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French Lessons

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On a recent Saturday evening, the elegant interior of laV bustles with the hushed but animated buzz of the weekend crowd. Tonight’s guests, among them a private party of a dozen or so people, are seated throughout the four distinct areas—tasting room, lounge, dining room, and wine cellar. A delicate but decisive palette of pewter, taupe, and olive green permeates the entire restaurant’s beautiful decor.

Above the full bar, an expansive black-and-white landscape painting of a French lavender field at dawn seems to answer the 22-acre Texas State Cemetery, visible through the broad glass windows, across the street, with its majestic live oaks and undulating grassy knolls lined at one end with unwavering rows of headstones. In the center of the lounge, an enormous crystal-cut chandelier hangs from the exposed industrial ceiling. On each tabletop, simple sprays of purple lavender are displayed in solid, charcoal-gray vases. Each well-thought-out detail of the restaurant seemingly represents a call-and-response of masculine and feminine accents.

Upon our arrival, my husband and I are greeted by laV’s managing partner and advanced sommelier, Vilma Mazaite. She is dressed in beige cigarette-leg pants, a diaphanous coral blouse, and a short-waisted blue blazer, with ballet slippers of pale pink with navy blue noses and heels. Her presence is warm and animated. Not surprisingly, the cuisine and wine of laV echo the refined atmosphere of the restaurant, a deliberate tone set by Mazaite and her team, led by owners Ralph and Lisa Eads, and chef Allison Jenkins and executive pastry chef Janina O’Leary.

Our meal begins with a rustic charcuterie board, with the highlight being a chicken liver pâté with pear compote. For an appetizer, we try a small plate of farm egg and mushroom raviolo with a delicate consommé, making for a simple yet sophisticated suite of earthy flavors. For the main entrée, my husband and I split laV’s signature dish of wood-roasted chicken served with salsa verde and roasted fingerling potatoes. With a nod to the popular Zuni Café in San Francisco, Jenkins and Mazaite voted on the wood-roasted chicken after the decision was made to outfit the restaurant’s kitchen with a Wood Stone bistro oven. “The preparation involves a twenty-four-hour salt process,” explains Jenkins. “Salt and time—literally that’s all there is to it.” (Other culinary inspirations for Jenkins’s menu include Patricia Wells, author of many French cookbooks, such as Patricia Wells at Home in Provence, and London’s River Café, run by chef Ruth Rogers.) For dessert, we order a sumptuous chocolate delice, sprinkled with dainty edible violets, with a scoop of distinctive Earl Grey ice cream, and robust cups of French-pressed Blue Bottle coffee.

As we enjoy our meal, Mazaite seamlessly works the restaurant, chatting with dinner guests, answering questions about the wine list, and discreetly replacing folded napkins. “We want to be warm and approachable,” says Mazaite. “That’s why the food speaks many languages. It’s very simple, but of course, simple is the hardest thing to do. It’s all about the ingredients. You can’t hide behind sauce, foam, or anything like that. It’s straightforward food.”

To enhance and complement the culinary experience, guests have an opportunity to choose a bottle or wine-by-the-glass from an encyclopedic list, with the guidance of Mazaite and her two sommeliers, Darren Scott and Rania Zayyat. The wine list ranges from more than 500 Burgundies to an unusual selection of vintage Napas. “Our goal wasn’t to have the biggest wine list in Austin,” explains Mazaite. “It’s more that we had a point of view.” Owner Ralph Eads, a Houston-based investment banker and entrepreneur, is a dedicated oenophile, with a large personal collection of his own. His vision and enthusiasm for opening an Austin restaurant with an extensive wine program was the starting point for all things laV. In fact, some of the selections in the 1,200-label wine cellar and tasting bar are handpicked by Eads himself. Mazaite herself developed an early passion for wine, growing up in Lithuania. She moved to the United States in 2001, and began to work in restaurants under Rajat Paar, Mario Batali (at Babbo), and Paul Bartolotta in Las Vegas.

Eads owned the parcel of land on East Seventh Street, and when the time came to explore the possibility of building and opening a restaurant, he enlisted the talents of Mazaite and Jenkins, who were then working at Aspen’s Little Nell. Later, O’Leary was brought onto the team, and together they worked to make Eads’s vision a reality, creating one of Austin’s most anticipated and elegant restaurants. During the coming summer, laV plans to offer a series of wine-education classes, and in the fall, the adjacent garden will be cultivated for herbs and vegetables as well as being available as a space for private parties and banquets.

“We want to do better each day,” says Mazaite. “We measure ourselves to ourselves, not with who’s next door. With a new place, there is so much we need to fix and change to get better. You have to reinvent yourself.”

The name, laV, is a shortened version of the French expression la vie, or “life.” “We thought it might work because the restaurant is located right across the street from a cemetery,” says Mazaite, “but we didn’t want to be too literal.” All in all, laV certainly brings something new and refreshing to Austin’s evolving restaurant landscape. “It’s not just about the food or the wine,” adds Jenkins. “It’s about a whole lifestyle.”

Credits

Photography by Dagny Piasecki

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