Out of This World

Despite a Strange Phenomenon, Mars Still Sparkles

Mars Restaurant & Bar

1610 San Antonio, 472-3901
Sun & Mon, 5:30-10pm; Tue-Thu, 5:30-10:30pm; Fri & Sat, 5:30-11:00pm

photograph by John Anderson
When Mars founder Georgia Coleman announced last spring that she and chef/husband Tim Kartiganer were selling their chic, trendy little mid-town eatery and setting off on a round-the-world adventure, I was concerned that perhaps one of my favorite restaurants would undergo unfortunate changes. I need not have worried. With very few exceptions, the things I appreciated about Mars remain intact under the stewardship of the new owner, longtime manager Lori Simon and her new chef, James Fischer. The uniquely incendiary decor, innovative bar, and understated, professional service are as appealing as ever. And the highly regarded appetizer selection has a few intriguing new stars. Though the entrée menu is missing a particular favorite lamb dish, there are some interesting new choices based on chef Fischer's North African travels. Asian, Indian and Mediterranean influences still predominate, but the chef plans to incorporate some Caribbean Island flavors in off-menu specials in the coming months.

On a recent winter evening, a large group of women joined me for a dinner outing at Mars. Because of the size of the group, we ordered just about everything on the appetizer menu and had a jolly time, sending the lovely plates of tasty tidbits around the table. Stars among equals were the justifiably famous pot stickers ($5.50), the new salmon-wrapped asparagus ($7.95) and the daily special, tuna bites pan-sautéed in crispy bread crumbs ($7.95). Mars all but built a reputation on its pot stickers, dainty pillows of Asian pastry dough filled with a spicy mixture of ground chicken, serrano peppers, mushrooms, and cilantro accompanied by a wonderfully tangy soy and rice wine vinegar sauce for dipping. The asparagus dish was the perfect example of divinely labor-intensive finger foods that are the bane of a chef's existence: Peeled and blanched tender asparagus spears are wrapped in slivers of hardwood smoked salmon, rolled in Japanese bread crumbs and pan sautéed. The elegant little packages are nestled among baby lettuces and spritzed with a delightfully astringent lemon saki aioli. On my subsequent visit, I opted to order a serving of this asparagus that didn't have to be shared.

Encouraged by the appetizer feast, we eagerly awaited our entrées, munching herb-crusted Naan bread and sipping a good BV Carneros Pinot Noir. What happened next was one of the oddest experiences I've ever had in reviewing restaurants. It was as if the talented kitchen staff that had just impressed us with their appetizer expertise were spirited out of the kitchen by aliens and an entirely different group of people prepared our entrées. Of the eight dishes, two were plainly inedible, four were disappointing and the remaining two were merely acceptable. Our collective hearts sank and it wasn't long before the waitress noticed that we weren't attacking our entrées with the same gusto with which we'd devoured the melange of appetizers. She correctly assessed the situation and set about to make amends. Unacceptable dishes were replaced with new entrées or dessert at no charge. She later came back to the table to assure us that when the kitchen saw two plates of the same dish come back uneaten, they sampled it themselves and took it off the menu for the evening.

Contrary to popular belief, restaurant reviewers don't go out gleefully looking for a bad meal just to have the opportunity of slamming a restaurant in print. No one hates a miserable dining experience more than I, but the aplomb with which the Mars staff handled the unfortunate happening led me to believe that the inconsistent quality of the food was an anomaly. Much to my relief, a recent return visit proved that to be the case. Once again, the appetizers were of stellar quality and this time, I shared as few of the asparagus spears as possible. Of particular note on this visit were the Mars baby back ribs ($5.50), a small rack of tender succulent pork ribs in a tangy-sweet Asian barbecue sauce perched atop a serving of the homey garlic mashed potatoes.

Gladly, the entrées on our second visit were equal to the spread that preceded them. One of chef Fischer's menu additions is a North African dish called kafta ($10.50), ground lamb seasoned with cilantro, sweet onions, and toasted cumin. The meat is formed into elliptical nuggets and grilled. Kafta is served on a bed of couscous with a Middle Eastern, green bean ragout called fasoulakia, a cucumber yogurt sauce and tarragon tahini aioli. This was a new and challenging mix of flavors for our group but we found it enjoyable. Because my longtime favorite lamb loin with garlic mashed potatoes and eggplant salad is no longer offered at Mars, I chose an off-menu special, lamb in a red wine reduction sauce ($13.95) and it erased all memories of the former fave from my mind. Lean, tender lamb was braised in an intensely flavored red wine reduction sauce with onions and mushrooms and served atop a steaming serving of pearl-sized Israeli couscous with roasted carrots, squash spears and fennel. Also appreciated that evening were the ricepaper fish ($13.95 market price for mahi-mahi) and shrimp in green curry ($11.95). The quality of all our entrées on the second visit confirmed my decision to give Mars another chance.

Mars has long had a reputation for serving creative, eclectic desserts. Small wonder considering that both Lisa Fox and Tina Haverty are former pastry chefs of the restaurant. Longtime Mars cook Joe Apa prepares many of the Mars desserts these days, especially the ice creams, and the reputation for innovation is safe in his hands. Sample the Planet Eclair ($4.50) some evening and you'll understand. The Mars version of a banana split features sliced bananas sauced with caramel beside a large eclair filled with two flavors of ice cream. One evening, the flavors were banana rum and a fascinating chocolate chili with cinnamon. The other time, we found scoops of banana rum and chocolate mint. It's a good dessert to share.

Mars remains one of my favorite restaurants, one disaster notwithstanding. Restaurants that succeed ultimately do so because of their consistency and their determination to assure the satisfaction of their patrons. Soliciting customer feedback and heeding it is very good business. At Mars, bank on extraordinary appetizers, exemplary waitservice, and a commitment to the loyalty of their clientele.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Virginia B. Wood
Top 10 Savory Bites
Top 10 Savory Bites

Jan. 1, 2016

Open Secret
Open Secret
The not-so-hidden pleasures of dine

Dec. 25, 2015

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle