The Carillon

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As a food blogger, one of the questions I get asked most often is what is the best restaurant in town? Of course, this is a loaded question highly dependent on what kind of food you like. I appreciate a greasy burger, bowl of queso, or slab of brisket just as much as fine dining. But if you are looking for a dining experience my favorite go-to is The Carillon.

Half the time I tell people about it, they have never heard of it although it has been around for several years. It is located on MLK in the AT&T Executive Center on the U.T. Campus across the street from the Bob Bullock Museum. (Pro-tip- There is a parking garage and the restaurant validates, so parking is not an issue.)

DSCN2026DSCN2034The Executive Chef is Josh Watkins who has been a force in the Austin restaurant scene since his sous days at the Driskill with David Bull. Watkins commitment to farm fresh, ingredient driven food is evident on every plate.

Pastry Chef Plinio Sandalio is one of the best in town. Not only are his desserts works of art, they also play with surprising combinations of sweet and savory that delight the palate. As delicious as the food is, do not make the mistake of skipping dessert. In fact, save room for two if you can.

One of the first indicators of the caliber of a restaurant is the bread service. It is an area that is often farmed out to an outside bakery leaving diners stuck with spongy rolls more appropriate at a grocery store than restaurant. Not at the Carillon. There are always at least 2 varieties of bread. Tonight we had whole wheat and an olive loaf that were both light and flavorful, along with butter sprinkled with black lava sea salt. That kind of attention to the bread is a great indication of flavors to come.

DSCN2060DSCN2044Of course, you can dine ala carte or there is a 6 course tasting option but one of my favorite dining bargains in town is prix fixe menu for $50. You pick any 2 appetizers and 1 entree from the entire menu.

My friend Michelle from Beyond Picket Fences joined me for dinner, not only sharing her food but also helping photograph our lovely meal. I love my blogger friends. Thanks Michelle!

Our first appetizers were the Escolar Crudo with pickled mustard seeds, celery, golden raisins and paprika aioli and the Crab Salad with wontons, champagne aioli and American caviar. Delightful light bites to whet the appetite. The soft, freshly-picked crab with the crunch of the wonton, slightly acidic aioli and pop of the caviar got my taste buds revving.

DSCN2074DSCN2048From the hot section came P.E.I Mussels with Spanish chorizo, saffron, jalapeno, and grilled foccacia. The broth was fragrant with a slight punch from the jalapeno but not so much that it overwhelmed the perfectly cooked mussels. I could swim in a bowl of that.

The scallops came with almond butter, grapefruit and crispy prosciutto. The only odd thing about this dish was the grapefruit. Texas Ruby Reds are delicious when in season and are sweeter than some oranges. I think a  bitter version would have lent the dish the acidity it needed to cut through the richness of the nut butter. Also the scallops were on the small side making it difficult to get a good sear without overcooking. Don’t get me wrong, I practically licked the plate but it was not my favorite dish of the night.

 

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Michelle went for a seafood trifecta with the Miso Marinated Mero with wilted spinach, maitake mushrooms and carrot-apple-ginger reduction. The meaty mero eats like a thick fish steak. This dish was a wonderland of flavor. The slightly sweet reduction was the perfect foil for the umami of fish, mushrooms, and spinach.

My main was the smoked pork chop with cherry polenta, collard greens, turnips and bourbon gastrique. My only complaint with this dish was the turnips, which were in awkwardly large chunks and slightly underdone. I would have preferred a more bite-sized dice that would have been easier to cook correctly. But I have to say, it is hard to see in this lighting but that pork is a perfect rosy pink. It was slightly smoky, tender and juicy. The creamy polenta was accented with pops of sweet cherry and bitter greens, a nice counterpoint to the pork.

DSCN2093DSCN2099DSCN2087Although dinner was delicious and we were more than full, we had to have dessert. Since we could not decide on 2 out of the 5 offerings, we went for 3.

First up was the most unexpected of the three, Plinio’s play on devils on horseback with Bleu des Basques panna cotta, date cake, bourbon toffee, mango pudding and bacon brittle. I have used blue cheese before in a dessert, a poached pear in puff pastry with a frangipane filling and blue cheese mousse, so I was curious to see how this one tasted.

Each of the elements on their own were tasty but as a whole, the blue cheese was a bit overwhelming. Coincidentally, though I had a small bite version of this dish a week later at a special event and instead of the panna cotta, Sandalio used a lighter mousse with just a hint of the blue cheese and I found the second version to be a more well balanced bite. I’m not sure if he adjusted the dish or if we just happened to get an off bit.

Second dessert was the sweet potato creme brulee with aji amarillo custard, basil pudding and annatto ice cream. This was a lovely little bite to tuck into. The creamy sweet potato highlighted with the herb accents is so far from the marshmallow holiday side dish.

The most delightful bite of the evening came with the chocolate and banana terrine. Cashew dacquoise, candied cashews and coconut custard decorate the bittersweet chocolate that holds a surprise center of creamy banana. It made me giggle.

