Ask anyone in the local hospitality industry what Austin's food scene is lacking, and they’ll likely point to the lack of culinary diversity. While the first part of this decade saw unprecedented growth in upscale New American restaurants followed by a brief, if explosive, Italian wave, there was a sense that the city's culinary scene was collapsing under the weight of its carefully-placed nasturtium leaves.
But after a few brutal years of shutterings, 2017 was bound to be a course correction. With the exception of few initial impulses to play it safe, this year has seen Austin start to experiment again, stretching past one-size-fits-all price points and cuisine. This year's best new restaurants range from two different diner concepts (one French-inflected, one punk rock) to a Texas-inspired izakaya, and the one thing they all have in common is they are definitely not the same.
It’s too early to tell if Yuyo — the new restaurant from Carlos Rivera’s El Chile Group (El Chile, El Chilito, Alcomar, and El Alma) — will join that revered crowd. But it is difficult not to cheer a deepening of the Austin palate and the trend of giving every restaurant the touches — a well-designed interior and a considered bar program — that are now expected by contemporary diners.
After a seemingly never-ending series of pop-ups, Yuyo opened on October 30 in the former El Sapo location, serving a modern take on the Peruvian food executive chef Maribel Rivero (Carlos’ sister) fell in love with while living in Lima, and has since adapted to Texas ingredients.
Seafood plays a starring role. Along with a classic preparation featuring drum and leche de tigre, the ceviche bar offers eight other varieties with far-reaching flavor profiles. Flounder is served in a citrus-soy marinade with lively Peruvian condiment salsa criolla; the octopus version features purple potatoes and an aioli made from rare Botija olives; and a spicy ají brightens mussels. Corvina, a South American fish similar to halibut, shows up in several dishes on the menu including jalea, a mixed fish fry, and pan-seared with lemongrass and ginger.
Non-fish eaters shouldn’t avoid the restaurant, however. There are plenty of other options like traditional steak churrasco with chimichurri, crispy pork with cracklings and a garlic yuca mash, and red pepper adobo chicken thighs. Although there is only one real vegetarian entree — a quinoa dish with cauliflower and Brussels sprouts — plant-based eaters can make an easy meal with sides like caviar lentils in a balsamic vinaigrette, a charred vegetable medley, or papas in creamy huancaína sauce.
Both the drink program and the dessert offerings lean toward the vivid flavors established by the savory dishes. On the drink side that means a heavy use of pisco and tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. But again, the menu nods to locale with a tequila drink made with ají amarillo peppers and several cocktails made with Austin spirits like 9 Banded Bourbon and Treaty Oak rum. As is typical in Peru, the desserts are a little heavier, but no one is likely to complain about a dark chocolate cake with dulce de leche and topped with a passion fruit sorbet.
All are served in a striking space that is swathed in warm wood and accented by jabs of color in woven wall hangings and geometric baskets made into fixtures. It has been interesting to see the El Chile aesthetic develop over the years from the gallery setting of their flagship to the macramé minimalism of Alcomar. Yuyo is a little of both — fusing the riotous colors of previous restaurants with their newfound love of featuring the integrity of materials.
And to its credit, the restaurant upends many expectations of what a Peruvian restaurant should be, investing in an atmosphere that refuses to bow down to cliches and plating with an artfulness that is just as Instagrammable as our city’s New American favorites. If Austin is to become the world-class culinary city of its ambitions, we need more of that.