Thursday, January 10, 2008

Vin Bistro

1601 W 38th St
Austin, TX
(512) 377-5252

Before we begin, we want to note for posterity that this review is going to be a little different, it was a cooperative effort between Laura and myself. We went to Vin Bistro last night for dinner and had such a bazaar experience that we both wanted to contribute our individual perspectives on the situation. We figured neither one of us could properly tell the whole story with all its particular nuances alone so we’re testing out a tag team blog. Let us know what you think!

Mariah – This place is kind of hard to find. We literally drove around the block twice before we realized we were driving around the wrong block. The restaurant is at the corner of 38th and Kirby. Now I know you’re thinking oh that’s where that big trendy strip mall is, right next to Brick Oven. But you’d be wrong. That shopping center is at 36th and Jefferson. Vin is actually in the shopping center right next to Kirby Lane. It’s an old 1950’s strip mall that used to be know for having a lot of old lady boutiques and a bland tasteless restaurant my grandmother used to like to take us to. It always had a few too many Cadillacs parked in the parking lot if you catch my drift. After looking through the windows of the shops and eating at the restaurant, I’d say not a lot has changed in 20 years.

Laura- The website really made the place look amazing. I was pretty stoked to go. The driving around didn’t bother me so much as I never write down directions, rely on my crappy memory and end up driving around for a while looking for places regardless of how easy they supposedly are to find. Anyway, the surrounding establishments were a turnoff. It was all overpriced luxury crap that I either needed to be geriatric or a non working wealthy mother of 5 who employs 5 nannies and is a board member of the Ladies League to appreciate. Never judge a book by it’s cover, but you can usually tell someone from the company they keep.

Mariah – The atmosphere of the restaurant is nice, but nothing to write home about. When I go to a wine bar, I want it to be cozy. I want to imagine myself canoodling with a hot date in a secluded alcove getting drunk off wine and the heady feeling of new infatuation. This place isn’t that. It’s very clean and well lit. The inside is painted a warm rich caramel color and is generally inviting for a dinner setting. They have a large covered and plastic enclosed patio that is probably very nice to sit out on when the weather is nice. The chairs, however, are incredible uncomfortable. They require you to sit up very strait and rigidly so the whole time you’re there you feel slightly uneasy a little uptight.

Laura- The crowd was a mix of people, business men in tweed behind me, a fairly young ladies night dinner to my left, a couple out on date night behind Mariah. Waiters were dressed in all black. The d├ęcor was pleasant, but man, Mariah ain’t lyin’ about those chairs.

Mariah – The service is also excellent. This is the kind of place where you’re waiters are all college educated and they’ll stop and talk to you extensively about food. In fact, if it’s your first visit, you’ll be subjected to a 5 minute monologue on the virtues of their wine and food pairings and the general “Vin” philosophy. We felt kind of bad for our waiter, who was so used to saying his particular spiel that he just rattled it off not even looking us in the eye while he said it. It was a little weird, but other than that the service was generally very good.

Laura- Being an engineer, I’m fairly used to the socially awkwardness that described our waiter.

Mariah – But lets move on to the food, the real reason why you’re reading this. The menu, at first, seemed very good. Each offering had an accompanying wine pairing. There was also a section of the menu that had menu options specifically tailored to pair with the featured wine of the month. A great philosophy.. in theory. Since I have been sickly for a few days, I wanted something that was homey, familiar, and easy to eat. I opted for the masa harina fried chicken with “cheese in macaroni” but instead of the pickled chow chow (yuck!) I went with mashed potatoes.

Laura – The vegetarian options consisted of a few appetizers, some salads, and a pasta dish. I ignored the waiter's recommendation of dolmas and chose a salad, the Charred Butter Lettuce. I chose the salad because I had a big lunch, and let’s face it, I was here for the wine. Wednesday is half price wine day and I was going to take full advantage of it. I ordered a pinot noir. The waiter recommended the San Simeon 2004, referring to it as “a very nice juice” that was a good compromise between earthy and fruity. What is it with wine afficienatos referring to wine as “juice”? Is that the aerospace equivalent to referring to an airplane as a “bird”? Is this a new thing or have I never noticed before? So many questions. Anyway, he was right- the delicious dark liquid began really fruity but rich and cherry-like, and finished earthy, and I could tell it had a very high alcohol content.

