When I walked up to Ava Kitchen and Whiskey bar, workers were just putting the finishing touches on the outdoor sign, a brilliant blue arc that wraps around the corner of West Ave facing Kirby Drive. (The guys assured me that walking under a mechanical ladder arm was in fact quite good luck.)
Inside, the huge windows running the considerate length of the restaurant demand to be the center of attention, though they are countered by some lovely turquoise tile at the entrance, oversized light fixtures and an interior bar with lots of clean white and a peek into the kitchen.
With the restaurant set to open Monday, I grabbed a preview of the Mediterranean-inspired menu, divided into small plates and entrees.
I started with a celery salad featuring bright (but not briny) white anchovies and some spicy Spanish chorizo (clean and fresh, with a pleasant hint or bitterness) and a mushroom and cippolini onion salad with speck and sottocenere cheese — richer and with a more dense, earthy texture and flavor.
The early stand out was the rigatoni "vecchio mundo" bolognese. Far from the thick, tomato-heavy American-style bolognese, this old world version was incredibly light, with just a dribbling of olive oil, flakes of mild cheese, and rich, flavorful chunks of beef. Truly to die for.
Another favorite was the squid stuffed with shrimp sausage and polenta, another paean to Spain, as well as the lamb t-bone chops with a pomegranate molasses, a rich combination that burst with flavor. Herb-crusted and seared ahi tuna with a Sicilian pesto was also a simple success.
I ended the meal with light and fluffy profiteroles, a fig-heavy take on baklava and a gooey tarte tatin.
It's a menu and a presentation that carves out the middle ground between the chef-driven cuisine that Robert Del Grande is known for and the new ultra-casual trend. Small plates start at $8 and larger plates run from $12 to $34, with most under $25. With a lounge space near the entrance but no private rooms (for now), the space is incredibly open and seems designed for a young professional crowd — hence the focus on wine and whiskey.
Partner Candice Schiller says that the concept for Ava was designed at the same time as Soleil, Schiller/Del Grande's new restaurant on Lake Austin.
"They both have a similar vibe, but Soleil has the seaside atmosphere and Ava is more urban," she said.
(Editor's note: Ave is owned by Schiller/Del Grande, whose co-founder Lonnie Schiller is an investor in CultureMap.)