A Wink and a Smile
Two longtime chefs build their dream restaurant
1014 N. Lamar, 482-8868
Monday-Saturday, 6-11pm (reservations accepted)
Long before chefs Stewart Scruggs and Mark Paul were rather unceremoniously relieved of their high-profile positions at Brio Vista early this year, the two friends began to formulate the restaurant concept of their dreams. The two Austin native sons knew they wanted a small casual fine dining outlet with no more than 50 seats, a place where they could feature a degustation-style menu with smaller portions and more affordable prices. They anticipated shopping daily for fresh ingredients and changing both the menu and wine list to reflect a seasonal palate.
Post Brio, Scruggs and Paul put together a business plan and began searching for investors and the perfect space in which to realize their dream. They banked on their professional training (Scruggs at the Culinary Institute of America and Paul at the French Culinary Institute) and years of combined experience to attract investment capital and found backing even though the ultra hot Austin restaurant market was cooling. When a small Mexican restaurant called Ay Chiwawa went out of business last spring, the partners knew they'd found just the right spot in which to set up shop. The tiny restaurant space tucked behind Whole Earth Provision Co. on North Lamar was the original home of one of Austin's most successful eateries, Castle Hill Cafe. In addition to the potential for residual good-cooking karma, the space also boasted a great central city location with plenty of off-street parking, a priceless asset in traffic-cursed downtown Austin. After several weeks of remodeling accomplished by the chefs, their friends, and family, Wink opened to enthusiastic crowds in midsummer. It's been building a loyal following based on good word of mouth ever since.
We visited Wink soon after it opened this summer and again just recently. I couldn't be more pleased with or impressed by the food and service in this classy new dinner house. The small dining room is painted in earth tones, with a comfortable leather banquette along one wall and mirrors on the other to create the illusion of more space. I have only one real complaint to get out of the way before indulging in heaps of praise. On our first visit, all the hard surfaces in such a small area made for an unpleasant noise level even though the restaurant was only half full. Both the proprietors assured us that new ceiling tiles would soon be installed to absorb some of the sound. When we returned, the promised tiles were in place but an overflow crowd of diners, both those seated alongside us and the large group overwhelming the waiting areas, made for an ever-escalating crescendo of distracting noise. This sound debacle was aggravated by a squalling toddler whose inconsiderate parents allowed her to roam free among the full tables, annoying us and impeding the busy wait staff. In other words, if you're seeking a quiet, romantic setting for intimate conversation over dinner, Wink is probably not your best choice.
However, if you're looking for an exemplary meal carefully crafted from fresh, seasonal ingredients and served in a loud, friendly atmosphere, Wink is your kind of place. Chefs Stewart Scruggs, Mark Paul, and their able sous chef, Eric Polzer, spend mornings shopping for ingredients that will comprise each evening's menu offerings. Polzer is the designated forager, a regular at Boggy Creek Farm. Wink's delectable summer menus boasted hand-picked Boggy Creek tomatoes in a wildly popular dish of roasted tomatoes stuffed with succulent crab meat plus a refreshing cold soup made with the farm's cucumbers and herbs. Scruggs and Paul get their daily inspiration from items such as the exquisite Kobe beef at the Meat Shop and lovely little brown figs in the Central Market produce department. With such a small number of tables to cook for each evening, Scruggs regularly describes assembling the menu at Wink as "cooking for a dinner party every night."
After sampling a selection of appetizers, entrées, and desserts from Wink's fall menu, I can heartily endorse the work of the restaurant's entire creative team. An appetizer of Seared Foie Gras With Black Currant Tartlette and Curry Sauce ($14) was a truly remarkable combination, with the curry sauce providing a sassy counterpoint to the rich, unctuous foie gras and the sweet currants. Carpaccio of Kobe Beef ($12) offered wafer-thin ruffles of ruby-red meat with marbling that resembled fine, delicate lace. Dressed with only a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of sea salt, it was a stunning treat. My appetizer of Duck Confit With Wild Mushroom Ragout ($10) appeared with tender shreds of duck meat and earthy mushrooms encased in flaky puff pastry, surrounded by a heart-stopping, voluptuous foie gras hollandaise. Clean plates all around.
While the entrée I chose was the most expensive item on the menu, the rack of lamb ($22) proved to be the simplest preparation I encountered. Two medium-rare chops were arranged over carrot and potato batonettes and an ample serving of richly flavored tomato confit in a vegetable demi-glace. Each bite of lamb, vegetables, and tomato was a satisfying marriage of simple flavors, complimented by a glass of the southern Rhone blend Le Mas de Collines Gigondas 1998 ($9.25) suggested by our very knowledgeable server. Also at our table that night, Seared Rare Tuna ($20) came on a bed of bok choy with a complex sauce of grilled sweet onions and earthy balsamic vinegar while perfectly Roasted Sweetbreads ($16) sat atop a slice of toasted brioche with figs in a subtle port reduction. We gladly shared plates around the table. Quite a fall menu, indeed.
The appetizer and entrée portion sizes at Wink are designed to encourage room for dessert, allowing pastry chef Mark Paul's skills an opportunity to shine, and shine they do. Paul's lovely Lemon Meringue Pot ($6.50) is one of the two best desserts I've tasted in Austin this year. Dainty meringue "pots" are filled with a delightfully astringent light lemon curd and garnished with candied lemon zest and plump, fresh berries. It's a lemon lovers dream dessert, not to be missed. Chocoholics will naturally gravitate to the Chocolate Zin ($6.50): Bittersweet chocolate and Zinfandel-infused cherries are wrapped in sheets of filo pastry and baked, arriving at the table warm. One touch of the fork and the filo crashes in crispy shards to be gobbled up in the rich, winey sauce. Chocolate and Zinfandel make a heavenly combo.
Wink wine steward Gary Thompson divides his time between recommending wine at Central Market and choosing wines for the restaurant's always evolving list. For fall, he's chosen an inviting melange of European, South American, and Australian with a few California and Oregon selections thrown in for good measure. Thompson keeps about 60 vintages on his list at any one time in the price range of $15-$95, with the majority of wines available by the glass. This program encourages the enjoyment of wonderful, affordable wines with Scrugg's subtle, sophisticated seasonal menus. It's a great idea that I applaud, and more restaurants in town would be smart to embrace it.
Service at Wink is friendly and very well informed. On each visit, our servers were well-versed in the nuances of the food they were serving and capable of making credible suggestions for wine pairings. Seated so close to the other diners, we were able to observe the same excellent level of service at other tables and we marveled at the nimble dance required to navigate such a full dining room. The atmosphere at Wink is lively and a little boisterous. It's obvious the staff members, many of whom followed the chefs from Brio, are happy to be at Wink and proud of the food and wine they're serving. Partners Scruggs and Paul work the dining room like the pros they are, welcoming guests, making suggestions, praising their local purveyors. Dinner in their well-conceived restaurant is likely to inspire a wink and a smile.