Originally published in Austin Monthly, March 2015 Issue
FORK & VINE IS ON ITS WAY TO BEING A NEW GO-TO SPOT, BUT IT OFFERS A BIT TOO MUCH OF A MOSTLY GOOD THING
Last year saw the development of Burnet Road and West Anderson Lane as the latest up-and-coming culinary corridor. At least seven new restaurants opened in the area during the latter half of 2014, with the promise of more to come. It’s an exciting time to be a nearby resident of these parts.
And I am, which is why all the press leading up to the early November opening of Fork & Vine particularly piqued my curiosity. Apart from Bartlett’s, there isn’t much fine dining up this way, and that’s just what restaurateur Brendan Puthoff and Chef Camden Stuerzenberger, both most recently of Hickory Street, aimed to correct.
The fruit of their labor is a 229-seat establishment serving Austin-inspired New American cuisine, backed by a serious wine and craft beer program helmed by Level II sommelier Chris Howell. In terms of appeal, they’ve cast a wide net: a convivial neighborhood spot that serves upscale, accessible cuisine catering to business lunchers, couples out for a fancy meal, families tired of nearby kid-friendly joints and those looking for a more refined way to slough off the workday.
That’s a lot to reach for, and Fork & Vine almost does it. With its long bar and two patios, interior and exterior, the space is primed for happy hour, which it serves Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. with a small menu of shared plates. Sitting in the interior patio, separated from the main dining room by glass rollup doors, felt a little like being relegated to the kid’s table on the cold and wet January night I was there, but it’ll be a prime seat once warmer weather rolls around. Otherwise, the main dining room, both intimate and open, is as made for social lingering as it is for talking business over lunch.
And the drinks program is compelling. The extensive wine and beer offerings feature unique large-format craft beers, a lengthy list of wines by the glass and bottle, some obscure, as well as sakes and wine flights by grape—an idea I love. The waitstaff is well versed on the wine list and offer thoughtful suggestions.
It’s the menu where Fork & Vine’s overreach is most apparent. My dining companion on one of two visits, a nearly two-decadelong resident of Austin, shared her most common complaint about local restaurants over the years: “Simplicity hasn’t been a big thing. It’s flavor for flavor’s sake. Lots of stuff, often to no end, like a girl with too many accessories.” Fork & Vine’s broiled oysters are a case in point. They’re drizzled with a Sriracha aioli and sprinkled with crumbled bacon, cojita and cilantro. It’s a fine combination of tastes, but one that overwhelms the sweetly mild Gulf oysters. It’s a treatment better suited for a brinier, more assertive oyster, such as a Malpeque.
There are more examples: The shared white barbecue pork ribs plate served atop barbecued peanuts is a cheeky take on pork and beans. The ribs are superb—tender, peppery and smoky—and the barbecued nuts are unusual and tasty, with a snap that recalls watercress. But the amount of peanuts is far more than any human, or two, should eat in one sitting. Then there are the shrimp and grits, which are wonderful. The grilled char brings out the meaty Gulf shrimp’s signature iodine-sweet flavor, and the goat cheese grits are creamy and rich. They’d be just fine without the pool of vanilla beurre blanc floating on top. I ordinarily adore beef Wellington, and while Fork & Vine’s short-rib version is good, I personally prefer the textural contrast of the classic tenderloin against the buttery puff pastry with the pate layered in between. Their take features a dollop of liver mousse served on top of the pastry-encased short rib meat, and again, it’s an accessory too much.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t truly excellent dishes on the menu. The snapper crudo, served with crisp corn and radish slices, has a perfect silky texture. The tart and spicy leche de tigre is so wonderfully balanced and flavorful that you want to drink it by the cupful. The burger is juicy and well assembled, topped with cheddar and crisp pork belly, all tucked in a Gouda bun that’s just large and sturdy enough to effectively contain the ingredients without being too bready. The Brussels sprouts are perfectly crisp and salty with the favor of their pistachios-and-bleu-cheese accompaniment. The desserts are winners, too, such as the buttermilk creme brulee topped with roasted pear and the gluten-free chocolate torte served with chocolate-marshmallow ice cream and dressed with salted caramel. (In fact, there’s an extensive menu of gluten-free offerings for lunch and dinner.)
Perhaps my favorite offering was the fried gator shared plate. At its worst, alligator can be tough, greasy and gamy, but this is gator at its best, tender with a flavor reminiscent of briny chicken. The fry encasing it is crisp and well seasoned with a welcome drizzle of green onion aioli. My favorite element was what the menu calls Sriracha, but is actually a far superior housemade hot sauce. But why call it “Sriracha”? Yes, it’s well recognized and beloved, but the restaurant should trust that their diners are sophisticated enough to embrace a slightly different—and much better—housemade version.
I believe that Fork & Vine has the capacity to be all it promises. My two visits occurred in early days for the establishment, and I look forward to seeing how the restaurant grows and matures. If I may offer one suggestion toward refinement, it’s this time-honored advice from fashion icon Coco Chanel: Always take off one accessory before you leave the house.