Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
In the crowded Austin sushi market, genuine value for your dollar is what sets Afin apart
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Sept. 9, 2011
Mon.-Fri., 11am-2pm & 5-10pm; Sat., 5-10:30pm
Afin Modern Japanese Tapas Bar6519 N. Lamar, 614-4974
Monday-Thursday, 11am-2pm & 5-10pm; Friday, 11am-2pm & 5-10pm; Saturday, 5-10:30pm
Value. In the crowded Austin sushi market, genuine value for your dollar is what sets Afin apart. Not only are the portions generous to a fault, but all the fish and seafood served is absolutely top-tier quality. It is as though (quite rightly) a conscious decision was made by Afin's chef and management that, no matter how busy (or empty) the dining room, nothing is served that isn't spectacularly fresh. For a new Japanese place seeking out a steady clientele, it is a wise decision; word is already spreading fast that Afin is a reliable destination where you get big bang for your buck.
The portions alone put many other sushi places to shame. The sushi combo specials each feature a roll and five pieces of nigiri; when the Roku ($16) special came out, it actually looked more like a party tray for several people than one person's lunch. A foot-long Jen-Jen roll filled one side of the huge platter: spicy tuna rolled with cucumber, avocado, rice, and nori, then wrapped again with enormous slices of fresh salmon. The other side of the platter was filled with five pieces of nigiri, each made with a thick, 3-inch slice of fish that draped over its rice patty to touch the platter on either side. But that wasn't even the whole special! It was served with a bowl of hauntingly perfect miso soup – complex and rich, in which a few dainty cubes of (again) superfresh tofu, diaphanous leaves of seaweed, and tiny circles of green onion floated – and a small tower of salad. The salad was universally crisp and featured cherry tomatoes, pecans, lettuce, and cucumber, topped with a chiffonade of red cabbage and carrots and barely drizzled with a powerful ginger dressing. The soup and the salad made it clear that Afin has a highly skilled kitchen as well as skilled sushi chefs.
On my next visit, I sampled the Japanese tapas advertised in the restaurant's name. The hotategai ($11) consisted of two enormous sea scallops, pan-seared and served with shiitake mushrooms, mango relish, and wasabi caviar. Perfectly cooked, the scallops were very fresh, and the bright-green caviar that topped them was both original and excellent. The gyoza ($8), a dish of pan-seared chicken dumplings, was even better. Served with a sophisticated cilantro ponzu, the seared texture of the wrappers was perfect and the entire dish satisfying.
The hot entrées follow the general strengths encountered thus far: superfresh ingredients in handsome portions prepared with skill. The Mero ($27) arrived at the table and appeared to be nearly a pound of Chilean sea bass sitting in a pile of sautéed mushrooms and topped with dainty, crisp-fried prosciutto. The sea bass was again cooked perfectly, with only a shade of transparency at the very center of the thickly cut filet. Unlike the sushi and other starters, the entrée took quite a while to prepare; if you plan to order an entrée, it would be wise to place your order at the same time as your appetizer – or even your drink.
The presiding chef at Afin is D.H. Choo, lately of Osaka Mansun on Research Boulevard, and quite a few devoted fans have followed him from there to Afin. Trained in Seoul at the Osan Culinary College, Choo went on to win several prestigious awards in Korea before immigrating to Austin. "In Korea, my area of specialty was, believe it or not, French and Italian cuisine!" he relates. "Of course, I was well-taught in Korean and Japanese cuisine. But having this background, it brings a lot of mixing of traditions to what I create."
One thing Choo's background does explain is his more European approach to sauces: He is more liberal with them than traditional Japanese chefs, possibly even going a bit too heavy on the mayonnaise-based "sushi-roll" sauces. Yet that same background also provides delightful flavor combinations like the sea bass and prosciutto, as well as the Koshou Tuna ($10), which features blackened tuna, goat cheese, and honeyed wasabi.
The dessert list at Afin is short, which is good as the kitchen hasn't quite hit its stride in this department. The coffee-chocolate mousse with blueberry sauce was too loose and too bitter, and the chocolate-banana egg roll with green tea ice cream was also disappointing. The ice cream had a purely vegetal taste lacking sweetness, and the egg roll was heavy. But the desserts change almost daily; clearly this is something Afin is still working on.
Which brings me to my strongest caveat: avoid the water and the beverages made with water. Afin is experiencing some kind of problem with its city water, as are other surrounding businesses: Although the water is perfectly safe, it has a distinctly stale flavor that penetrates every beverage made with it. Stick to sake, wine, or San Pellegrino until either the city clears up the problem or a better filtration system is up and running. Funky water notwithstanding, Afin really delivers great quality and value for your money.