Aviary Wine & Kitchen is an Eclectic and Excellent Dining Experience
Executive Chef Andre Molina crafts layered flavors with French techniques on his seasonal, locally-sourced menu
“Shhhh…don’t tell anyone about this place,“ whispered a friend when we crossed paths at Aviary, an under-the-radar restaurant on South Lamar. But her pleas to protect her favorite neighborhood haunt from exposure were futile. Not only was I committed to reviewing this delightful spot, but the cat was already out of the bag.
The crazy thing is that Aviary isn’t new: it’s been around for over 15 years. But it has taken that long for it to evolve into what it is today. Its genesis is unconventional, to say the least. In fact, it didn’t begin as a restaurant at all. Instead, it originally opened as a trendy housewares store that started offering glasses of wine to enhance its clientele’s shopping experience. As the wine program gained popularity, a small but impressive food menu was also introduced, prepared using a single hot plate. Over time, Aviary’s clients became less interested in shopping and more interested in lounging. So in 2017, Aviary Shop & Lounge temporarily closed its doors, eliminated the housewares component, and rebooted as a full service restaurant, Aviary Wine & Kitchen.
Since then, the drumbeat for Aviary has been building. It started with the addition of Beverage Director Alex Wheatley Bell, whose quirky and accessible approach to wine attracted legions of fans. Bell began showcasing lesser-known and naturally produced wines with a list that featured lots of boutique producers and unexpected varietals. Local vinophiles loved it.
Then Aviary did something that really got people’s attention: it hired Executive Chef Andre Molina. A native Texan who honed his culinary skills in New York City, Molina returned to his home state to work in some of Austin’s finest kitchens: Barley Swine, Odd Duck, Jeffrey’s and Intero. Upon his arrival at Aviary, the restaurant’s food went from good to great.
Molina’s style is grounded in classic French techniques, but he colors way outside of the lines. His food is complex and layered yet also accessible and comforting. It’s a genius balancing act. Plus, it looks as good as it tastes, which isn’t surprising since Molina originally dreamed of being a food stylist.
The seasonal, locally sourced menu changes frequently, so each visit offers new temptations. But there are a few signature items that anchor the menu, like the Aviary Egg, a must-order snack inspired by battered and fried Scotch Eggs and cured Asian Century Eggs. On one visit it was sliced open and garnished with pearls of ruby trout roe, while on another it was gilded with a glistening white anchovy. The Beef Tartare is another mainstay — silky diced wagyu beef, studded with rotating mix-ins like crispy fried capers, chives, egg yolk and spicy n’duja vinaigrette. And there’s always some sort of seafood crudo, such as cubes of sweet, fresh scallops accented with preserved lemon, cascabel chiles and slivered radish.
On a recent visit, there was excellent potato gnocchi, nestled in a pool of creamy Italian cheese sauce, drizzled with basil oil, and dusted with breadcrumbs. The roasted carrots blew our mind. Served atop a whipped curry carrot purée and matcha salsa, they were deceptively simple yet outrageously flavorful. And the real wild card one evening was a beef-and-lamb kafta patty, baked in a cabbage leaf, then smothered in a tasty but surprising blue sauce and dappled with yogurt. For those less daring, there’s a popular Smashburger and French fries.
Wine shares top billing at Aviary, and the knowledgeable staff happily help diners navigate the eclectic list and recommends perfect pairings. As you’d expect from a former home design store, the restaurant is chic and stylish, yet incongruously tucked into a generic strip center among a barbershop, nail salon, CBD dispensary and sports bar.
There are few restaurants doing it better right now — food, wine, service, ambiance — than Aviary. And there are few chefs having more fun in the kitchen than Andre Molina. This joyful mad scientist likes to play with his food while keeping his customers deliciously delighted. It’s no secret: this extraordinary little restaurant has hit its stride.