Sunday, March 29, 2009

Brunch at Fino

As if yesterday wasn't a good enough day for food, today just elevated things to a new place altogether. Last night at Artz, a couple of friends asked if I wanted to join them today for brunch at Fino. Let me think about that for a minute, uh YEAH! For one, I LOVE brunch, and hardly ever get to go out for it because I usually work on weekends. And second, these friends are the mother and aunt of the chef at Fino, and I knew this would be an eating affair to remember. None of us were disappointed. Just fatter and happier than from when we arrived.

has occupied the space of the former Granite Cafe for almost 3 years; it's owned by Lisa & Emmett Fox, both exceptional chefs in their own right. The focus is various influences of Mediterranean food, with much of the menu small plates designed for sharing. It's the sister restaurant to Asti, their Italian eatery in Hyde Park. Fino has never been open on Sundays, until now. Today's brunch was invite only, evidently a final test run before really being open to the general public. The Foxes were gracious hosts today, coming to chat with the friends and family of their staff members, as Executive Chef Jason Donoho (who they plucked from Asti about a year ago, and the son/nephew of my friends) ran the kitchen.

We began with cocktails on the lovely patio. I had sangria, and everyone else bloody marys, oh and one vodka; everybody was quite happy with their choices. For starters, we had the manchego biscuits with quice jam, and what could probably be called a baba ganoush, with pita. The biscuits were good, and had melted manchego on top (as opposed to inside them, as far as I could tell), but weren't quite as light and flaky as they could be (yes, I am particular about my biscuits!). The quince jam however, was out of this world. Chef Jason told us later that all it is is the fruit and a bit of sugar. It was creamy, almost like a fruit butter. The baba ganoush had a really nice charred/grilled eggplant flavor, and a lovely soft house-made pita bread.

Moving inside to the chef's table, we had the pork pinchitos, little skewers of very tender, tasty grilled pork, done with hot smoked paprika, I believe. Next was the merguez lamb sliders. They come two to a plate, and are served on almost a brioche style roll with caramelized onions. Delicious! The plate also comes with french fries and a house-made ketchup, which really is so much more tasty than anything from a bottle, even if the bottle is organic. There were 8 items on the Brunch menu, including the sliders; they were already out of the chicken sausage, so that left 6 dishes and 7 of us, so we ordered one of each. One person also wanted the gazpacho; our fabulous server Tim said he'd also put in a order of the honeydew, jamon serrano & arugula for us. He really took very good care of us, checking back on drinks, making suggestions for the number of plates to order (like he suggested 2 orders of each the pinchitos and the sliders so we could all share), AND he's been at Fino for less than 2 weeks! Chef Jason also sent out some bread with delicious whipped butter and strawberry lavender jam. And the food kept coming...

The main brunch courses were: eggs benedict w/jamon serrano & truffled hollandaise; scrambled eggs with house-cured salmon; wagyu steak with a fried egg; pan perdido (French toast) with vanilla mascarpone, orange blossom syrup & chopped marcona almonds; crab & avocado bocadillo (sandwich)w/lemon aioli; & asparagus omelette with truffle oil & goat cheese. Along with some additional sides of sweet corn grits, applewood smoked bacon, house-made chorizo sausage, & potato hash with paprika. Chef Jason has really lifted things to a whole new level at Fino. He tries to find as much locally sourced foods as possible, such as the eggs (Alexander Farms) & greens (Bella Verde Farms) and told us for next week, he will be curing a side of pork to make his own bacon, and making his own tabasco-style sauce, all certainly worth coming back for.

The seven of us pretty much ooohed & aaahed, and moaned & groaned with glee & giddyness through the entire meal. Everything was refined and delicious, but a couple items really stood out: the sweet corn grits, the French toast, the omelette, and probably the Benedict were exceptional. (I think the Benedict was the one thing I didn't try as I have an aversion to poached eggs.) The grits were like nothing I have ever had. Chef Jason said they were a combo of Anson Mills polenta (a South Carolina mill specializing in heirloom grains) pureed with fresh corn with butter, cream, and honey, I believe. French toast does me in every time, and for this dish, French bread was soaked overnight in eggs, milk & vanilla. Then grilled, and served with this fat dollop of vanilla mascarpone.... and of course I ate mine with bacon. Out of everything we sampled today (and we had almost the entire menu), I think the only thing that I really didn't just love was the house-made chorizo sausage; it was a fresh (as in not dried) sausage in a casing. To me, it didn't have the depth of seasoning that I expect in a chorizo, whether fresh or a typical Spanish-style dried.

I haven't even really talked about the other cocktails. Sangria and Bloody Mary's got us going. Along the way were a Cava Mimosa, a Corpse Reviver, and a couple Spanish Black Coffees, all fabulous concoctions, surely made by Fino's famous mixologist Bill Norris. (Check their website for cocktail descriptions!). And then there was dessert. Melt in your mouth, warm cake donuts with cinnamon sugar, and also served with the heavenly vanilla mascarpone.

