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January 10, 2008

Fino, 2905 San Gabriel

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Emmett and Lisa Fox opened Fino. Their venerable Hyde Park trattoria Asti had, over the years, balanced its cozy charm and creativity with inconsistent execution and some downright bombs. For every revelatory seasonal soup there seemed to be a mess like the last house-made papardelle I had there, which came out thick and gummy enough that it might as well have emerged from a Wrigley’s wrapper.

But Italian is hard (and even harder to write about, what with the Tuscany-summering, message board-patrolling authenticity police lecturing random sandwich eaters on the correct singular construction of panino), and the spectrum of Italian restaurant quality is a bell curve with a gut full of mediocrity. The gulf between merely edible and good is tremendous, and while Asti was closer to good, it couldn’t make it there every night.

Fino shares little of the dark intimacy of Asti; instead, a bright, modern space was crafted in the shell of the late (and not particularly lamented) Granite Café. A large community table gleams just behind the bar and the inevitably young, attractive hostess, but there is plenty of standard seating both inside and outside, and a surprisingly inviting patio waiting area that may be one of the best spots in town to enjoy a quiet cocktail. Occupying a nether region that is neither downtown nor campus nor north Austin, Fino is mercifully bereft of the open-shirt, pointy-shoe crowds of wealthy young jerkwads urbanites that overrun most of the decent restaurants downtown and just south of the river.

In fact, despite the slightly contrived interior, Fino doesn’t feel much like a “spot” at all – the patrons seem to care more about food and wine than being seen, and it’s not unusual to see the same couple or group sitting across from you an hour or two in, finishing a bottle of wine or chatting into the night. Service is unhurried and a little inconsistent, and while I wish some of the servers were more enthusiastic about the food, there are few places in town I feel as comfortable closing down on a weeknight.

Fox’s Mediterranean/Spanish (Middle Eastern and North African are thrown in for good measure) concept mixes some crowd-pleasing standards – the Serrano ham and Manchego sandwich at lunch is an instant classic – with seasonal specials that often incorporate local and/or organic ingredients. Cravings for Greek salad or fried calamari can be satisfied at Fino, but the restaurant’s gems are the many small plates and a few well-crafted entreés.

Among the best: A nearly perfect chicken tagine with preserved lemon (this seems to appear seasonally); a flatbread with Serrano ham and Manchego small plate, nearly rudderless in its standard form but transformed into high art with the addition of a fried egg on top (you have to ask for it); a generous bowl of soft polenta with house-made chorizo and spicy tomato sauce, so hearty and comforting you want to personally witness the passionate act of Spanish-Italian intimacy that must have given birth to it.

The misses here are few, but they are notable. The salads are often uninspired, overdressed or both, Fox’s admirable preference for local greens notwithstanding. The wine list would benefit from the same adventurous spirit that informs both the kitchen and the bar; while I will never, ever try a blueberry-infused bourbon again, God bless the unhinged maniac who thought it might be worth drinking. And our last trip was marred by a couple of lukewarm dishes; to their credit, the waiter and the manager took care of the problem promptly.

Fino is one of the more enjoyable restaurants in Austin, which is not to say it is one of the best. There is more exquisitely crafted and imaginative food, and better service, but Fino is affordable, friendly and often very good. Try it for lunch and you might be surprised at the meal you can get for a reasonable bit of scratch. Dinner is more expensive, especially when booze enters the picture, but you can nosh your way around a few small plates and a couple glasses of wine and walk out happy. Spend a fall evening out on the patio and you’ll see what I mean; you might even see me, flush from too much Rioja, jabbering well past last call.


Posted by brentbuford at 10:34 PM | Comments (0)