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At Wink, a decade harnessing the power of 'yes': As restaurants rush to the farm, a pioneering locavore still deserves a seat at the table it helped set

Mike Sutter

Wink turns 10 years old this month. That's an historical landmark in restaurant circles, where the seasons turn with a vicious acceleration the rest of us measure in dog years.

Toiling outside the spotlight of the hot new thing, Wink's buzz factor suffers from a sort of age discrimination. Sure, they do the Barley-Swine farm-to-table thing. But wasn't that like a decade ago? Let's follow somebody who started doing it this week.

When Wink opened in June 2001, it was a trendsetter in the locavore movement. Farms and farmers got top billing on small plates whose composition evolved with the seasons. To say co-founder Stewart Scruggs was energized at the time would be an understatement. "It wasn't a restaurant; it was a revival tent," he said during interviews in May for a Food & Life story about Wink's 10th anniversary, the same month he and co-owner Mark Paul closed their other restaurant Zoot, which they plan to reopen soon as BC Tavern.

Flash forward, and the revival tent has moved from Wink to places like Parkside, East Side Show Room and Congress. Wink doesn't have a shiny skyscraper the way Congress does. It's hard to see the place at all, tucked into the folds of a low-slung strip center dominated by a dry cleaner. It's separated from its Wine Bar by a roomful of industrial spin dryers.

Nor does it have the star power of a chef the likes of David Bull, because Wink is a kitchen of nominally egalitarian cooks who call their own shots based on the day's best food. Scruggs and Paul still get chefs' billings on the Wink website, but they don't actually work the stoves. They're the owners of a galley whose staff has turned over many times — except for unofficial kitchen leader Eric Polzer — and has included Deegan McClung of Jeffrey's, Barley Swine's Bryce Gilmore and John Bates of the Noble Pig. Wink is an incubator of talent. A Winkubator.

What Wink does have is the power of yes. Is there a less-expensive way to try Wink? Yes, the Wine Bar. Can I get to know the wine list with tasting-size glasses? Yes. Will you add a full-size dish to the five-course menu for us? Yes, and we'll split it between two plates. Can I change my reservation? Yes. May I have this menu as an anniversary souvenir? Yes. Will you relieve the baby-sitter so we can stay for dessert? Maybe not.

Host Mark St. Clair is a lobbyist of sorts, a networker who will shake your hands and repeat your names trying to learn them. Or maybe trying to hear them, because at 40 close-knit seats, Wink is as loud as a legislative special session when it's full, with budget issues of its own. The dishes are expensive for their size, even if the value equation tends to balance out. A five-course tasting menu is $68 per person, plus another $32 each for two-ounce wine pairings. A dinner for two with a pair of small plates and main courses, plus foie gras and two desserts cost us $139 without wine but with a few regrets.

But the five-course dinner was among my most memorable in Austin, paced by waiter Paul Ozbirn's tripped-out bliss in customizing wine tastings to our preferences, specifically my guest's aversion to red. In three hours that spanned six courses and eight wines, we learned that Ozbirn and Wink wine buyer Dirk Miller had just earned their Level 2 sommelier certifications, and he was ready to show it.

Raw hamachi with grapefruit and Basserman-Jordan riesling from Germany: Fruit on fruit, with matching astringencies to work in accord with the fish's light oil and sweet vinegar sauce.

Seared scallop with zucchini and orange purée with Pionero Maccerato albariño from Spain: Shellfish and citrus meet honeyed acidity.

Redfish with sunchokes and corn: We added this $29 dish to the tasting, because the season's first corn brought field and sea together like salted caramel. Comte Lafon Mâcon-Villages chardonnay from France added drying notes of oak for balance. Ozbirn threw in this pairing for free.

Seared duck breast on whipped celeriac with caramelized fennel: Like a spring hunt, this tasted like the field, with scents of licorice and celery's earthy dusk. Duck is a Wink specialty, a blooming rose in the center, crisp brown skin like layered parchment outside. He brought fruity Lemelson Oregon pinot noir for me, big California Freemark Abbey chardonnay for her.

Grilled antelope with honey-zinfandel sauce: In case you wondered, the antelope has the taste and texture of good sirloin, and its backyard brio was finished with baby yams and onions sweet as a summer relish with a touch of Swiss chard. Dry Zepaltas rosé with a little body for her, crazy-quilt Russiz "Superiore" cabernet franc for me.

And for a plate of four Texas cheeses with escalating layers of intensity, Ozbirn made it count with Carmes de Rieussec sauternes, a dessert wine that could have come from the honeycombs of French vineyard bees.