So thank you to the wonderful staff at the Carillon for another incredible meal. I hope you get a chance to try it soon. I bet it will become your favorite too.

 

 

Week of 1000 Cocktails Part 1

As the weather gets colder, Austin turns from the outdoor festival mecca to the indoor cocktail soiree.  I kicked the season off with a bang last week doing 4 parties in 1 week.  That may seem like a long weekend to some but it was a wonderfully exhausting tour of some of the best in town for me.

First up was the Amuse Bouche party at the Carillon.  Josh Watkins and his team came up with 8 delicious bites paired with matching wines.  The  guests were free to nibble and socialize between the stations and revisit their favorites as often as they liked.  My favorite was the lobster rillette with caviar and curry aioli but other bites included duck confit ravioli with duck consomme, grilled bronzino with chorizo, charred tomato and corn, and hamachi with foie gras mousse, citrus riesling chutney, and currant reduction.  

The service was impeccable with each station attendant giving not only great descriptions of the food but also the wines and why they were chosen to pair.  Unsightly dirty plates were quickly whisked away and fresh real silver readied for the next bite.  The best and the brightest stars in the Austin food scene were there as well making for a delightful evening of food related chatter.  The regular tables were all full as well as a private party going on upstairs but the kitchen cranked out small batches continually ensuring a fresh taste.  I hope they put on another show like this soon!

Next up was a fundraiser for the Sustainable Food Center which is a marvelous organization that promotes eating locally and runs one of the biggest farmers markets in the area.  When I saw the chefs list for the dinner, I immediately bought a ticket.  Seven of the best in town in one meal!  The dinner was held at La Condesa with a pre-dinner cocktail party upstairs at Malverde.  We even had mixologist rock stars including local legend Bill Norris.

Hors d’oeuvres from Zack Northcutt at Mulberry included Richardson’s farm pork sausage wrapped around quail eggs for a delicious scotch egg and foie gras hot dogs with chutney.   The spices used for the hot dog masked any of the delicate flavor of the foie but I appreciated the creative effort.

After munchies and cocktails upstairs, we were seated downstairs in a family style setting.  I was seated at a booth with a couple of very interesting ladies that I enjoyed getting to know as the best in local produce and meats were showcased for us by the finest chefs in town.  First up was Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due Supper Club.  Get on Griffiths’ mailing list for dinners as well as charcuterie offerings at the farmers market.  The catfish terrine he made for the dinner that night came from fish so local that they probably had relatives swimming just blocks from us.  The fish was neither muddy tasting nor overpowering in this creamy concoction.  Fresh herbs and crunchy flatbread dressed up the common catfish.

Todd Duplechan from Trio was up next with gulf shrimp served on top of bear boudin.  Cajun boudin is basically a sausage casing stuffed with a rice dressing similar to dirty rice.  Crawfish, alligator, and pork are more traditionally used as the protein in a boudin, so the bear meat was a nice riff on the classic.  The taste of bear meat depends on age, size, and even what his diet consisted of but most closely tastes to me like a cross between venison and pork.

Rene Ortiz, our host at La Condesa, did not disappoint with one of the best bites in a stellar night with caramelized pork hock and belly, beetroot and chili marmelade, and watermelon radish and basil salad.  The pork was a meltingly tender blend of meat and fat encased in the thinnest crackle of a perfectly caramelized shell.  A spicy marmelade on top played off the sweet sauce beneath to strike a harmonic chord on the tongue.

James Holmes from Olivia served an absolute work of art with crispy braised lamb topped with bison bresaola with mustard tuile.  Bresaola is an air dried salty meat, so gourmet jerky bits on top of chicken fried lamb.  Delicious!  Somehow I have not found my way to Olivia yet.  But I will very, very soon.  Holmes even joined us at our table after his course and we chatted about his use of offal and other cuts of meat not commonly used like his famous lamb’s tongue.

Paul Qui from Uchiko has to be the hottest thing in town with the very successful launch of Uchiko in July as well as his wildly popular trailer East Side Kings located behind Liberty Bar.  He is kind of Austin’s version of David Chang taking Asian flavors and street food to a new level.  Tonight we had quail with fuyu persimmons, fried cashew miso, and marigold.  The delicate quail was cooked to perfection, only a shade past pink so it was still moist and tender.  Sweet persimmon on top with the crunchy fried cashew miso beneath blend to create contrast of taste and texture.

Shawn Cirkiel from parkside served a salad course with the best produce he could find at the farmers market.  There were ribbons of roots, veggie chips, table pickles, relishes, as well as fresh herbs and greens all arranged in an abstract canvas.  So much more than a simple salad, this veggie plate was an absolute showcase of produce all grown within fifty miles of Austin.


Dessert came from La Condesa’s Laura Sawicki with goat’s milk cremeux, apple and quince confit, and sherry gastrique.  Cremeux translates literally as “creamy”.  It is a cross between a mousse and a custard, very light.  The tart quince contrasted nicely with the apples giving a taste of fall to the barely set cream beneath.

