Mission Accomplished

After more than a decade, Mars' adventurous menu might not be as challenging as it once was, but it's still one of the best in town

Asian Baby Back Ribs
Asian Baby Back Ribs (Photo By John Anderson)

Mars Restaurant & Bar

1610 San Antonio St., 472-3901

Monday, 5-10pm; Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10:30pm; Friday, 5-11pm; Saturday, 5:30-11pm; Sunday, 5:30-10pm

Fine dining in Austin has come a long way since Mars first opened in 1992. Back then, the Asian-inspired fusion cuisine of Mars was considered adventurous and exotic, containing ingredients we could barely pronounce. These days, most of us are familiar with the "it's a small world" approach to cooking, and happily enjoy "adventurous" foods on a daily basis. Regardless of the familiarity we might have with fusion cuisine, Mars still provides an exciting and flavorful dining experience.

On a recent evening, we popped in for happy hour and found a delightful place to wait out rush hour traffic. The playful yet elegant decor, the soft lighting, and the soothing music made us quickly forget the woes of I-35. We started with the beer and wine specials and some appetizers from Mars' happy hour menu. The Veggie Pot Stickers ($4) were thicker and bigger than average, plump with shredded cabbage, mushrooms, leeks, and scallions, and they had a nice kick from minced chile serrano. The accompanying dipping sauce was light, tangy, salty, and spicy. My husband promptly declared them "the best pot stickers ever." The Asian Baby Back Ribs ($3.50) were served over a scoop of fluffy mashed Yukon gold potatoes flavored with roasted garlic. They were coated with a thick, slightly sweet glaze that tasted of plum sauce and Chinese five-spice (ground cinnamon, fennel, star anise, cloves, and Szechwan peppercorns). I practically licked the plate clean.

We also enjoyed the Mars House Salad, topped with five chile-seared tiger shrimp ($5.50, $4.95 extra for the shrimp). The fresh field greens were garnished with julienned fresh carrot, cucumber, and red bell pepper, and our choice of the soy ginger vinaigrette made for a perfect flavor balance with the sweet and spicy shrimp. From the entrée menu, we chose the Tandoori Flank Steak ($16.95), marinated in a garlic and soy mixture and served with more of those wonderful mashed Yukon golds, steamed mixed vegetables, and pickled vegetables. A dollop of homemade whole grain horseradish mustard on the side added another flavor layer. The pickled vegetables – a tomato wedge and sliced red cabbage – were an excellent foil to the richness of the meat, although the meat could have been a bit more tender. Our server enticed us with the fish special of the evening, a seared filet of Barramundi ($24.95). The fish, a member of the grouper family, has firm white flesh and a delicate flavor. It came out with a delectable crispy skin side and a moist and flaky interior, and was simply presented atop a generous portion of delicate scalloped potatoes and garnished with lightly dressed frisée greens. The tomato parsley coulis, although perhaps a bit salty, was a good flavor choice to enhance rather than mask the fresh flavor of the fish, and it balanced well with the pleasant bitterness of the frisée.

For dessert, we enjoyed the special of the day, an Apple Napoleon ($6.95) made with crisp phyllo dough, tender poached apples, and apple-brandy-flavored whipped cream. The caramel sauce garnish provided the proverbial "cherry on top" to round off this marvelous dessert.

Our dinner at this old Austin favorite was relaxing, fun, and satisfying. The young kitchen staff and the attentive, well-informed waitstaff are keeping Mars right where it belongs: among the stars. end story

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