Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
Downtown Austin's wine bar business is surging; come have a Taste
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., May 2, 2008
Taste Select Wines202 W. Cesar Chavez, 478-2783
Monday-Thursday, 10am-12mid; Friday-Saturday, 10am-1am; Sunday, noon-9pm
Taste Select Wines is part of the burgeoning Downtown wine-bistro scene. It offers a good selection of hand-picked wines, and their 350 retail wines are available at reasonable prices, close to or just more than what you'd expect at Whole Foods or Central Market, and the corkage fee is a flat $10. They also have a good choice of wines by the glass or half-glass (49 wines priced between $7 and $26.50 a glass). I should have been trying a wider variety of their wines by the glass, but I loved the J.M. Boillot Puligny-Montrachet ($9 for a 3-ounce glass, $17.50 for a 6-ounce glass) so much that I just kept ordering it.
Taste also has 48 wines in the innovative Enomatic system. Guests are issued a card (a system requested by the TABC), then serve themselves any of the wines in multiples of 1.5-ounce servings. Prices vary from $2 for a serving of Terredora Dipaolo Falanghina to $20.60 for a Penfolds Grange. The Enomatic system keeps a layer of inert gas in the bottle, on top of the wine, which isolates the wine from the damaging forces of oxygen. That way, each glass will be as fresh as if it had been just opened. When you've had enough, return the card and Taste will charge you for whatever you've poured.
For folks still learning about wine, Taste usually has several people (especially Tanya and Kristi) who are well-educated in the selection to assist. Just tell them a price, what you intend to eat, and a few other wines you usually like, and they'll steer you right.
The small menu is designed to be wine friendly, and most items are exploding with flavor, so a little care with wine choice will pay off. Taste's secret weapon is chef Bill McGrory, late of Chicago's Custom House and New York's Mesa Grill and Craft, who makes sophisticated and creative food.
Carnivores must try McGrory's mouth-watering house-cured bacon on the charcuterie plate ($16) or on the house bacon panini ($12). On our second visit to Taste, five people from the wine trade were scattered around the restaurant having lunch. Three had ordered the bacon panini; 60% of a knowledgeable crew is a pretty good indicator. I stuck with the charcuterie plate, and I loved the foie gras, prosciutto, and bresaola, but the bacon was so good that I asked for more.
Sushi fans should try the ahi tuna ($7 for a small plate, $12 for a large one), the embodiment of simplicity: just a few thin slices of perfectly fresh tuna with a couple of razor-thin slices of preserved lemon. It takes a confident chef to let his ingredients speak for themselves.
If you want something a little more robust, the wild-boar sausage ($9) is rich and intense and served on a bed of sautéed peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Or the duck rillette panini ($12) that uses an obscure French technique where the duck is cooked very slowly, then shredded and mixed with a bit of duck fat. Once cooled, the French spread it on bread. Taste's version also has Taleggio cheese and roasted maitake (aka Hen of the Woods) mushrooms. Delicious.
My favorite dish is the Colorado Lamb Chops ($17/$32). These aren't traditional lamb chops. Instead, you get ribs from a rack of lamb, cooked exactly to order. This is another dish where McGrory lets top-notch ingredients speak for themselves. What raises the dish out of the ordinary is the lamb sweetbread on the side of the plate. Offal eaters rejoice. It is cooked perfectly so that it's still juicy and the texture is just right.
We also enjoyed the braised pork belly with grits and haricot verts ($14/$24). The pork belly tastes like McGrory wisely used some of the same sweets, herbs, and spices he uses on his bacon. If you're averse to pork fat, ask them to find a leaner piece. I like the fat, but mine was two-thirds fat and one-third meat.
We only had one misstep at Taste. The pappardelle ($17) sounded great, with radicchio, truffle butter, prosciutto, and asparagus. Unfortunately, it was so oversalted as to be inedible. Since everything else was so good, I decided to order it again on a second trip, to see if we had just gotten a bad batch. Unfortunately, it was the same.
Service at Taste was always enthusiastic and helpful. We did have one waitperson whose wine and food knowledge didn't quite match his enthusiasm, but he was happy to research anything we asked about. Our other server was good enough that he would fit at the best restaurants in town.
Taste is not a megacorporate, multifacility chain. It's owned by two local brothers and their wives, Reagan and Kristi Mayces and Ryan and Tanya Mayces. They have done a beautiful job of creating a space that is both contemporary and comfy. With a huge crowd, Taste is loud, but a romantic couple can still have a quiet conversation. During lunch, when it is unaccountably not full, the place is quiet enough for a business meeting.
Downtown Austin's wine bar business is surging. Taste's balance of good wine, tasty food, and enjoyable atmosphere should earn it a good piece of that trade.