Ah, Wink. For a place that's supposed to be one of the best restaurants in town, they've sure served us a couple middle of the road meals.
We wanted to try the place again. After a frankly off-putting experience almost exactly two years ago, where we were kept waiting a half-hour after our 9:00 reservation and were served a super tasty salad, undercooked foie gras and overcooked, mealy gnocchi, we were finally ready to give them another try.
So, how'd they stack up this time? A 45 minute wait past our 9:00 reservation, an interesting and delicious salad, slightly less undercooked foie gras, and burnt gnocchi. It's all about the consistency.
Perhaps we should have stuck with the lesson we learned in 2008: eat in the wine bar, not the restaurant. Wink's wine bar is absolutely excellent. It offers not only a great bar menu - the truffled mac and cheese is amazing, and the chicken liver pate decadent - but you can also order anything you'd like from the restaurant's menu. However, the restaurant itself is just too spotty for us to want to drop $250 (!) there very often.
On to our experience there last week.
We arrived right at 9:00 for our reservation, and were told that it would be a few minutes and that we could wait in the wine bar, which was completely PACKED. A couple of glasses of albarino helped our mood considerably, until about 9:25, when I began to worry we'd been forgotten about. At that point, the bartender came over and kindly apologized for our wait and told us our wine had been taken care of. A nice gesture. (It was a little awkward when the supervisor/manager/front of house person came over and reiterated the bartender's kind offer by saying "Oh, I paid for those." Personally?)
We were finally seated at 9:45. I was so freaking hungry I couldn't think straight. Luckily, we'd had a good bit of time to peruse the menu while waiting for a table and already knew what we wanted to order.
This threw our young waiter off - he froze and asked if he could use one of our menus to take our order. We assured him it was OK if he wanted to go and, say, grab his waiter pad.
First out was a little amuse-bouche from the kitchen, a sweet potato soup with toasted coriander.
This was really good, warming and thick, with a light but not cloying sweetness punched up by the coriander's exotic nose-tingling fragrance. Logan and I agreed we could easily have downed a bowl.
At this point, our Les Charmes 2007 Chardonnay arrived (retails for about $15; sells for $31 - pretty typical restaurant markup, I think.). We both enjoyed this wine, with its light acidity and slight muskiness. It went quite well with our first few dishes.
Wink was absolutely wonderful about coursing our meal. One of our plates was split for us, but most were placed between us so we could share, which was exactly what we wanted.
Our first on-menu dish was a blue cheese panna cotta with baby arugula, brioche croutons, and thyme, in the form of a thyme/red wine gastrique ($15).
How fun! What an interplay of textures and flavors! Imagine a custard that tastes like a mild blue cheese dressing. It was set off by peppery arugula, freshly made toasty croutons, and a tart, herbaceous wine reduction. Such a wonderful idea.
Next up, a dish that didn't fare quite as well - hamachi sashimi with pea shoots, asian pear, almond crumble, and ginger-soy vinaigrette ($19).
First, it was kind of difficult to eat, with the long pea shoots getting tangled up in each other and sticking out of my mouth at unattractive angles. Perhaps I'm just an amateur eater, but I think chopsticks would have made this dish way easier to get from plate to mouth. Also, something about these flavors just didn't mesh for me; the superfresh hamachi got entirely trampled by the strong, earthy pea shoots. The pear and almond crumble added nice textural contrast.
More eating and talking after the jump:
We had a difference of opinion on our next course, seared dayboat scallops on celeriac puree with beech mushrooms, orange and balsamic ($19).
The celeriac puree was stellar. It was perfectly smooth and contained the absolute essence of the sweet root. My scallop was just right, with a beautiful supremed orange segment resting quietly on top, and my little pile of beech mushrooms was savory with light mushroom flavor. Logan thought the dish was a little boring, and he had an odd chunk of something woody in his mushrooms. We stared at it for a while, trying to figure out what it was, and then completely stumped the waiter by asking him. He was totally amenable, running off to the kitchen to try to figure this out for us, but the best he could come up with was that it was some product of deglazing.
This led into our next course, a rustic dish: seared foie gras with grilled red onions, criminis, fingerlings, and port reduction ($22). (Sorry about the picture; Wink is a dark place.)
That little curl of red something or other at the top of the plate, which I thought was red pepper, is actually the tough outer skin of a red onion and should have been tossed in the compost pile well before it had the chance to be plated. We could barely cut through it with our knives and quickly pushed it aside. The foie gras itself was just a bit on the undercooked side, turning from molten richness to juicy goo in the middle of the generous serving. It was good paired with a bit of the roasted potato and a piece of mushroom.
While certainly a fine preparation, this dish didn't play up the foie gras very much and seemed like a missed opportunity to show off this decadent ingredient.
Our last two dishes, the guinea confit and lamb chops, came out at the same time and we passed them back and forth. I started out with the lamb; grassfed lamb rack on caramelized salsify with trumpets royale, arugula, and sherry gastrique ($31).
OK, first - I know that the thing about good lamb is that it's fatty, and I love that, but damn - did they HAVE to bring it out with a solid inch of fat on top of it? Why go to the trouble of frenching the tiny thing if you're going to leave a huge fat chunk clinging to the top of it?
That complaint aside, I really liked the dish. Something about the combination of sassafrassy roasted salsify and the giant meaty mushrooms read as vaguely Asian. The arugula's flavor was very strong, but paired well with the other assertive ingredients. But that fat!
Also, not to get down on an expensive restaurant for, y'know, like being expensive - but you're looking at what amounted to two little lamb lollipops for $31. I mean.
Less of an overall success was the guinea leg confit on potato gnocchi with shiitake mushrooms, rapini, and sauce robert ($27).
It's really too bad this was the last dish we ordered (we were way too full for dessert). It was just this side of disaster. The confit was overseasoned, and its saltiness sent us through several glasses of water. The rapini and shiitakes were fine, but the sauce robert, a mustard sauce that is one of France's "small sauces", was too sharp.
And the gnocchi. This is the second time we've had truly bad gnocchi at this restaurant. Last time, they'd been overworked, which made them gummy, and then overtoasted, which turned them brown and crunchy.
This time, they'd been UNDERworked and overtoasted. Think... little squares of mashed potatoes with a this/far from burnt crust. Not at all the delicious gnocchi I know and love.
As an aside, if anyone knows where I can get a decent plate of gnocchi in this town... well, I'll smother you in kisses and give you a box of chocolates.
We ended our meal with an espresso, which was well-made, even though it came with the cheat of a lemon peel. This is often used in Italy to mask a substandard espresso, but Wink's didn't need it.
One last thing I'd like to say about this restaurant. It is LOUD. And you can't help but be involved in your neighbors' conversations, because they're usually having them mere inches from your seat. Logan and I found ourselves yelling across our table at each other until the restaurant started to empty out towards the end of our meal. We were also afforded the distinct and ongoing pleasure of overhearing an awfully gregarious gentleman pontificating to his table on a variety of subjects, upon which he had wildly varying levels of knowledge, from Twitter ("such a great resource for finding rockin' bars, bro") to port ("tawny port is called that because it's put in a barrel. With fruit.")
I wouldn't take your low-talking date or your hard of hearing friend there.
And that's our fair to middling experience at Wink, echoing a similar one two years ago. I just can't quite get a handle on this place. I know people who say they've had the best meals of their Austin dining life here, and people who say they've yet to have a good meal despite trying multiple times. We fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose. For this price, though, especially in this relatively inexpensive food town, they should be ON, with every dish, and they're just... not.
So, Wink, we'll be back to flirt with your wine bar and enjoy your more than reasonably priced wine list. I just don't think we'll be dining in your dining room again for a little while.
Wink is located at 1014 N. Lamar in Austin. Reservations definitely recommended. 512.482. 8868.