Winslow’s Wine Cafe has been a convivial pillar of west Fort Worth’s restaurant community for years. Part of its rock-solid reputation has been grounded in its kitchen delivering New American larder dishes ranging from roasted tomato-basil soup and a refreshing wedge salad, to shrimp and grits, a no-frills center-cut fillet, and house-oven-fired pizzas.
Winslow’s is too savvy to meddle with a format that has been reaping tangible dividends for years. But it’s also willing to engage in some inspired tweaking of what risked becoming a smugly complacent — if consistently winning — formula.
Fresh from stints in Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Ariz., Michael Watkins was hired last year as executive chef, and the Texas native has been putting enough tweaks — a new spice here, a local seasonal ingredient there — into the Winslow’s winter menu to produce generally pleasing results.
As I sipped one of the cafe’s famed house wines — a plummy, vanilla-tinged 2012 Erath Pinot Noir ($13), or the cherry and wood of a 2012 Mandolin Pinot Noir ($10) — I took in the “chalkboard” features, the daily-weekly-monthly specials that have become Watkins’ widest platform for his impact on the Winslow’s menu.
A starter of sesame-ginger-encrusted Ahi tuna ($10) unveiled Watkins’ acute sense of balance, as the peppery crust of the fish played off the cool, blushing interior of the tuna. And the entire dish perked up thanks to a fresh ginger-soy dressing, though it was applied too liberally to an otherwise welcome arugula-radish salad.
Wood-fired mussels ($10) took my mouth on a jaunt to Thailand with their spicy red curry banking off a cooling, coconut milk sea. Watkins’ Asian touch with these bivalves makes a faint memory of Winslow’s old Southwestern-ancho-inflected approach to this bistro classic.
Parmesan truffle fries ($7) demonstrated Watkins’ gift for restraint with a potentially overwhelming ingredient. Instead of brashly drowning his matchstick fries in luxuriant truffle oil, the oil was judiciously applied and, along with Winslow’s house spice blend, enhanced the humble spud.
Michael’s meatballs ($10) were the chef’s signature small plate. These densely rolled disks bore many of Watkins’ fingerprints, starting with his use of a fresh grind of veal and pork, studded with fresh herbs, before the tomatoes received a light char. Watkins’ garlic-infused tomato sauce had a special citrusy tartness, reminding me of the tomato’s often overlooked membership in the fruit family.
And Watkins’ take on the near-clichéd caprese salad ($7) was truly revelatory because of his handmade attention to its key ingredient: the mozzarella, which Watkins hand-pulls and kneads into a delirious state of supple creaminess.
While the rosemary chicken ($20) suffered from being a bit bland, Watkins gave it a fine supporting cast of blanched-then-grilled fingerling potatoes (irresistible), sautéed kale and a gaggle of oyster mushrooms that infused the chicken with needed earthiness.
Though the flat-iron steak ($23) will have probably rotated off the menu by the time you read this, do yourself a favor and look for its accompanying, exceptional chimichurri pesto sauce. Its alternating high kicks of blended parsley, spinach, cilantro and jalapeño makes it a natural enhancement for other Winslow’s proteins and pizzas.
Watkins makes beautiful music with grilled sea scallops ($25). This item, a staple of the old menu, has had some serious “work” done: Away with the old bed of mushroom risotto, sautéed Swiss chard and beurre blanc sauce. And in with olive oil, mashed potatoes and a zippy bacon, tomato and corn ragout. Out with the humble sauté pan, and in with a white-hot grill that tattoos a perfect cross-hatch on the scallops. The result is nothing less than Watkins’ best big plate of food on the menu.
Winslow’s pastry chef Allison O’Connor (general manager Eric O’Connor’s wife) is the one to thank, profusely, for the sugar high from her spiced lava cake s’mores in a jar with graham cracker crumbles ($9). It was a mash-up of that great campfire classic that began with burnished, homemade marshmallow and ended with a bottomless glass of cayenne and chile powder-spiked chocolate cake and sauce, stippled with graham cracker crumbles.
All that was missing was a campfire. But, wait, what’s that just outside on the Winslow’s patio? It’s one of the blazing fire pits — no tweaking required.