Verbena Is a Downtown Oasis with Superb, Vegetable-Forward Dishes

Tribeza’s food critic ventures out of quarantine – safely – to try Chef Nic Yanes’ menu in a garden setting

By Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
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It was inevitable. One day I’d return to restaurants. It is my job, after all. So after seven months of quarantine-imposed abstinence, I finally went out to eat. Not takeout. Not delivery. But a proper sit-down meal. And it was momentous.

I waited a long time to reenter Austin’s dining scene. With a household member who’s at high risk for COVID, I couldn’t take the chance. But as the virus started slowing and restaurants started reopening, my antennae went up. Still, I waited, giving restaurants time to fine-tune their COVID procedures. Finally, the time felt right. Hibernation was over.

Options for my first outing were thoughtfully considered and prerequisites were stringent: There had to be outdoor dining and strict adherence to COVID protocol. Of course, it had to be delicious, but I also wanted someplace new. After months of ordering takeout from my old standbys—Home Slice, TLV, Pool Burger, Nixta Taqueria, Upper Crust, Wu Chow, Tiny Boxwoods, et al.—I wanted something different. My favorites had done me right during quarantine and I was grateful, but now I craved new scenery and stimulation.

I chose Verbena, located in downtown’s chic new Canopy hotel. Talk about chutzpah. The restaurant and hotel debuted in July, smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic. Verbena ticked all my boxes: It was new and fresh and offered socially distanced courtyard dining. And I knew it’d be delicious with chef Nic Yanes (Juniper, Uncle Nicky’s) at the helm.

On the night of my maiden voyage, I was giddy with excitement and jittery with nerves. Would I feel safe? What would I wear? After seven months of sweatpants, I was thrilled to dress up again, although I’d almost forgotten how to apply mascara. As we approached Verbena, any fears of safety were quickly assuaged. The staff offered warm greetings behind their masks and directed us to a spotless, appropriately spaced table in the restaurant’s airy courtyard. Thanks to the brilliant architectural work of Lake Flato, the patio is an urban oasis: Towering trees wrapped in twinkle lights soar above a Zen waterfall and cozy outdoor fireplace; walls of glass frame views of the indoor dining room and cocktail lounge, resplendent with vibrant art. Located on the street level of bustling West Sixth Street, it all feels perfectly Austin: stylish yet relaxed and inviting.

Once seated, we were provided QR codes for downloading the menu to our phones, a clever alternative to unsanitary traditional menus. Chef Yanes and his talented chef de cuisine, Matt Marcheselli (who hails from NYC and worked with noted chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller), have crafted vegetable-forward dishes that highlight regionally sourced meat, fish and poultry. The result is creative, delectable food that’s fresh and light yet still familiar and comforting.

We began with the potato rosti, a dish that’s destined to become a signature item. A disk of crisp shredded potato is topped with sweet blue crab, avocado, corn, jalapeño, cilantro and sumac. The effect is a crazy potato mini-pizza that’s savory and salty yet bright like sunshine. We gobbled it down in minutes. Next came beef tartare, a sly spin on a classic served as finger food and nestled into cups of baby gem lettuce. Served atop a bowl of crushed ice, it was both elegant and approachable. Big enough to share, the 8 Lettuce Tossed Salad was a colorful composition of garden-fresh greens, radishes, cucumbers and seeds tossed in a lip-smacking roasted-lemon vinaigrette.

We moved on to grilled arctic char, the sweet pink fish resting on a mound of aromatic jasmine rice, garnished with green olives and cherry tomatoes, then gilded with green zhug, a Mediterranean cousin of chimichurri that’s spiked with herbs and lemon. Verbena elevates pedestrian chicken thighs to new heights—roasting them until the skin is crisp and golden and the meat succulent—but its side dish almost stole the show. Potato pave, an upscale version of scalloped potatoes, looked like a piece of art and tasted even better. Someone in Verbena’s kitchen really knows their way around potatoes.

Our evening ended with the dark-chocolate crunch bar, a sweet and salty confection of white coffee cream enrobed in dark chocolate, then dusted with a Marcona almond crumble and sea salt—a light yet decadent finale to a delightful meal. Verbena offers a full bar of creative cocktails and a beer and wine list featuring both domestic and global selections, including international finds like the Olianas Vermentino from Sardinia, an Italian white that complemented everything we sampled.

I couldn’t have picked a better spot for my restaurant homecoming. Verbena was lovely and delicious and, best of all, made me feel safe and nurtured. We call it the “hospitality industry” for a reason, and I’d almost forgotten how extraordinary it is to be taken care of. For a brief time, my husband and I almost forgot about the difficult times we’ve endured and continue to navigate. We almost felt normal again. And Verbena helped remind us there’s still a big, joyful, delicious world out there waiting to be savored.


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