Zagat / by Veronica Meewes / February 18, 2016
For a city that is home to the world headquarters of Whole Foods and one of the most utilized urban hike and bike trails in the country, we sure do love our fried chicken, smoked meats and juicy cheeseburgers. It's not that healthier options don't exist in Austin (there's a Juiceland in just about every neighborhood by now), but we could always use more of them. And yesterday, we welcomed one more deliciously smart choice to the table, as Vinaigrette opened its doors in the South Congress district.
The farm-to-table bistro concept first took root when owner Erin Wade diverged from a career path in fashion design, after graduating from Harvard, and decided to take over a vacant 10-acre plot of family-owned land in Nambe, New Mexico. "I loved fashion but realized it wasn't quite right for me, and at the same time began to crave space, air and dirt after being in Boston, New York and Milan pretty much back to back," she remembers, adding, "I really do love to get dressed up, but usually there is dirt under my fingernails."
She drew upon her undergrad foundation in environmental science and began reading books on soil science and agro-ecology before rehabilitating the soil so she could begin organically growing crops like arugula, kale, parsley and scallions. During this time, Wade pondered the American food system, comparing it to the much healthier, more balanced lifestyle she witnessed while studying in Italy. She had never planned on opening a restaurant until a historic adobe space became available in Downtown Santa Fe — which is where the first Vinaigrette ended up opening in 2008. After continued success with her first cafe venture, Wade opened a second location in Albuquerque in 2012.
The salad-focused restaurant isn't entirely vegetarian by any means; protein options range from seared diver scallops and lemon-herb chicken breast to duck confit and grilled flank steak. But here, the greens are the star of the plate, as well as the featured ingredient in bar snacks like kale fritters, Swiss chard and artichoke dip and bell pepper and scallion fries. Signature salads include the Cherry Tart (sweet dried cherries, crumbled feta, chile pecans tossed with arugula, Swiss chard and champagne vinaigrette) and The Nutty Pear-fessor (balsamic-roasted pears, bacon crumbles, toasted pecan halves, blue cheese, greens and ruby port vinaigrette). The menu also includes several soup options and a short list of sandwiches.
When Wade decided to expand outside of New Mexico, she looked to Austin after some of her customers (Texans visiting New Mexico) insisted it was the perfect place for her next location. She already had some family ties to the area (with an uncle who lives here), but the deal was sealed when she laid eyes on the College Avenue space just off South Congress. Formerly the site of Tree House Italian Grill, the entire back patio is shaded by the protective branches of a 500-year old oak tree. "I could just imagine it as being so incredible, with the most magical patio under one of the oldest trees in Austin," says Wade.
Austin's Maker Architects opened up the space with vaulted ceilings and transformed the interior with green tile, blond wood and plenty of windows to let sunshine flood into the space. The dining room exudes an undeniably California vibe and there isn't another patio in town with a tree quite this breathtaking, its boughs providing the perfect amount of shade for diners to linger and chat over cocktails (like the Raspbeeta margarita or That Green Drink, made with fresh celery, kale, jalapeño, lime, ginger, tequila and pink Himalayan sea salt) or delicious alcohol-free creations, such as the ginger turmeric tonic or the Phytotonic (made with chlorophyll extract, tonic and lime).
Grilled marinated baby artichoke hearts
Sustainability is a big part of Wade's concept; all the organic waste from both New Mexico restaurants is composted and fed back into the soil on her farm in Nambe. She purchased 20 acres of land along the Colorado River in Bastrop and has started to feed that soil scraps from the brand-new restaurant. The area's fertile earth was another one of the reasons she picked Austin for her third location, and she hopes to be growing food here by later this spring. Until then, Brother's Produce has been helping her source ingredients from local farms and ranches.
Kale fritters with Sriracha aïoli
Wade says the city has been incredibly positive and supportive and she couldn't be happier to be open here. "Austin is a dynamic and health-conscious city, full of active and creative people who want energy, wellness and vibrance for life; you can tell just by watching the throngs of people running Town Lake, gulping juices, doing Pilates or yoga." she says. "Our food meshes with people's lives in a very positive way, and I think that will be great for the Austin populace."
All Kale Caesar! salad with chopped Marcona almonds and diver sea scallops