough. At $42, the excellent piri piri chicken may be the priciest whole bird I’ve seen in town, but, given the fact that it could feed four, the perfectly executed, pepper-speckled bird and its lithe coconut and turmeric salad are worth every dollar.
The crumbled, fermented sausage returns in flaky samosas stuffed with shrimp ($10) that taste like a Louisiana crawfish boil, a dish that would be right at home at the hotel’s adjacent, Cajun-influenced Lefty’s Brick Bar. Lefty’s also was developed by Maher and Duplechan, whose family has Louisiana roots. The more restrained, toasted rice-capped jigsaw of sweet blue crab, pomegranate and roasted butternut squash tossed in habanero pickle is as good a seafood dish as I’ve eaten in months, as was the whole dorado ($42), vibrant with green curry and coconut. The exact opposite could be said of the one-note and off-putting astringent sour curry that bathed a meaty piece of mealy halibut ($28) at another dinner.
You can amp up the coastal energy by ordering Goan Places ($13), a bright cocktail of white rum, lime, pineapple and cucumber that tastes like something that would be served at a beachside yoga retreat for tipplers. It packs a tart pop but is more tempered than a couple of the overwhelmingly puckery cocktails from the menu’s earlier days. Those same colorful and beachy vibes are echoed in the geometric, oversized paper lanterns that recall paper candles illuminating a Goan seaside party.
There some subcontinent boho chic touches to the design by McCray & Co., which also imagined the ramshackle grace of Lenoir, along with a psychedelic wolf mural in a part of the restaurant that is filled with an unfortunate jaundiced light, which will ruin your photos and possibly challenge your appetite. Speaking of wolves, the restaurant’s name is taken from a romantic Indian tale and is also a moniker ascribed to an afternoon sunshower.
Diners familiar with Mughlai cuisine might expect an Indian restaurant to have a strong roster of vegetarian options, but they are limited at Vixen’s Wedding, which is too bad, because they are quite good. A dish of beets that are smoked, braised, charred and smashed and served with a crackling beet dosa the color of a Valentine and served with a pert curry leaf aioli is one of the restaurant’s best dishes ($9), and mustard greens and vinegar-zipped celery root lace a smoky acorn squash glazed with tamarind and coconut and covered in a crumble of cashew, a touchstone nut for Goan cuisine ($14).
Due to religious and cultural traditions, you won’t find beef and pork on most Indian menus, but the traditions of the longheld Catholic Portuguese colony (and certainly Texas) differ. This means steak at Vixen’s Wedding, specifically a surprisingly gamey piece of Wagyu zabuton that tasted much worse than it looked perched atop a spread of forest green cafreal brimming with aromatics ($42). The more expected lamb led to a happier table, the large and pliant shank blackened with cardamom and mustard seed and served with a rich and earthy hunter sauce packed with mushrooms and a breath of shallots and onions ($40).
Executive pastry chef Sarah Listrom proved herself a talent with Asian and tropical flavors during stints at Barley Swine and Counter 357, and her work at Vixen’s Wedding has furthered her reputation as one of the city’s best pastry chefs. Listrom’s lemon tart perched in a cardamom crust and topped with rose water meringue and pistachio ice cream is an Indian-inspired dish that is as flavorful as it is beautiful ($8). Her cranberry chutney-topped yogurt cheesecake in a cashew crust is a bright and gorgeous nod to Indian flavors. But the biggest crowd-pleaser is the chocolate cake ($9). Layered with thin sheets of dosa, which make it look akin to the traditional Goan dessert called bebica, the sumptuous cake is draped in drizzles of hibiscus jam and topped with passion fruit sorbet ($9). I’m not sure if that’s how they do it in Goa, but it’s how they do it in Austin, and I’m not mad at it.
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