On South First Street, a culinary passport via a dozen options
Lenoir. The name is derived from the French word for the dark Spanish table-wine grape that has since propagated in Texas, where it grows wild in clusters.
Clean, inspired and romantic, the name of the restaurant tells the story of the couple who runs it. The same words describe the food, ambience and ethos of this wonderful new restaurant on South First Street.
Chef and co-owner Todd Duplechan's family is of French heritage. The family of his wife and co-owner, Jessica Maher, comes from Spain originally. The couple decided five years ago to make Austin their home.
Dallas native Duplechan worked in some of New York City's top kitchens, where he met Maher, a pastry chef and Lake Tahoe native who graduated from the University of Texas. After moving to Austin in 2007, Duplechan served as chef de cuisine at the Four Seasons' Trio, while Maher spent time with respected culinary projects, including Jeffrey's and Dai Due. They wanted to open a restaurant that served what they call "hot weather food." Many of the same produce found in our region also grows in Southern India and Southeast Asia, but the cuisine is vastly different. Duplechan bridges that gap with dishes such as an amazing fish curry. The flaky flounder, coated with crunchy toasted rice called poha, mingles with shavings of sweet potato in a bath of coconut milk and green curry that hits you first in the nose and then in the chest. The dish has flavors familiar to both the Gulf Coast and Southeast Asia.
"What I'm trying to do is get more in tune with what's growing here and what's abundant and really incorporate that into the menu with the training that I have," Duplechan said recently by phone.
Duplechan says 90 percent of the money spent on produce and proteins at Lenoir goes to farmers, ranchers and fishermen in Central Texas, South Texas and the Gulf Coast. Though Lenoir's menu does not offer a laundry list of partners, many diners would recognize names on a vendor list that includes Boggy Creek Farm, Springdale Farm, Johnson's Backyard Garden, Broken Arrow Ranch and Windy Hill Farm.
The design and food at the restaurant have a calming sense of home but conjure a sense of adventure and the fantastical. Gulf shrimp has hints of okra that sing of Africa as well as Louisiana; a simple cheese plate at dessert has a full passport, with stamps from Sardinia (fiore sardo cheese) and Morocco (the Christmas spice mixture ras el hanout) and familiar candied oranges from Texas; fried Gulf oysters bathe in a complex and nutty Asian-inspired dashi broth. The food is both "here" and "there."
The wood slats nailed to the outside of the small building speak to a Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, an ethos continued inside. Everything in the restaurant, from décor to the cast iron pans passed down from Maher's grandmother, has been upcycled. The only exception are elegant wine glasses that service a fluid wine list curated by Duplechan's former co-worker, sommelier Mark Sayre of Trio.
The restaurant, designed with the help of recent Austin arrival Chris McCray, is ethereal and whimsical. Billowy white curtains draped with crochet work from the couple's families hang from wrought-iron rods. Gold chandeliers and exposed single bulbs dangle from the robin egg blue ceiling over tables made of reclaimed whitewashed wood and large chairs. It feels like a rustic French beach house in Vietnam to which Alice would escape when she tires of Wonderland.
The effect is not precious but transportive. Just like the food.
The $35 prix fixe menu offers three choices each from Field, Sea, Land and Dream (dessert). Guests select any three dishes from the 12 options, with extra courses costing $10 each. The independence to select multiple courses from the same section of the competitively priced fixed menu makes Lenoir one of the best values in town.
Maher handles the Dream section in between running the front of house at Lenoir and caring for the couple's 15-month-old son. Her bittersweet chocolate crème arrives on the tongue like pudding and then evaporates. The Poteet strawberry pie brings the menu back home to Texas. The sweet and tart fruit spills from the flaky crust that gets a sugary crunch from caramel rice flakes.
The menu sees weekly changes. Only the chickpea panisse remains from the original January menu. A light sear coats the creamy polenta-like panisse that has hints of turmeric. Wilted greens and oyster mushrooms surround the panisse that comes topped with a marshmallowy heart-shaped egg that oozes a viscous gold yolk when punctured with the lightest touch of a fork.
The roasted beet salad is a highlight of the Field section. Pungent blue cheese pairs well with the earthiness of small wedges of wine-colored beets that sit atop a tart salad of salted greens and slivered radishes made crunchy with almonds. Gentle braised meaty artichokes in a tangy mustard sabayon receive an acidic kick and brightness from grapefruit salad and crumbling chunks of feta.
Ramps represent one of the few out-of-state vegetables on Lenoir's menu, and the trip was worth it. The subtle and fresh onion flavor of the wild leeks finds a nice harmony with the bolder curried rub on the medallions of plump ruby venison that come wrapped in the tender blanched leaves of the ramp and topped with diced bits of the vegetables roasted bulb. Our server suggested a glass of Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone ($10), its dark mild berry flavor a perfect match for the rosy meat. Glasses on the European wine list range from $7 to $15, with bottles starting around $28 and ascending to $125 for a chateauneuf du pape from Vieux Telegraphe.
The venison replaced a more challenging but interesting goat crépinette, also wrapped in ramps rather than the traditional caul fat, that had an expressive gaminess. Both dishes came with a firm fava bean ravioli, its creamy green garden depths punctuated by mint and given salty, buttery crunch from parsnip chips.
Gaminess was not an issue for the tender rabbit that benefited from an overnight soaking in buttermilk. I drank from the bowl the crème fraîche and fenugreek-enhanced broth that somehow left tender a medley of spring vegetables that included chunks of parsnip and both orange carrots and their maroon Beta Sweet brethren from Texas A&M University. Roasted potatoes carried notes of curry, hopping the dish from Texas to India and back.
Duplechan tames the wild boar at Lenoir, slow-cooking and pulling it off the bone and then packing it like a pâté that he tops with a crackling skin. The crispy exterior layers a flavorful juicy meat, its savoriness enlivened by bits of preserved lime in a jus you can smell before it even leaves the plate.
The curry-rubbed venison speaks to the Indian influences of Duplechan's former mentor and boss at New York City's now-closed Tabla, chef Floyd Cardoz. But Duplechan says the biggest lessons passed down from Cardoz extended beyond the kitchen.
"The thing that has really kept me in the business and made me the chef I am today doesn't really have a whole lot to do with cooking; it has a lot to do with attitude," Duplechan said. "He taught me that this is a profession and you need to be a professional when you're doing it."
One can feel the professionalism in Lenoir. The small, three-man kitchen hums in its production of multi-coursed meals even during peak hours. Servers, though friendly and casual, display a wide range of culinary knowledge and share it with a passion that stops short of pretension or zealotry.
The size of the operation also means you'd be wise to prepare before heading to Lenoir. The restaurant seats about 32, with a handful of two-person and four-person tables, a long communal table and bar seating. Large groups have limited seating options, and I suggest making reservations.
The eight-person staff reflects another lesson Duplechan took from New York City. Danny Meyer, head of the restaurant group that owned Tabla and many other successful Manhattan restaurants, left an impression on Duplechan regarding how you staff your restaurant.
"You hire people; you don't hire experience," Duplechan said. "And you take care of your people. He took care of me."
That takeaway imbues Lenoir with a palpable sense of camaraderie and shared vision. The effect is a restaurant that feels relaxed yet purposeful. It feels like an exotic vacation, but it also feels like home.