It was a loose three hours, and while it might have been too chatty by some standards, Ozbirn did his part to feed into our curious energies. That was a change from the first time I ate at Wink in 2009, when I kept my enthusiasms to myself and waited for the service experience to come to me. Now I'm thinking that the best servers dial their floor shows up or down depending on the feedback they get from you. Be all poker-faced and you'll get a cordial automaton. Be a giddy neophyte and they'll gather their powers to match.

That spirit extends to Wink's Wine Bar, a dark and cozy side room where you can buy tastings, glasses or bottles of anything on the wine list, then throw those together with dishes from the bar menu, which run half-price from 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Truffled mac and cheese ($14) blooms over its ramekin like an old-fashioned chef's hat, mussels ($14) are steamed with white wine, and chicken liver pâté ($12) is whipped to airy spreadability and scented with anise. Little burgers ($12 for three) on housebaked rolls are loaded with brie and caramelized onions and ground meat as expertly seared as Wink's daily menu. And thank you for not calling them sliders.

We asked the bartender if he'd pick out wine tastings for each of us. Yes. And I added a dry Geisweiler sparkling rosé to go with a cheese plate ($14) with supersoft brie, dense and nutty Comté and politely aromatic fourme d'Ambert blue, paired with orange marmalade, apple and pecans, respectively. It was the most abundant restaurant cheese plate I've ever seen, so much more substantial than the tiny bites that ended the five-course dinner.

A happy hour spree of five dishes and seven wine tastings cost $60, a screaming bargain for food at this level.

It's not all wine, cheese and superlatives. Some of Wink's seasonal dance feels a little precious, with elements whose purpose seems to be adding local produce to proteins that aren't so local, like a lone sliver of zucchini under a scallop already well-appointed with touches of orange and balsamic vinegar, or the herb/weed called lamb's quarter used on a plate of grouper with creamed corn ($29). It introduced charred, bitter flavors to a fish already compromised by too much time in the heat. Next to tender batons of seared lamb ($32) and the exotica of baby fennel, the chalky texture of whole chickpeas seemed like a blunt instrument.

Judged against the creations of Austin's pastry alchemists, the desserts we tried— a warm flourless cake made with Venezuelan chocolate and a lemon curd in a meringue shell ($8 each) — were gangly plates framed by random swirls of whipped cream. But in their homely full expressions, they tasted more sophisticated than their tinier versions on an artful trio plate ($12) that included crème brûlée. Wine-drunk cherries put a little bounce in the chocolate and the fleeting fragility of meringue segued into the long, glazed draw of candied lemon peel.

But our waitress kept our dinner experience in positive territory with wine tastings to match our dishes, drawing from the prices and choices of the Wine Bar's list. Her triumph was a Riefle pinot gris from France that horse-whispered its way through an heirloom tomato salad.

I wanted to hold up that salad for a price-point scolding, because $16 seems like a lot for a few tomatoes and a little goat cheese. But the second the tomatoes touched the table, their aroma swirled up like a farmhouse cutting board, and there was enough goat cheese to inspire a couple of food dweebs to build improvised cheeseburgers out of tomatoes, ciabatta rolls and beef tartare, a suitable destiny for the tartare's showoff flex. On its own, that modest portion of beef-in-the-raw packed an assertive noseful of horseradish and Dijon mustard. But at $21, it's the one who deserved the scolding.

In another inspired Wink moment, our waitress suggested that same honeyed Carmes de Rieussec sauternes to complete a dish of seared foie gras ($23). The interplay of that cold white nectar with the warm, hypnotic tones of foie gras and brown butter. All we could say was yes.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Wink

1014 N. Lamar Blvd. 482-8868, www.winkrestaurant.com .

Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays. 5:30 to 11 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Wine bar opens at 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

Prices: Prices vary daily, but soups, salads and small plates generally run $10-$23 and main courses run in the high $20s to low $30s. Individual desserts $8, dessert trio $12, cheese plate $15. In the Wine Bar, bar bites are $1.75-$5 and appetizers are $12-$14; they're half-price during happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

Payment: All major cards

Bar: Wine and beer. The wine list is constantly in motion, but a sample list might show 22 whites ($24-$140 per bottle), 38 reds ($25-$350) and seven sparklers ($24-$140). About 45 by the glass ($6.25-$15.75). About 15 dessert wines ($6-$22 per glass).

Wheelchair access: Call ahead.

What the star ratings for fine dining mean: