I lived in Austin briefly in 1991 and 1992. Back then, Austin's food could only compete with Houston's food in a few categories: barbecue (Salt Lick, Stubbs), Tex-Mex (Matt's El Rancho, Las Manitas), and chicken fried steak (Threadgill's). Sure, Austin had some stuffy, Continental-style, upscale restaurants like Jeffrey's and the Driskill Grill. But only Hudson's on the Bend, a game-based restaurant on Lake Travis, was truly innovative. And for even the most basic ethnic foods, like Lebanese, Indian, Vietnamese, and Japanese, Austin was a barren wasteland.
Last weekend I took a food trip to Austin to investigate an awful rumor -- that fine dining in Austin may now be more progressive than fine dining in Houston.
I have sad news to report. That rumor may be true.
wink restaurant sounds too cute. Its home is a small, noisy room on South Lamar, filled with equal parts (1) young beautiful people, and (2) food nerds. The menu has no capitalization. It does not identify dishes as either appetizers and entrees. And the menu proudly proclaims a few statements of purpose:
"wink restaurant is pleased to be a member of the international slow food movement"
"wink is proud to work with austin's local farms and gardens."
The wine list (unfortunately called the "winklist") is equally geeky. Most bottles are under $50. Well-known wines are studiously avoided. Instead, the list is populated by wines like Mourvedre from Bandol, Grenache from Paso Robles, Petite Sirah from Lodi, Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil, and Pinot Meunier from Mendocino. I tried to order a $99 pinot noir from the Saint Lucia Highlands. When the wine guy discovered they were out, he guided me toward the $37 pinot meunier, which may have been much better. How many restaurants in Houston would down sell a wine customer like that?
Despite its veneer of foodie pretentiousness and wine geekiness, wink really does deliver where it matters -- on its ingredients. Although trendy, they were fresh, very flavorful, and well-prepared.
I started with an appetizer (?) of "shaved summer black truffles on handcut fettucini," which may have been the tiniest portion of pasta I have ever been served. The few strands of pasta were covered with extremely thin shavings of black truffles, and accented with very flavorful tiny tomatoes and a green pesto sauce.
Even better was my entree (?) of "roasted branzini & porcini mushrooms with salsify, fiddlehead ferns, and charred corn vinaigrette." This dish sounded like an attempt to set the world's record for trendy ingredients. Yet they all worked well together. The branzini was a succulent, flaky white fish, with a crispy skin. The porcini mushrooms were fresh, not reconstituted as in 95 percent the American restaurants that serve them. The distinctively curled fiddlehead ferns struck my wife as odd: "They smell like an old library book." I found their flavor more green, like fresh snow peas. And the pickled salsify and charred niblets of fresh corn added even more complexity to the dish's earthy and garden-like flavors.
My wife ordered an equally outstanding appetizer (?) of "seared dayboat scallops with morel mushrooms, hearts of palm, and pickled ramps." Apparently, the phrase "dayboat scallop" means a scallop caught on a one-day fishing trip. But in this case, it might also mean "a scallop as big as your fist." The two enormous scallops rested in a creamy stew of trendy ingredients, such as the ramps (wild leeks) and morels, which are my favorite kind of mushroom.
This was my third visit to wink in five years. Each time, the food gets better, and more cutting edge. In my opinion, it has easily surpassed all of Austin's more expensive, old guard restaurants, with the possible exception of Hudson's.
wink's trendiness would make it right at home in San Francisco or New York. But at the moment, there is nothing quite like it in Houston. The only restaurant that comes close is Monica Pope's T'afia -- a wonderful "local food" restaurant with a philosophy that resembles "slow food." Yet T'afia's dishes are less busy, a little more austere, and not quite so trendy. On my last few visits, the dishes at T'afia have been hit or miss --not quite as interesting as wink, and not quite as innovative.
Perhaps I should make this argument another way. Surely, there is some restaurant in Houston that serves new ingredients like fiddlehead ferns. They are quite trendy right now, showing up in all the gourmet food magazines and on all the best New York menus. And I know you can buy them at Central Market. So why don't I see them popping up on menus in Houston? Why do our menus seem several years behind the national curve?
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that good food needs to be trendy. I am saying that, in a big city like Houston, we ought to have access to some restaurant that is as cutting edge as Wink -- if for nothing else, just to see what all the fuss is about fiddlehead ferns.
NEXT: On the advice of a reader, I finally try Austin's Uchi.