Originally published in Austin Monthly, June 2015 Issue
RENE ORTIZ AND LAURA SAWICKI SERVE DELIGHTFUL, APPROACHABLE CUISINE AT THEIR EAST AUSTIN HOT SPOT LAUNDERETTE
Upon their first bite of the red snapper crudo layered with umami dashi, citrus notes and rocoto chile heat, our dining companions flat-out refuse to share. My husband and I order our own, and it’s that good. Rhapsodic-inspired hoarding aside, you’d do well to take a sampler’s approach to Chef Rene Ortiz’s and Pastry Chef Laura Sawicki’s new East Austin restaurant, Launderette. Their menu is designed for it, divided into snacky bits, toasts and extensive vegetable dishes alongside more substantial specialties and items from the wood grill.
But first, you’ll likely have to share patio space with the throng as you wait your turn for a table in the lovely dining room, awash with cool blue tones and ample natural light. Launderette’s nearly impossible popularity isn’t a surprise. James Beard Award semifinalists Ortiz and Sawicki first whipped Austinites’ taste buds into a fervor during their tenure at the ever-popular La Condesa and Sway, and it seems they’ve done it again.
Both chefs share a reverence for fresh ingredients and complex, layered flavors. Ortiz’s food is approachable but assertive, making liberal use of spice to transform familiar favorites—something I’m wholly behind—as in the cacciatore-style chicken thighs. I’m not a particular fan of cacciatore’s tomatoey sweetness, but Ortiz’s version comes with a scotch bonnet onion aioli that lifts it out of 1970s territory. (Props, too, to the meaty but moist texture, with no hint of the slipperiness that often plagues chicken thighs.) He also gives grilled prawns, seasoned with fruity-tart Aleppo pepper, a trumped-up treatment, infusing the accompanying serrano-yogurt dressing, ordinarily an element of cool, with a dose of serrano burn. I loved it.
Of the 17 dishes I tried over two visits, I also adored the fried oysters, topped with a coriander dressing, sliced jalapeños and genius charred lemon slivers, and the toasts. My favorites were the crab on crisped semolina with fennel aioli, avocado and a radish top-mint vinaigrette with just enough freshness and bite, as well as the soft egg version accompanied by taleggio, bottarga, asparagus, and truffle vinaigrette—basically springtime on focaccia. And, yes, fancified Brussels sprouts are practically de rigueur these days, but Ortiz’s version, sticky with bacon marmalade and punctuated by astringent bits of pickled apple, didn’t disappoint.
Some dishes were a letdown, though, to my surprise. I’ve eaten with large groups at La Condesa under Ortiz, ordering more than half the menu and enjoying every bold bite. (Then again, Mexican tends to be a more audacious cuisine than Mediterranean. Perhaps there’s a strain between Ortiz’s emphatic flavor profile and his new cuisine’s more restrained palate?) My tablemates agreed that the mussels were both bland and busy. And if ever a dish cried out for aggressive spice treatment, the too-mild cauliflower gratin was it. The burratta, too, seemed oddly flavorless, overpowered by an excess of olive tapenade. But most disappointing was the octopus—one of my favorite things to eat—tasting far more like char than it should have.
The service was another disappointment. For the most part, the waitstaff is friendly and professional, if standoffish, which rankled our dining companions, but I didn’t particularly mind. Hands-off service can engender more focus on your food and company. However, we had hoped for a little more awareness from the front door staff, especially when we waited for more than twice the time we were quoted on the somewhat sleepy Tuesday night of my second visit. We grew ever more ravenous watching three- and four-tops arriving after our party of two got seated. Years spent as a hostess at Brennan’s, one of the most packed restaurants in the French Quarter, taught me that this is sometimes necessary to maintain the flow. I also understand how futile it is to try to move diners out of much-needed seats. But I also know how much a simple apology and explanation helps soothe the expectant beast. (Launderette doesn’t take reservations for parties under eight, and you can only order cocktails while you wait.)
However, all was redeemed by dessert. Sawicki also employs layers of complex flavors, and I wasn’t surprised at all to learn she also has a background in art—the desserts are gorgeous. She relies on unusual juxtapositions of familiar sweets with herbs, vegetables and other savory ingredients to transform ordinary sweets into something surprising and extraordinary. Take the delicate pistachio-rosewater parfait, with a silky texture that recalls panna cotta. It also includes freshly bitter grapefruit, the crisp anisey bite of shaved fennel and a kind of tahini crumble.
The result is a delightful tumult of textures with a net flavor that’s just sweet enough, with no hint of granny’s floral hand soap often present in rosewater-forward confections. And while chocolate sweets have long been simpatico with spice, Sawicki chooses to pair chocolate ganache with black pepper marshmallows (which my husband raved about for days) as well as caraway, black currant and rye bread ice cream. Even the more “ordinary” lemon tart gets dressed up with a smear of spring pea coulis, basil ice cream and crumbled strawberry milk that brought me back to Saturday mornings over a bowl of Franken Berry.
So, go to Launderette. You’re likely to enjoy the food as much as the vibrant social scene. Just be sure to stash a snack in your bag for the wait, because it doesn’t look like the clamor for Ortiz’s and Sawicki’s cuisine is going to die down any time soon.