When Mars landed on South Congress, citizens of the 78704 didn't flee in horror from the invaders. On the contrary, diners and sippers have flocked to the transplanted eatery that has been a favorite of Austinites for more than a decade. Newly housed in one of the most smartly developed lots on the avenue, Mars boasts an expansive patio that faces the busy street. Towering live oaks, an elevated patio, and discreet lighting make customers feel they are privileged observers of the scene rather than traffic obstacles for pedestrians to navigate. Given the menu's Asian/Pacific bent, the decor follows suit and is bathed in sleek black with bright-red accents that recall the exotic East, while onion-topped lattices suggest the mysterious casbah.
A quick glance at the menu puts to rest any idea that this is your basic Chinese or even Japanese restaurant, however. When was the last time you saw hummus and baba ghanoush next to spring rolls? There along with other appetizers like rice-paper-wrapped prawns, ahi tuna tartare, and Mars charcuterie. Huh? Charcuterie? Like in Alsace? All right, we decided to bite recently during a late-night snack.
While sipping lovely and icy martinis, three of us delved in to the daintily portioned plate ($11) and were rewarded with a rich pâté with fig preserves, an assortment of hard and soft cheeses, and even the surprising nibble of chocolate. Amid the low lighting that made everyone look beautiful, it was a sophisticated nosh, if thoroughly un-Asian.
In addition to lunch and dinner, Mars has expanded, and dim sum is now being served on Sundays, so we picked a sunny afternoon to give it a try. A signature cocktail, the South Congress Rickshaw ($8), seemed like just thething to start the feasting, and we were right. A tasty mixture of lime-infused gin, pomegranate liqueur, lime juice, and a splash of Sprite, it was a refreshing and bracing beverage. Out rolled cart after cart, leisurely timed to allow for full appreciation of each lovely nibble.
Prices for each dish range from $4 to $6, and we made a pretty comprehensive tour of the carts. The tempura asparagus was crispy, light, and utterly void of grease. A nice textural counterpoint was found in the steamed buns with pork: spongy twist-top pockets filled with a sort of Chinese pulled pork. The cool spring rolls, stuffed with rice noodles, shrimp, cilantro, and crisp vegetables contrasted nicely with the buns and sort of refreshed the palate. The duck batted .500 at our table: Some of us loved the rich flavor of the gamey bird; others found it too fatty to appreciate fully. Bacon-wrapped shrimp sounded great, but the execution was less satisfying. It's a typical problem with the simple dish: The shrimp was overcooked and the bacon undercooked, resulting in a tough shrimp surrounded by a flabby strip of bacon. Still, in all, we encountered only a couple of missteps in the parade of treats and eagerly tucked into the amusing dessert: a chocolate egg roll. A sort of Asian homage to s'mores, it's exactly what the name suggests: chocolate rolled into an egg-roll wrapper and flash-fried.
Our previous experiences made us eager to experience dinner, so on a recent balmy early evening, we were seated on the patio as daylight faded. Our server was attentive and knowledgeable and friendly without being overly familiar, as has consistently been our experience. Servers are dressed in black but not in uniform, lending an air of casual sophistication to the place that perfectly matches its vibe. We had a show to catch, and once informed of our plans, our server accommodated us without rushing.
We began with what we now consider the crowning achievement of Mars: scallops & gyoza ($12). On a narrow plate, two large and plump perfectly seared scallops were interspersed with three half-moon gyoza dumplings. The scallops were absolutely divine: A crisp exterior yielded to a barely cooked, tender, and lusciously sweet interior. As huge and rich as they were, two were ample. Not to mention that they were accompanied by three gyoza filled with a surprising and colorful carrot puree. A couple of artful dollops of Meyer lemon sauce completed the stunning and simple appetizer.
Reluctantly bidding farewell to the scallops, we followed with wasabi salmon ($22) and tandoori chicken ($20). The salmon, too, is seared and cooked to order and served with sticky rice and vegetables of the day. The salmon was lovely, and the white wasabi cream, also in artful dollops on the plate, was surprisingly tame. The initial taste of wasabi leaves one braced for heat, but plenty of cream has tamed the sauce into submission. The vegetables that day were carrots and an on-the-stalk leafy green of some sort (kale? mature spinach?), which were not attended to as carefully, however. Approaching the vegetables from a "less is more" standpoint, the preparation erred on the "less" side, resulting in a virtually raw carrot that resisted cutting from a knife and an unwilted vegetable leaf atop a fibrous stalk that was inedible.
The tandoori chicken didn't fare so well, either. Despite the early hour of the evening, the bird was woefully overdone, resulting in a dry, tough texture. The breast needed considerable sawing to dissect, and even the dark meat suffered from too much time in the clay oven. Not a conventional tandoori dish, the bird arrived slathered with sweet hoisin barbecue sauce. Good thing, too, as the moisture from the sauce was desperately needed. Fragrant basmati rice accompanied the bird, but we made just a small dent in the dish, owing to its state.
Mars has been a hugely popular dining destination since it first opened its doors in a former house on San Antonio Street. Moving and expanding to a new location on the hugely popular South Congress Avenue is an enormous leap of faith and investment on the part of owner Lori Simon. It has built a home that is perfectly in keeping with the sensibility of the increasingly trendy stretch, and as such, it's just about an ideal stop for drinks, chatter, nibbling, and people-watching. The extensive wine menu provides lots intriguing options, as well. But any time you up the surroundings to this degree, you have to up the game in the kitchen, too. In order to establish itself among the really outstanding dining options available within blocks, some fine-tuning is needed. Mars has successfully landed, but it hasn't yet invaded.
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