Fed Man 55: Wink (12)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 12: Wink
1014 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-482-8868, www.winkrestaurant.com.
Hours: 6-10pm Mon-Wed. 5:30-11pm Thu-Sat. Closed Sun. Wine bar opens at 5pm Mon-Sat.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.04.12
Wink has a formula. Find a roster of good quality proteins in consistent supply, set a baseline format for the dishes they anchor, then adjust the presentation to suit what’s in season and who’s in the kitchen. It’s a formula, yes, but the simple kind that works, the same way a good watch does. Because you might change the strap, the bezel and the face, but you always know what time it is.
It’s been a hill-and-valley year and a half for the Wink family, coming off last year’s 10th anniversary, the same year owners Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs closed their other restaurant, Zoot, and rechristened it BC Tavern. Then they closed BC Tavern this summer. But Wink endures, as steady as the industrial dryers of the laundry with which it shares an alcove tucked away at 10th and North Lamar. Wink endures because the staff is smooth and cordial, the wine is worth talking about and the food is consistently creative but familiar at the same time.
Consider Wink’s raw hamachi plate, done so well with Asian pear, pickled mushroom, fried leek hay for texture and a background flash of serrano pepper ($19). I’ve had another Wink version with watermelon radish, still another with grapefruit. They’ve all shown an easy balance of oil, acid and texture. Blackbuck antelope — the one with the Guillermo del Toro horns — tasted as sanguineously rich with oyster mushrooms and sherry reduction as it did with baby yams and a honey-zinfandel glaze ($33). In both cases, the lean meat was grilled to a robust medium-rare as bright as a frescoed sunset.
The Wink website still lists only Scruggs as Paul as the chefs, but they’re the generals, not the soldiers on the frontlines. Wink is a kitchen of equals, or a team of rivals, if you prefer. You won’t see their names on the menus, but you’ll see Wink on their resumés wherever they wind up next. Brandon Fuller of Cafe Josie, John Bates of the Noble Pig, Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine. And most important, Eric Polzer ... of Wink. He’s been there from the beginning.
The team works up a nightly menu of about 15 dishes, with smaller plates such as soup, salad, mussels, and beef tartare for about $12-$22 and more substantial plates like scallops, fish, poultry and lamb for about $27-$35. In October, the team put together gently fried veal sweetbreads with fine ribbons of marconi pepper, okra, smoked tomato aioli and the gluten-free wondergrain amaranth ($29). My only issue with an elegant plate of braised rabbit ($27) with eggplant, bok choy and gnocchi was that the fat blond nuggets of pasta were the same texture as the rabbit, a kind of benign tastebud bait-and-switch.
My best night at Wink was a five-course dinner last year with hamachi, scallops, duck breast, antelope and a cheese plate for $68, plus $32 for wine pairings improvised by Paul Ozbirn, whose easy rapport as a waiter is matched only by his enthusiasm as a sommelier. Wink’s wine list doesn’t need a book of its own. Instead, the front and back of a page carry wines tailored to the food, save for a few showoff bottles. Even the cheap glasses work hard, like a Chilean Oveja Negra cabernet franc for $7.75 that made the antelope take off.
Like a fast-food menu for oenophiles, the Wink Wine Bar  puts its by-the-glass menu at your fingertips in 2-ounce tasting sizes, which lets you sample wines that run $9-$14 a glass for more like $3-$5. The food at the Wine Bar is part of what makes the Wink formula work so well: A trio of brie-topped burgers, a chef’s-hat bloom of mac and cheese with truffle, a bowl of steamed mussels, a cheese plate with marmalade and nuts. At $14, all three dishes are indulgences worth taking. At half-price during happy hour from 5-7 Mon-Sat, they’re an invitation to check in on Wink like clockwork.
(TOP: Grilled antelope with oyster mushrooms and sherry reduction. FIRST INSET: Braised rabbit with eggplant and gnocchi; Wink's close-range dining room seats about 40; hamachi sashimi with Asian pear and pickled hon-shimeji mushrooms. SECOND INSET: Brie burgers and wine tastings from the Wink Wine Bar. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants