Elegant yet simple cuisine comes full “Cirkiel” at the innovative chef’s new endeavor.
By Steve Uhler, Photos by Dustin Meyer.
A few ground rules: You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you don’t refer to Shawn Cirkiel’s newly opened eatery, Chavez, as a “hotel restaurant.” Long celebrated as the innovative chef and restaurateur behind such local favorites as Olive & June, Backspace and Parkside, Cirkiel has left his mark lingering on the palates of discriminating and grateful foodies throughout the Lone Star State.
When word began spreading last October that he’d be opening a new eatery, expectations were high and appetites whetted. But upon learning the location would be at the former site of the old TGI Fridays at the Radisson Hotel on Cesar Chavez Street, many locals did a quizzical double take. Shawn Cirkiel running a hotel restaurant? Well, no, not a “hotel restaurant,” project reps were quick to clarify, rather, a restaurant in a hotel. What’s the difference? Plenty, according to Cirkiel.
“This was never approached as being a hotel restaurant,” Cirkiel insists. “In many hotel restaurants, there’s a designer from out of state that makes a decision on the style, and the food and drink menu and the program. And you have out-of-state consultants that build the kitchen and design the space and select a theme put together by a consultant or someone in Vegas or L.A. This is very much an organic restaurant conceived and built in Austin, Texas. It’s our food, our design. It’s who we are. Chavez is built upon the premise of us doing a restaurant that we thought would be a good fit for downtown, and for the food we like to cook and eat. So when I say it’s not a hotel restaurant, that’s what I mean.”
Leave it to Cirkiel to fly in the face of conservative preconceptions and emerge triumphant. This is, after all, the visionary who introduced Austin to the upscale gastro pub concept with his successful and casually sophisticated Parkside, planted in the unlikely garden of East Sixth Street. So if Shawn Cirkiel wants to open a restaurant in a hotel—or in a gas station, for that matter—who are we to question his instincts? If the lunch crowd of impressed diners during a recent afternoon at the newly opened Chavez is any indicator, Chef Cirkiel has little to worry about. Chavez is not only inviting, it’s intoxicating.
Working with design studio FODA and architect Michael Hsu, Cirkiel has manifested an environment that perfectly evokes his approach to food preparation and presentation: open, simple and elegant, with particular attention lavished on small details. The open and bright dining area overlooking Lady Bird Lake offers diners an unobstructed view through expansive panoramic windows facing southward; tickets could be sold for the sunset. Minute signature touches and motifs adorn countless niches discernible to the attentive eye: Mesoamerican textiles are delicately scattered and integrated in to the design like the Da Vinci Code, and the beautiful overhead light fixtures subliminally suggest the letter ‘C’. The room seems to physically adapt to its occupants, whether it’s a corporate business lunch or an informal and romantic têteà- tête.
“Every detail is just immaculate,” raved an admiring first-time diner, overheard whispering to her companion at a neighboring table. “It’s really all simple stuff,” Cirkiel says. “One tile wall, one wood wall and that’s effectively it in the whole restaurant. But it’s all pieces that are very textural and emotional.”
Of course, an enticing environment means little unless the food measures up to the inherent promise of the surroundings, and Chavez does not disappoint. The thematic focus is on traditional Southwestern fare re-imagined in to new and adventurous configurations, and elevating simplicity and freshness over flash. In Cirkiel’s hands, simple ingredients combine and morph in to complex, layered sensations that reveal themselves leisurely on the palate, layer after layer.
We experienced that delectable alchemy of simplicity and sophistication firsthand during a recent visit for lunch on a particularly chilly Thursday. We began our meal warming up with a generous bowl of chicken fideo soup enhanced with winter vegetables and a pinch of oregano, topped with exquisitely crunchy croutons. Velvety and bracing, it was an enticing harbinger of things to come. Chavez emphasizes shared plates—small servings designed to be shared.
My dining companion and I enjoyed a diverse sampling, starting with the recommended Texas board, a tray artfully garnished with a delectable sampling of fresh cornbread, a half-dozen finger-sized hand-rolled house corn tortillas and a trio of spreads, including lardo, spicy butter and marrow. The bean and cheese empanadas arrived delicately flaky on the outside with a mildly spicy black bean and Oaxaca cheese filling, topped by a tartly fresh salsa verde as a finishing grace note.
We also dove in to the impressively stacked sopes de carnitas, layered with pork, black beans, a tart tomatillo and a fragrant hint of lime. Both dishes were a beguiling marriage of Texas-bred comfort food and nouveau cuisine, and our server was attentive and knowledgeable about our questions, despite the fact that the restaurant had opened mere days before. The baby back ribs (officially listed as an appetizer but tempting to justify as a meal) fell off the bone at a mere desirous glance, melting on the tongue in a sweetly harmonious chorus of corn-fed Angus, Manzanilla olive, carrot escabeche and agave glaze.
And though the butter tamals we sampled were a little, well, little, they were more than flavorfully redeemed by their lingering afterglow on the palate, brightened by a snappy peanut mole. The exquisitely prepared corn husk wrapping came complete with a petite hand-tied bow. We requested the herb-crusted mahi mahi as an entree, even though the dish was not officially on the lunch menu, but listed on the dinner menu. The kitchen staff didn’t flinch, and were polite enough not to mention our faux pas.
Again, elegant simplicity dominated the plate; the fish was fresh and flavorful, the crust restrained and the salsa negra garnish made for an ideal complement. Our meal was topped off with a perfectly presented dessert: the dangerously decadent cafe con leche. With its harmonious integration of dovetailing elements—cafe cake, cajeta, chocolate espresso sauce and cocoa-nib ice cream—the combined confectionery whole surpasses the sum of its parts, in essence, four desserts combined in to one sensory ensemble of flavors, ideal for sharing. Kudos to Pastry Chef Steven Cak, one of Chavez’s most formidable secret weapons. (Cirkiel himself claims to have no sweet tooth. “I like things bitter,” he smiles. “Like me.”) Cirkiel’s trademark emphasis on simplicity and freshness is in ample evidence in every aspect of Chavez.
“Some things are just what they are,” Cirkiel explains. “A simple masa that we make by hand every day. Fresh black beans and tomatillo. It’s really simple. It’s also taking the extreme of doing it by hand, making it from scratch, doing it to order, all these processes that most people just don’t do because the timing of it is too hard. Something like the mahi mahi, which is a little more stylistically nouveau, at the end of the day is just an awesome salsa and fish. That’s really all it is. Same with the ribs and escabeche. You can kind of take apart the bricks and put them back together, and they become more complex. The point of it is, in the way we talk about food, it’s like building bricks. We build those techniques and efforts in to layers, and over time, you can build a Sistine Chapel or you can build a simple brick wall. Either way, it’s structurally sound.”
You can’t be all things to all people, especially in the middle of a bustling downtown hotel, but Chavez comes within a hair’s breadth of that goal while still artfully establishing its own distinctive aesthetic identity.
“Everyone who comes in has a different expectation,” Cirkiel observes. “Some people don’t want to be bothered; they want to have a conversation with friends, and dinner is literally a backdrop for that. You have people coming in that, for them, this is a show. They’re going to order and everything needs to be perfect because they’re going to take pictures and post the photo on a blog, and eating out is a special occasion. Then you have someone coming in who’s in a bad mood or hiding from the world who just wants a warm soup, sitting at the bar while they’re traveling. Each table has its own set of rhythms and emotions. Our goal is to kind of match who we are that night to those expectations. When we don’t, that’s when we have problems. When we do, that’s when people say we’re great.”
Consider this diner’s expectations fulfilled. Cirkiel’s seductive mix of simplicity, elegance and impeccably prepared cuisine has found an ideal if unlikely home, complete with a stunning view. Cue the sunset, and save room for dessert.
Chavez, 111 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512.478.2991.