MJ’s been cranking out the recipes (some pretty tasty ones, I might add), so we’ve been eating out even less frequently than usual. But when we got the invitation to check out the Fall menu at Finn & Porter, she was willing to hang up her apron for a night and accompany me to the beautiful dining establishment located inside the Hilton Hotel in downtown Austin. Now F&P has been on my radar for some time as it keeps popping up on Zagat’s Best of … lists – Best Seafood Restaurants in Austin, 9 Hottest Sushi Restaurants in Austin, Most Romantic Tables in Austin – so I couldn’t have been more eager for this opportunity.
Due to typical Austin rush hour traffic, we arrived past our reservation time, but were greeted as if we were right on time. We were shown to our booth and welcomed by one of the managers shortly after. Hospitality. There was no lack of it the entire evening. Executive Chef Peter Maffei even came out to say hello and give us a rundown of the evening. If we weren’t feeling special before, we were definitely feeling it now. I always get starstruck in these moments. There’s just something about a chef’s coat that creates a commanding presence. But after talking to Chef Maffei about his early start in the culinary world (a part-time job in a pizza joint at the age of 15) and learning that he lives in the same town as us just northeast of Austin, both MJ and I were able to ease up and soak in the moment.
“Don’t think of it as a sprint, but rather a marathon.” These were the words that prefaced our meal. I would soon realize how sage this piece of advice was.
Tastings I had done in the past involved small plates with small bites…a teaser of the menu. This tasting, well…it was the actual menu! Full size appetizers, entrees and even a dessert to finish. I removed my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, and got ready to “work.” Pearl, our dear server for the evening, brought us our complimentary flutes of champagne and made sure there wasn’t anything else we were in need of. Did I mention the impeccable hospitality of the entire staff?
To start the feast, we began with the Lockhart Quail – confit grape, pearl onion, kohlrabi puree and sherry jus. MJ and I couldn’t help but smile at each other as we appreciated all the flavors on the plate. Our table was cleared and out came two more plates – Pan-seared Scallops and Jumbo Lump Crab Cake. The large diver scallops were presented with a gorgeous sear and accompanied by shaved Brussels sprouts tossed in a warm bacon dressing. I could’ve eaten a whole bowl of those Brussels sprouts, but MJ felt that the bold bacon flavor detracted from the scallops. She’s a bit of a purist when it comes seafood, especially scallops. Just a touch of salt and pepper, if anything at all, is her preference. The crab cake was served with an Old Bay hollandaise sauce and a red pepper celery salad. As enjoyable as the large pieces of crab meat were, the salad was doused with an overly generous amount of vinegar creating an off-putting aroma and flavor.
Maintaining a good pace, we moved onto the Grilled Gulf Shrimp served on a bed of citrus, fennel, macadamia nuts and brown butter pineapple sauce. I particularly liked the fresh citrus juice with the perfectly prepared shrimp. And to finish out the appetizer portion of our meal…Chicken Liver Pate. The pate was smartly served with a delicious red onion marmalade.
Five plates in and I was still feeling pretty good. As for MJ, I knew I would lose her soon. The entree processional began with brioche-crusted Striped Bass served with celery root & sweet potato ravioli (one of MJ’s highlights of the evening…her and her sweet potato), grilled broccoli and broccoli puree.
Next came a beautiful bowl of roasted mushroom broth with one of the most immaculately white pieces of Sea Bass you will ever encounter. Cooked sous-vide with a little butter and olive oil, the fish was incredibly moist and tender. This dish was without a doubt one of my favorites of the night.
Considered one of the most indulgent dishes in town, the Confit Duck & Foie Gras Pot Pie lived up to the billing. Melted foie gras in place of butter in the veloute…decadent. At this point in the evening, two spoonfuls was about all I could handle, but I did find myself dunking my spoon for extra pieces of duck.
And just when I was ready to crawl into a corner and let the food coma consume me, Chef Maffei presented us with the last entree of the night – Strube Ranch New York Strip (Wagyu beef) and house-brined Pork Chop with bacon & potato terrine and soy-chile glazed Brussels sprouts. There was not a single item on this plate that I did not take delight in.
To cap off the night, we sampled the chef’s whimsical take on a s’more (inspired by a suggestion from his daughter). The aroma from the charred oak leaves truly enhanced the experience as my mind was instantly transported to the campfire. I couldn’t help but appreciate the sensory stimulation.
The ambience was incredibly nice, the servers so friendly, and the pace of the meal very well managed that we hardly realized that we had been there for 3 hours. We’re so appreciative of the time Chef Maffei set aside to serve our courses and just to hang out with us. It’s a special thing when a restaurant is headed up by a chef with a true love and respect for food. Again, our sincere thanks to the entire crew at Finn & Porter for treating us to such a wonderful culinary adventure. I caught MJ eyeing the sushi menu, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be making a return visit in the near future.