Monday, June 11, 2007

Food Trip to Austin - Part 1 - Wink

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.


Anonymous said...

What about the hearts of palm? Were they fresh?

Anonymous said...

uchi is great, esp dessert. also try mirabelle, asti and fino. dale rice's blog always a good read.
if pic or aries was open, fiddle heads would be on the menu , la laurier and t'afia seem like places to also have those ingredients, maybe even glass wall or shade. check out the new issue of food and wine mag, has some great, 'innovative' recipes from the new best chefs,ie: knuckle sandwich.

when will you review max's?

Suma Valluru said...


the info you gave about the place is very nice...

suma valluru

anonymouseater said...

-I don't know whether the hearts of palms were fresh, but they did seem different in texture from the jarred ones I usually get.

-As much as I like Cafe Laurier, Glass Wall, and Shade (especially Shade), they don't seem to go for the exotic ingredients so much. Although each place has an individual character, they seem content to hang back from the cutting edge.

-Max's Wine Dive is on my radar, but I haven't been there yet. It seems everyone else has.

Michael said...

I ate at Wink a few months ago and overall was extremely pleased. Okay, the bottom line on the bill hurt a little, but the food was great and I enjoyed the slow service (and appreciated that it was explained up-front). I had the steamed Mussels with lemongrass "appetizer" and found it an impressive feast. There were tons of mussels and in a looser setting I may have found myself drinking the white wine/seafood broth from the bowl. The seared duck was delicious and all of the produce on the table was extremely fresh. Perhaps the best part was the extremely reasonable prices accompanying their wine list. They appear to have a semi-attached wine bar that I look forward to trying out.

Anonymous said...

wink is a really good restaurant, the wife and i enjoy dining there whenever we get up to austin. while in houston, we enjoy t'afia alot. monica pope's philosophy is "eat where your food lives" fiddleheads may be hard to come by in southeast texas. my maine friends bring them back to houston every spring and prepared right they are delicious. i find it funny that foods become "trendy" as if the dinnerplate was a "catwalk" for the latest fashion....good food is good food.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to see fiddleheads actually on menus just because it's a seasonal thing and you can't always get it in. I think I've seen it on several specials at Quattro, 17, Catalan, and Gravitas.

I don't think things like fiddleheads and ramps and morels are actually "trendy," but these these ingredients are so seasonally spring, that you see it on everyone's menu at once. (I actually think ramps have like a 4 week harvesting period.

I hope you enjoy yourself at Uchi, if you get a chance, go to Vespaio Enoteca. Not exactly cutting edge, but just great overall good food.