Despite (or because of) its hotel bearings, Finn & Porter is a haute spot on the Austin dining scene
Finn & Porter
500 E. Fourth, 493-4900
Hotel restaurants generally face a skeptical home crowd who assume that the place must be overpriced and filled with bored business travelers. Over the years, we've had some very good places here in Austin that buck that trend, like the Four Seasons, the Driskill, and the Stephen F. Austin. But I spent a number of years living in hotel rooms and I can tell you that "Hilton" is not the first word that pops into my mind when I'm thinking of haute cuisine. As it turns out, Finn & Porter is full of surprises.
The first surprise is visual. Instead of being a quiet and dark place with tablecloths and fine china, Finn & Porter is a modern, brightly lit place with a ceiling soaring up about 40 feet. Everything from the dramatic stairway entry (be sure to enter from the bar the first time you come) to the enormous windows facing the Convention Center is contemporary. Even the comfortably spaced tables are dressed with avant-garde serving dishes and sans tablecloths.
The second surprise comes from the menus two of them. The larger is filled with imaginative seafood dishes and steaks; the smaller menu is loaded with innovative preparations for sushi. On our first night, we decided to put their sushi man to the test with three simple nigiri preparations. Their Hamachi ($6; all prices are for two nice-sized pieces) was sweet and had just the right texture. Ditto for the Unagi ($4), which had been cooked till it was warm all through but still juicy and tender. Their Uni ($7) was as good as I've had anywhere in the U.S., creamy and firm and filled with flavor.
We moved over to the main menu, starting with a bowl of Lobster Bisque ($6) that was sinfully rich and creamy with a nice hit of Sherry. It was also ample enough that a person looking for a light meal could enjoy it along with the complementary loaf of brioche for a very inexpensive night on the town. The next dish was our only disappointment of the night. The Heirloom Tomatoes & Fresh Mozzarella ($8) arrived with tomatoes that had clearly seen some time in a refrigerator they were mushy. Nonetheless, the flavors were still wonderful, especially the tasty vinaigrette. For entrées, we tried a couple of absolute winners. Lobster lovers will go nuts for the Vanilla Bean Butter Poached Cold Water Lobster ($28), a whole shellfish with just a hint of vanilla aroma, artistically displayed on a bed of mushroom risotto and sautéed spinach with a lemon butter sauce. Even better were the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($25), which came on chive pancakes with fried leeks and lemon butter. These were made like you find in Maryland, huge, thick, and made with real lump crab and almost no filler. We finished with the Trio of Crème Brûlée ($6): three espresso cups, one each with cappuccino, vanilla, and Grand Marnier custards. The last had berries soaked in Flat Creek Muscat, and all three had the creamy texture and delicious flavors that only come from using the best ingredients.
We went back a few nights later to try several more dishes. This time, under the assumption that if they name a dish for the restaurant (or vice versa) it must be important, we tried the Finn & Porter ($8). What arrived was a beautiful rectangular plate with three almost impossibly thin slices of raw beef tenderloin with a few slivers of sea salt on the left and a scoop of finely chopped tuna tartar on the right. The flavors were fresh and clean, and even though the servings were small, the quality was so high that I consider it one of the great bargains on the menu. We tried one other starter that is strictly for the big appetite crowd. Cold Water Lobster Fritters ($11) are several large deep-fried lobster fritters with two dipping sauces: an aioli made with chopped up bacon and caramelized shallots and a plum compote. The dish was decadently rich but delicious. The Porter side of the menu includes prime beef, and we tried two steaks. The Rib Eye Bone-In ($34) was a monster 22 oz. steak, perfectly marbled, and cooked exactly as ordered with just a light daub of Bernaise sauce. Their Center Cut Filet ($28) was a more reasonable 8 oz. and tender as a mother's love.
The steaks went beautifully with a bottle of Chateau Greysac ($32), a nicely tannic wine that reminded us why the French like Bordeaux with their steak frites. Finn & Porter has more than 150 wines, about 20 by the glass, and the prices are fair as long as you avoid the "expense account" wines. Some of the better bargains are the Eroica Riesling ($36), David Frost "Gene Sarazen" Sauvignon Blanc ($26), Snoqualmie Vineyards Cabernet ($28), and Catena Malbec ($36).
Two small complaints stem from that gorgeous open ceiling. The noise from the bar can get a little out of hand, and, in order to keep the bar cool, the restaurant can get cold enough to warrant coats and sweaters.
The service staff was wonderful from the moment we walked in: friendly, professional, and refreshingly attentive in every possible way. Combined with the first-rate food and gorgeous setting, Finn & Porter is a most welcome addition to the Austin food scene.
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