Mariah – This is where things start to go horrible awry. I didn’t realize fried chicken took so long to cook. I didn’t factor in that they might have had to drive out to west Texas, pick out a baby chick, nurture it to adulthood, bring it back, butcher it, let it marinate for 2 days, then cook it. Because, seriously, that’s how long is felt like we waited (turned out it was 45 minutes). When they finally did bring it out I was overjoyed and frickin starving. I dug in immediately and started to make an absolute pig of myself. The masa chicken was great. I had never thought of using masa as a deep fry coating, but it worked surprisingly well. It infused a slightly southwest/Mexican flavor to an old American standard. The “cheese in macaroni” was good but nothing to write home about. It was flat unfilled manicotti with a cheese sauce and a thin tomato/tabasco sauce. They would have done much better to offer a green chili macaroni like at Moonshine. The mashed potatoes are equally.. interesting. They were slightly mealy for a mashed potato; they should consider switching to a softer potato variety to get a smoother texture. It also appeared that they had whipped the potatoes with gravy instead of the normal milk and butter. If you like white flour gravy on your mashed potatoes then these are defiantly for you. If not, then like me, your left feeling your mashed potatoes are too peppery and a little too reminiscent of KFC.

Laura – No joke, Mariah’s meal made the entire table smell of KFC. While they were hunting down Mariah’s chick, they were going across the street to Randall’s Grocery to chop a head of lettuce in two hold a lighter to one side for 3 seconds, shave a few onion pieces, drizzle it with the same tomato/Tabasco sauce on Mariah’s dish and add cinnamon/chili pepper coated nuts. The nuts were the star of this dreadfully lame and boring salad. We explained this sentiment to the waiter and he began pushing the dolmas again. Fine, bring them on. I sipped my wine, munched on stale bread (that we had to ask for) and watched Mariah finish her dinner. I then continued to wait and wait and wait for these mythical dolmas.

Mariah – In fact, we waited so long for Laura’s dolmas that she finally decided she didn’t want them anymore. Since our waiter was nowhere to be seen, we flagged down a foody waiter who had been talking to the couple behind us about all the good places to eat in Chicago. We told him we weren’t interested in the dolmas and to have our waiter drink us the dessert menu. Our waiter eventually came back and apologized profusely about the wait and that he was sending the manager out. I turned to Laura and made an “oh man” face, I didn’t want to have to deal with the manager. But the manger came a few minutes later bearing Laura’s dolmas. He apologized profusely for the wait. He even offered to comp Laura the salad and dolmas. This is when we decided to good cop and bad cop the guy. Laura acted all sweet and innocent and I continued to *nicely* point out that we weren’t interested in the dolmas anymore, the salad was really subpar, and my meal took 45 minutes to get to the table. He was very nice and actively listened to our complaints, then told us he would comp out whole meal (excluding the wine). Yeah us!

Laura – I’d like to point out that scoring free food wasn’t the goal of this exercise. I mean, I really didn’t want any food at this point, but if he was going to continue to insist on these dolmas AND comping the bill, who was I to refuse? Plus by this point, I was really curious about this entree. Perhaps they shouldn't have built it up so much.

Mariah – I didn’t care for the dolmas. Maybe I love and am so used to regular Greek/Lebanese dolmas/dolmates that I just couldn’t stomach a reinterpretation of them. But to be honest, I didn’t think they were that good. The risotto rice filled was aweful. It was gummy, glutinous, and totally tasteless - not at all the wonderful rice, meat, spice filling I like in a dolma. The domas wasn’t soaked in lemon juice and broth, so the grape leaves were left with no flavor, and the dolma was topped with raisins and the same thin tomato/tabasco sauce that my manicotti was covered in. It was topped with a thick slice of grilled halloumi cheese. I normally like halloumi a lot. It’s a good fried cheese and has a nice mild flavor. But they had obviously used a gas grill to cook the cheese and it tasted.. gassy.. On a whole it just didn’t work for me. I’ll stick with Greek Domas.

Laura – Eh, the dish was ok but it tasted like something I could have gotten at Grapevine Market for lunch for $5.99. The risotto just wasn’t right.

Mariah – For dessert we went with a deconstructed bananas foster. I know the “deconstructed” dish is all the rage right now plus the people at the next table had ordered it and it looked fabulous. As we ordered, we chit chatted with the waiter and the oddest thing happened. He started looking us in the eye. He actually started treating us better after to turned back the food. He spent like 10 minutes at our table talking about food and wanting to become a pastry chef, and I honestly think that he doesn’t like the food there either. I think his opinion of us went up after we turned the food away! He realized we actually know food (hey – it is our motto) and aren’t willing to accept crappy food from a nice restaurant.

Laura- The life story of our waiter was an odd touch to the end of the evening. He reminded me of the type of guy I would’ve been friends with early on in college- idealistic, sweet and completely unsure of himself.

Mariah – The dessert itself was only ok. The fried crepes and bananas were good, but the caramelized brown sugar sauce was overpowered by the alcoholy taste of dark rum. Severely overpowered. The mint whipped cream on top was very nice though.

Laura- I liked the dessert. But then again, I had drank enough wine to not realize there was too much rum in the sauce. I say this is a great place to booze it up on cheap wine night. I think they are banking on the idea that you’ll drink too much to realize the food is mediocre.

Mariah – 6 but only because the service was so good
Laura- I agree. 6 for the wine selection and hospitality of the staff