April 09, 2009


Moving the site over to Wordpress and back shortly with more reviews. Stay tuned....

Posted by brentbuford at 10:54 AM | Comments (0)

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)

February 05, 2007

Spec's, 5775 Airport Blvd.

Spec's arrived in Austin late last year with moderate fanfare, a bespectacled, flag-waving rabbit, and a warning from a wine distributor friend in Houston that the chain would put a serious dent in the business of places like Central Market and Grapevine Market. Unless Austin foodies and wine drinkers really wish to adopt the monochromatic, California-cum-Franco-centric predilections of Houstonians, I'm not sure that the major fine wine and food retailers in Austin have that much to worry about.

Let's start with the wine. The focus seems to be French wines and big California reds, to the notable exclusion of much of the rest of the world. In the midst of 25,000 square feet of wine and food, I counted perhaps 20 bottles of Italian wine, although it may have been closer to a dozen. Much the same can be said for Spanish, Australian, New Zealand and many other prominent producers. The ratio of French and California reds to all of the other wines combined is probably two to one.

I'm not sure if this reflects a philosophical/gastronomical direction or is merely the result of a particular purchasing and distribution strategy, but it certainly doesn't make for a very exciting wine buying experience. Both Central Market and Grapevine pack much more compelling wine selections into smaller spaces than Spec's. Spec's may have better pricing, but if I can't find a decent Priorat or a Lagrein there, what's the point?

Despite the odd selection, there are some good wines to be had, and I appreciate the chain's 5% discount for cash/check/debit purchases. The beer selection is good, though not great — if you want that really obscure Trappist ale, you're still better off with Grapevine or CM.

On the gourmet food side, Spec's packs in a competent array of chocolates, coffees, sauces, olives, crackers, chips and a few unique items in the freezer section. The meat counter houses a small selection of prosciutto, ham, turkey and other meats, along with very good take-and-bake bread, including a pesto loaf that was spectacularly rich and satisfying.

Two small cheese cases frame the meat counter, but I found the cheese I purchased (a Montegrappa and a Cabrales) improperly wrapped; both grew additional surface mold quickly and were dried out within 4-5 days. Someone needs to turn on the heat on the shrink-wrapper.

I hope Spec's adjusts their wine mix for a wider audience. Classic French wines are wonderful — and there is much to discover here in the Rhones and others — but I'm not sure that they deserve to completely dominate a modern wine shop along with entire rows of merlots and cabs. Give us some variety and we'll be back.

Not Recommended.

Posted by brentbuford at 09:04 PM | Comments (0)