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Apatite Cafe's casual elegance shines near Hill Country Galleria

Claire Canavan

When Chef David Burton Sanchez first stepped into the tiny retail space that would become his restaurant, Apatite Cafe, a cluster of quartz citrine sparkled from the countertop.

Sanchez, an occasional gem collector who mined for stones like garnets and rubies as a kid, took it as a sign that this space was the right spot for him to open a bistro in his neighborhood. When searching for the new restaurant's name, he came across a blue-green gemstone called apatite. Pronounced like "appetite," the name fit perfectly.

Sanchez's wife, Jill, opposed the name at first. "She said that people will think I don't know how to spell," Sanchez laughs. "Or that it's French." Sanchez decided that whatever the reaction, the name would certainly spark conversation.

The food business has been in Sanchez's blood for a long time. Growing up in Tampa, Fla., he started working in restaurants at the age of 13. At first, cooking was just a job, but he soon became inspired by working for passionate chefs. He followed one of those chefs to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C.

After being admitted to the school, Sanchez had to figure out how to pay for it. Luck was on his side, and he won a trifecta at the local dog track, collecting a windfall that paid for his first trimester.

After that, "Doors opened and I kept walking through them," Sanchez says. Upon graduation in 1992, Johnson & Wales offered him the chance to teach at their newest campus in Vail, Colo. Sanchez also began working for the Vail Resort Company, which hired him to be the executive chef at a restaurant called Cookshack and later at Allie's Cabin.

Vail's status as a resort destination expanded Sanchez's horizons. "I was exposed to the palates of international guests, families, guest chefs," he says. Celebrity chefs such as Tyler Florence would hold special events at the restaurants Sanchez worked for, which he says was like getting an apprenticeship without having to work in other chefs' restaurants.

During his years in Vail, he continued teaching, mentored high school students for the National Restaurant Association's ProStart program, and occasionally was a demonstration chef for events sponsored by Bon Appétit magazine. But falling in love changed his career's trajectory. He met his wife in Vail, and the two decided to start a family and move to Austin to be closer to her relatives.

Hidden next door to a yoga studio in a strip mall near the Hill Country Galleria, Apatite Cafe radiates the simple, casual elegance of its gemstone namesake. The 40-seat restaurant's tables are covered in white tablecloths and accented with blue and green plates.

Jill Sanchez, owner of H2 Studios, designed the restaurant's interior to feature subtle jewel-like elements - silver wallpaper, faceted votive candleholders - creating continuity between name and design.

The cafe opened in July 2010 serving lunch only and added dinner in January of this year. Sanchez describes his food as fresh, high-quality, flavor-driven New American cuisine. Most of all, he says he wants to create food that engages the senses and "makes your eyes roll back."

Diners can feast on small plates (scallops with corn coulis, homemade truffled potato chips) at dinner as well as larger entrees (apple- and ginger-braised pork belly, seared sea bass with edamame and sweet corn succotash). Dishes change every three months as Sanchez rotates in more seasonal selections.

Sanchez composes his plates like a painter, with attention to color and detail. The blue crab and avocado torta is a study in beauty and restraint. It boasts bright green slices of avocado encircling a delicate mound of jumbo lump crab crowned with a tangle of microgreens.

Another small plate has three perfect circles of local goat cheese resting on top of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, drizzled with 25-year-old balsamic vinegar.

Freshness is key to his food, so Sanchez tries to source from local farmers and has a close relationship with Cypress Valley Farm in Spicewood. On Wednesdays at lunch, Cypress Valley sets up a farmers market outside the café, and Sanchez creates a daily special featuring seasonal vegetables.

Sanchez has a scientific side, considering things like flavor receptors, how pepper stimulates the tongue, and acid-to-alkaline ratios. "I like to know why things happen," he says. He wants his food to provide full flavor throughout the mouth, so he created his own special spice blend, Sensory Seasoning, to stimulate the senses.

Like all chefs and restaurant owners, Sanchez works long hours at his cafe. But he believes that "You can't let the physicality and the exhaustion in this business overtake you," he says. "You have to remember you're creating something for people to experience."

Apatite Cafe

12801 Shops Parkway, No. 200, Bee Cave Road. 402-1919, www.apatitecafe.com .

Hours: Lunch on Mondays-Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays, 5:30 to 9 p.m.