This has really been one of the best all-around complete meals I have had in a long time. It was a treat to have the Chef's attention, not to mention his food. For 7 food-loving people, we were all happy to share all the dishes, dip our fingers into the sauces, and pass cocktails so we could all imbibe a bit of something special. And everything WAS special.

As we were reclining on the patio after the meal, we noticed the sign etched into their door: no meanies allowed! Says it all, don't you think?

Artz Rib House

Mmmm. Pig run! To the best baby back ribs in Austin, in my humble opinion! Artz Rib House has been a fixture on South Lamar for years. They recently put up a snazzy new sign by the street with flames, and are also known for their support of local Austin musicians, with live music practically every night. The tables are covered in red & white checkered table cloths, and empty bottles of hot sauce now double as toothpick dispensers. It's a comfortable, fun, non-pretentious place. Service pretty much is always friendly, and the food comes fast. I am slightly embarrassed that it's taken me 6 months to write about the place, because it truly is one of my favorite places in town. I spent my birthday dinner there last night with a group of good friends.

I am sorry I didn't catch the name of our waitress, but she was really great, especially dealing with a group of like 15 people, half of whom substituted the "normal" sides for something else. She seemed always present, but not hovering, and was happy to split checks up at the end of the meal, something they say they don't normally do. I am completely biased towards their mesquite wood smoked baby back ribs, and I really truly think they are some of the very best in Austin. They are meaty, tender, flavorful, have a nice smoke ring, and all around, just can't be beat. The BBQ sauce is served on the side, and the standard sides for the meat plates are pinto beans, a creamy potato salad, and a non-creamy cole slaw, and a piece of bread. Last night, I thought the cole slaw was drier than normal; I think it's usually got a bit of a vinaigrette dressing on it. I do love the potato salad though! The potatoes have been mashed a bit, and they're not drowning in dressing. I should have taken a picture of my plate at the end of the meal, because I pretty much licked all those ribs clean! Pity the fool who won't use their hands to eat! I can polish off that half rack of ribs pretty darn well.

At my end of the table, there were no complaints about any of the meats, and immediately around me were the pork chops, smoked turkey, and sausage. The veggie kabob can be substituted for the sides, and it got high remarks too. One friend who is pregnant got a cup of the smoked chicken noodle soup that was on special, and thought it was too salty. Her husband tried it, and said it was a bit salty, and while I didn't try it, we did mention the possibility that it also could be because her hormones are wacky right now... I think she did eat the whole cup though!

Bottom line, go get you some ribs!

Java Noodle

Java Noodle has been over on East Oltorf for several years, and according to a bit of chatter I saw online, they've gone through numerous owners. It's an Indonesian place (though there are clearly some Thai and Chinese dishes on the menu), and while I have never gone that frequently, maybe once or twice a year, there have always been certain dishes I love. Saturday morning, the cravings came! Must make a trip!

I didn't have a carryout menu handy at home, so I drove over there to place my order to go. I immediately knew I wanted the Fried Tofu from the appetizer menu (#2), and the Rendang Daging Padang, which I always just known as beef marinated in a spicy coconut milk mixture (#1 under Beef). Then I wanted a vegetable dish, but didn't know what. I asked the cashier (late teens, maybe early 20s?) about the Gado Gado Salad (#6 in the Vegetarian section), specifically, what kind of vegetables were in it. She sheepishly said she didn't really know. At that moment, one of the waitstaff (also fairly young) came up to the counter; they conferred in an Asian dialect, and neither of them had a clue, but she said she could go to the kitchen and find out. I told her I wanted some vegetables to balance out the beef; she did suggest the Java Special, which is #5 under the Vegetarian menu, but asked if I wanted it with tofu or chicken, and I opted for chicken; basically veg & chicken in a red curry sauce. So while I was a bit put off by their complete lack of knowledge regarding one of their dishes, she somewhat redeemed herself by making an immediate suggestion for another similar dish. Does make me wonder how long both of these two had been working there, and/or had management recently changed.

Fortunately, the food came fast, and I returned home. The reason I love the fried tofu is it is served with a brown sugar sauce, which I cannot seem to replicate on my own. The tofu suffers a bit from sweating in a styrofoam container; not quite as crispy as when you get it there at the restaurant, but I still love the sauce. The veg in the Java Special was mostly green beans, broccoli, cabbage & carrots; a slightly sweet, slightly spicy creamy sauce. It's a pretty tasty dish. Now as I recall the beef dish in the past, it's been slightly tough chunks of beef in just this fabulous spicy coconut milk marinade. I don't remember it having a ton of sauce with it. So I was in for a surprise when I opened the container, and a big (slightly greasy) pool of sauce is filling the container, and the beef is swimming in it. The beef was still in big chunks, but more tender than I remember -- these really fell apart when cut with a fork. It's a really nice, spicy sauce, with that coconut milk flavor that I remember. Large portions, as there is at least 2 more meals worth of food in my fridge.

So management, and probably a chef or two have changed, but the food was still good, though not exactly as I remember it. They have a website, but it appears not to have a server at the moment; hopefully that will be remedied. They also have weekday lunch buffets, and a really big one on Sundays, though I've never been to it.