Fino, Finally

The Foxes' second success

Fino Restaurant Patio & Bar CLOSED

2905 San Gabriel, 512/474-2905,
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri., 11am-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 11am-3pm
Fino, Finally
Photo By John Anderson

Fino Restaurant, Patio & Bar

2905 San Gabriel #200, 474-2905

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday, 5-11pm; Happy Hour: weekdays, 4:30-6:30pm

Once restaurateurs have achieved success with their first venture, they have three options. They can rest on their laurels, attempt to clone their first eatery with a second outlet, or develop a completely new concept in a different location. After a solid success with Asti Trattoria in the Hyde Park neighborhood, chef couple W. Emmett and Lisa Fox chose option No. 3. They spent most of 2004 scouting potential locations and took over the former Granite Cafe space just north and west of the UT campus area early this year. The Foxes hired a local architect making a name for himself designing restaurants of late, Michael Hsu, and interior designer Kasey McCarty, to reimagine the space, creating a distinctly different look for their second venture.

Fino Restaurant, Patio & Bar opened in mid-July of this year with little fanfare, but the word of mouth was instantly good, and crowds soon found their way to the new spot. The look at Fino is all understated contemporary sophistication: clean lines, warm Mediterranean earth tones, an attractive bar, and one of the most inviting outdoor dining spaces in the city. The menu encompasses influences from around the Mediterranean, featuring dishes from Nice to Morocco, Italy to Athens to Valencia, ably executed by chef Tristan White and his team.

On our first visit, we spent a balmy early November evening enjoying selections from the "Small Plates" section of the Fino menu. The tapas-like offerings range in price from $3.50 to $11 and make satisfying appetizers for one diner or a few savory bites for sharing. The Seared Scallops With Cilantro and Pumpkin Seed Pesto ($9) and the Oven-Roasted Shrimp With Goat Cheese and Tomatoes ($9) were both marvelous – perfectly cooked seafood paired with well-balanced sauces. The problem arose with our entrée choice, Seafood Paella ($32) for two, a challenging dish to prepare to order. The Fino version of the Valencian classic arrives in a traditional flat skillet with clams and mussels artfully arranged around the perimeter of the pan and shrimp nestled on top of the rice. Unfortunately, the rice was undercooked and the seasoning of the dish so out of balance that a bitter, resinous flavor predominated in our first few bites. The clams and mussels appeared to have been cooked separately from the rice and broth, rendering them dry and rubbery. It was simply inedible. Our server soon noticed we weren't eating the paella and came to inquire if there was a problem. He handled the situation graciously, listening to our complaints and assuring us the information would be relayed to both the kitchen and the management. The cost of the dish was removed from our final bill.

We finished our meal with stellar desserts, always a hallmark of any operation where Lisa Fox is involved. Be sure to try the Golden Apple Upside-Down Cake ($7), served warm with crisp apples in caramelized sugar crowning a moist, fluffy butter cake, and the Pistachio Baklava ($7), super flaky layers of phyllo and nuts topped with a luscious scoop of Tèo's pistachio gelato.

A subsequent lunch visit found the Fino kitchen firing on all cylinders. We had hearty sandwiches ($8.50) of spicy Moroccan pulled pork and a moist patty of beef and lamb paired with an excellent savory cole slaw with a hint of fresh mint and divinely crunchy pomme frites dusted with coarse salt. The Nicoise Salad ($8.50) here is one of the best I've ever eaten: tender spinach leaves, crisp haricots verts, and toothsome new potato chunks bathed in a light, tangy citrus vinaigrette and dressed with capers, Nicoise olives, cherry tomatoes, tuna, white anchovy fillets, and a soft-poached egg. Another winner is the Duck Confit ($10), a generous leg portion served on a bed of richly flavored lentils complemented by a sauce of crème fraîche and grainy mustard. We had to pass over so many enticing selections that another lunch expedition will soon be necessary.

Service at Fino is friendly and helpful without being cloying. The staff is very knowledgeable, willing, and capable of making informed recommendations about the food and wines. The wonderful small plates are available for half price during weekday happy hours, and Thursday is "Bubbly" day, where glasses of champagne are half price. The overall superior quality of the food and our server's professional handling of the paella fiasco are a clear indication that Fino should be judged by their response to the problem rather than being defined by it. Regular dining at Fino is a fine choice. The Foxes' second effort is another definite winner.

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