La Traviata Italian Bistro
Start me out with a Mafia-esque locale in an old building and I'm already salivating for Italian food.
Add to that a beautiful young chef with a deft hand and an eye for composition and that salivating turns to drooling.
And if my Big Sis and her partner My Sharona happen to know the chef (and her Big Sis), you've reached the trifecta of great dining expectations.
We arrived early and were promptly seated by an Audrey Hepburn-type hostess who was so helpful, she even suggested to me the best seat at the table for people watching.
The restaurant was small but provided enough room between tables to ensure privacy. Its amber glowing lights were bright enough to see the menu, but low enough for romance.
As we perused the menu, we were joined at the table by Chef Molly Geeslin, a tattooed brunette with a lovely splotch of magenta in her hair.
Our bottle of Prosecco arrived and Chef Molly agreed to share a glass with us, amidst the evening's final preps for a madhouse of hungry diners due to arrive.
Despite the crunch, her poise told me she was cool under pressure--my guess was she knew what she was doing and her sous chefs trusted her judgment.
So amazing is this chef, rumor has it The Food Network has been trying to coax her into appearing on one of its new shows. Only her humble, unassuming personality is standing in the way.
I was hungry but not ravenous, but that hunger peaked after Chef Molly had gone back to the kitchen and sent us a gorgeous, custom designed antipasto plate.
It contained roasted, pickled beets dotted with toasted pistachios, sun dried tomatoes with tiny capers, gorgonzola crumbles, razor thin slices of Parmesano, sliced proscuitto and some soft mozzarella, tomato slices and fresh basil. A few long spears of fresh chives and mint leaves were thrown casually over the whole plate.
With it came sliced French bread hot from the oven, and olive oil.
As we devoured the last morsel, on came our salads.
Nestled in a perfect little pile were baby spinach leaves, ribbons of peppery arugula, paper thin apple slices, and the most amazing candied pecans, whose sweetness was a perfect counterpoint to the creamy mild gorgonzola dressing.
My Sharona had a nice mista salad, which included local baby greens, red wine vinaigrette, toasted hazelnuts and shaved pecorino toscana cheese.
We really deliberated over the amazing entree offerings, but I'm a sucker for pastas bolognese and carbonara, so I toggled between them as the Prosecco was kicking in.
The bolognese included a ragu of beef, veal and pork, which was tempting but my belly was already a little too full for a big, meaty dish like that.
Big Sis had raved about the carbonara and mentioned that it contained a perfect egg yolk on top you had to mix in before eating. I love deconstructed dishes, so the choice became clear.
My Sharona ordered the fettuccine al fungi, with portobello and crimini mushrooms, spinach, fried artichokes, parmesan and truffle oil. I tasted it and found the subtle flavors very complimentary, if not a tad too salty.
Big Sis and I ordered the carbonara, and you may have to relax, get a drink and get ready for the description.
See, basic carbonara contains bacon and a mixture of cream, beaten egg and cheese.
Chef Molly's version was spaghetti tossed with specks of amazing pancetta, scallion threads, cream and lemon, topped with a local farm fresh egg yolk.
Served on a pile, you had to dig a little hole in the center like a volcano and allow the egg yolk to drop into the mix and cook in the very hot sauce. Slowly, you stir the dish until the egg dissolves into the cream and lemon to create a silky, glorious sauce.
What I noticed most was the delicate pastel color of the dish. It's a visual trick that made me realize that a sauce that rich looks a lot lighter when the colors are so muted.
Clearly, Chef Molly approaches cuisine as an artform.
Taking the time to create pale green scallion threads, using specks of pink pancetta and letting the yolk dissolve into all that cream made the dish look like it was created by a French impressionist painter.
The fettucine al fungi was quite the opposite. The sauce was dense, earthy and dark, redolent of rich soil and shade mushrooms need to grow.
After we'd demolished the entrees, we talked about taking a walk after dinner and maybe grabbing coffee at a nearby shop.
Then Chef Molly sent us a dessert platter that looked like a jewel box of sweet delicacies.
We divvied up chocolate dipped strawberries, two tiny profiteroles (one stuffed with chocolate gelato and one with a vanilla panne cotta) a chocolate dipped once-baked biscotti with anise and pistachio granules and a tiny portion of tiramisu. Chef also threw a few candied pecans around for effect. Amazing.
If you love Italian food but you don't love the feeling of needing to explode after dinner, La Traviata is the best option anyone can find in Texas.
I'm not sure, but I have a hunch Chef Molly is the type who'd happily create a chef's tasting menu if anyone requested it.
La Traviata is located at 314 Congress Avenue in Austin.