Like Lieutenant Columbo’s investigative strategy, my reporting style is... persistent. I’ll ask a few questions and think I’m done with the job. But then, inevitably, somebody’s answer leaves me scratching my head and I’ll show up again at their doorstep, smoking a cigar and wearing a trench coat — or jorts, at least — wondering aloud if I can ask just one more thing.
Such was the case at Lenoir, a restaurant on South First Street that opened in late January. About a week beforehand, I bumped into owners Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher, a husband-and-wife culinary team (Duplechan specializes in savory food and Maher trained as a pastry chef). Right in front of their soon-to-be-packed new place, I asked them what Lenoir was all about. Hot weather food, they told me.
The concept boils down to this: Lenoir’s food will keep you light on your feet in the thick of hot weather. It also looks good, tastes crisp and has lots of spice.
We chatted a bit, I wished them luck, and, around six months later, I realized I wasn’t sure what they meant. Isn't hot weather food Dr. Pepper and a BBQ brisket sandwich? To get the story straight, I had to stop by Lenoir once more.
On the morning that I arrive, Duplechan and Maher receive me graciously. They explain that Lenoir’s menu features a remix of the cuisines of hot weather places: North Africa, India, Southeast Asia and South America, united by a French twist. The concept boils down to this: Lenoir’s food will keep you light on your feet in the thick of hot weather. It also looks good, tastes crisp and has lots of spice.
“We serve a terrine dish that kind of embodies the concept of hot weather food. It’s made with potatoes and seared goat, served with [a North African chili paste] harissa in preserved lime sauce," Duplechan says.
"Chilies and lime and goat, those things transcend different hot weather places, right? So, people from Mexico come in here and they eat this dish and they’re like, ‘This reminds me so much of what I ate during my childhood.’ Other diners come in here, eat the same dish and say, 'Oh, this is just like something I ate in Morocco.' So that’s kind of the idea, that commonality.”
In other words, certain elements link the food of hot weather places, from Texas to Thailand. “We’re using chili peppers. There’s heat in almost everything,” Maher says. Duplechan notes that Lenoir is using about eight different varieties of chilies, all of which grow well in Texas.
A French element also adds sophistication to the overall Lenoir dining experience. The menu is prix fixe, so dinner consists of three courses: $35 for an appetizer, entrée and dessert.
Citrus also plays a starring role on Lenoir’s menu. Seafood and smaller farm animals figure heavily, too — you won’t find much beef. “Cows don’t naturally grow that well in Texas,” Duplechan explains. “It takes a lot of work to get them to do that.”
Our crawfish dish is another thing that really ties everything together. It’s soft-shell crawfish [from Louisiana], which I’d never heard of until about a month ago. You can eat it, shell and all. We serve that on top of a salad that has wild boar — it’s been ground and cooked — and tossed with herbs like lemon verbena and mint. There’s toasted rice in the dish, too. And then a fish sauce and lime dressing. The concept for the salad comes from northern Thailand. But all the stuff — the herbs, the rice, the meat — grows great here in Texas.
It’s no accident that the same ingredients that grow well in Texas’ summer heat also cool the body, Duplechan tells me. “Basically, spices make you sweat,” he says. “Sweat cools you down, so it’s like putting your natural A/C into overdrive.”
Maher adds that Lenoir’s food is also super-hydrating. “The citrus and the herbs have lots of water, minerals. A crispy, watery crunch thing is essential to all of our dishes.”
There's a French touch that stitches global recipes and local ingredients together. That French influence might show up in a Lenoir entrée as a hint of butter. Or, Duplechan adds, “It can be about something as simple as having a clear broth rather than a cloudy broth, or having fish removed from the bone, rather than having to pick it off at the table.”
A French element also adds sophistication to the overall Lenoir dining experience. The menu is prix fixe, so dinner consists of three courses: $35 for an appetizer, entrée and dessert. There’s also a wine menu, which features lots of whites, Rieslings and roses. All pair well with summer food. Maher tells me that diners often spend up to two hours at the restaurant, whose menu rotates weekly in answer to subtle shifts in local produce.
I ask Maher how dessert fits in with the restaurant’s hot-weather menu, because dessert can weigh the body down. Pastry goddess that she is, Maher’s figured out a formula: “I have put things on the menu where I’m like, ‘This is Lenoir dessert.’ Because it’s light. But it’s craveable, you know? We’re in the height of fruit season for Texas right now, so I’m making a lot of fruit pies. I still incorporate ginger or lemon zest. Something so it’s not too heavy.”
She also tells me she loves cardamom, and Duplechan mentions that his favorite desert of Maher’s is Arroz con Leche ice cream, a kind of re-imagined horchata with milk and toasted rice. These are pureed, spiced with cardamom and orange zest, then frozen. Maher serves the ice cream at Lenoir with coconut cake and pineapple. Definitely craveable!
When they’re not at home or at Lenoir, Duplechan and Maher go to South Austin’s Whip In to satisfy their hot weather food cravings. They say it corners the market on distinctly Austin Indian food. Other foodies in town have different go-tos.
Elizabeth Winslow, owner of Farmhouse Delivery service says, “We love summer dinners at Texas French Bread! Their simple suppers of just-harvested ingredients are always light and incredibly flavorful and leave us satisfied without feeling weighed down. If there is gazpacho on the menu, I definitely order that! Cooling tamarind drinks at La Condesa also keep us cool.”
Matt Shook, owner of Austin’s JuiceLand and Juicebox can also help you out in that regard.
The Cold Shower at JuiceLand is watermelon mint cucumber parsley salt and lime; 24 ounces of it on a summer day is undeniable. The Head Cheerleader has more tang yet does the same job at Juicebox. It is watermelon raspberry lemon juice. [Aside from juice,] I personally like the Jungle Curry at Madam Mam’s. It is the most painful meal in town and makes me appreciate 100 degree air after a good session with it.”
If you can't beat the heat, join it.
Reservations at Lenoir are strongly recommended. Lenoir is located at 1807 South First Street and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.