Whew!  I’m worn out just reliving the festivities.  Next up is part two with a mixology class and a $500 bottle of wine.

Luncheon at Fall Creek Vineyard

Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Fest is one of my favorite foodie events of the year.  I attended for the first time 7 years ago and had so much fun that I have volunteered every year since.  I always start the fest with one of the luncheons in the Hill Country at a winery.  For the last few years I have been lucky enough to attend the luncheon at Fall Creek Vineyards.

Susan and Ed Auler are luminaries of the Texas wine world.  The very first fest 25 years ago, the legend goes, was planned around Susan’s kitchen table along with a now megastar in the wine world, Karen MacNeil, author of the Wine Bible and beloved PBS host.

Here is the menu we enjoyed with pictures:

1st Course

Seared Texas Shrimp and Blue Crab with White-Truffled Gazpacho

By Chef Jon Bonnell

Peregrine Hills Chardonnay

2nd Course

Texas Coffee Rubbed Grilled Strip Steak,
Roasted Parsnips, Candied Garlic, Mesquite Syrup

By Chef Josh Watkins

Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo, “Salt Lick Vineyards”, 2008

Dessert Course

Pound Cake, Fresh Seasonal Berries and Lemon Curd

By Chef Randy Evans

Llano Estacado Moscato

The grounds at Fall Creek are gorgeous.  Especially charming during this lush spring were the bluebonnets blooming among the vines.  Only in Texas!!

Chef Jon Bonnell prepared a creamy gazpacho that perfumed the air with the scent of white truffle.  The soup was topped with blue crab and Texas Gulf shrimp and matched with a crisp Chardonnay from Perregrine Hills.

It is no secret that I am a big fan of Josh Watkins.  He shines like no other at the Carillon.  But have you ever had a steak cooked to a perfect medium rare at any kind of large event off site from the restaurant?  Josh’s solution is to cook the steaks sous vide, which basically means searing the meat off, sealing in a plastic bag, and then placing them in a large warm bath where they can be brought up to the perfect temperature.  Another advantage to sous vide is that almost the entire steak is the correct degree of doneness and not just the pink center with a ring of gray around it.  The steaks where enhanced by a lovely Tempranillo from Fall Creek but what I really wanted was the big, bold, and hard to come by Meritus that Fall Creek produces.

And I learned the secret to Josh’s candied garlic garnish!  Maybe I will share in another post.

Of course, as a pastry chef, dessert is my favorite!  I have an obsession with lemon curd which almost bloomed into a business at one point and Randy Evans did not disappoint.  The pound cake was toasted for textural crunch, placed upon a layer of lemony buttery curd, then topped with fresh Texas strawberries and lightly whipped cream.  Beautiful and tasty, it inspired me to create a blueberry version over the weekend which I will post along with recipe soon.  Chef Evan’s version was paired with a not too sweet, almost musky Llano Estacado Moscato.

What a great start to a lovely weekend!

The Carillion

Wow.  I am struggling to learn the art of making people salivate with words and the only one I can find to describe my dinner last night at The Carillion for Austin Restaurant Week is, “Wow.”

Josh Watkins is a kitchen dynamo that I have been following since he was the chef de cuisine at the Driskill under David Bull and later executive chef.  I have had the good fortune to work both front of the house and back of the house with Chef Watkins on a couple of occasions and I find his fire and creativity inspiring.

I was on day 3 of my Austin Restaurant Week adventure which I kicked off with the raucous Bad to the Bone Smackdown at Stubbs.  The events are not affiliated but their timing coincided to hurtle me into a foodie fest that feels like the upcoming SXSW must feel to the hordes of music fans about to descend on Austin.

The menu at The Carillion for Restaurant Week at $35 looked like a great bargain but turns out it is pretty close in price to the regular menu with a 3 course tasting for $38 and a 6 course tasting for $60. They also offer wine pairings for $12 and $22 respectively, which the friendly and accommodating staff even adjusted to our tastes.  I was excited to further discover that Tuesday was also the kickoff of their new happy hour menu as well.  Besides the lack of parking in the area that make the expensive parking garage a necessity, my innate love of both gourmet delights and bargain prices had me all tingly with anticipa————tion.

We started off with the pork belly with Diablo glaze, Asian pear salad, and fried mint as well as the lobster risotto with cremini mushrooms, sorrel, and lemon oil.  The pork belly was crispy on the outside and meltingly fatty tender inside, with the perfect matchsticks of Asian pear giving a fresh crunch of sweetness.  The lobster was poached just past raw to a sweet and tender perfection and nestled in a creamy risotto.

The coffee rubbed dry aged New York strip with roasted parsnips, candied garlic, and mesquite syrup was an interesting blend of sweet and savory.  My dining companion was fascinated by the candied garlic which was a pungent raw garlic spice blend captured in an amber sheet of caramel used to garnish the medium rare steak.  The braised beef short ribs were served atop a pool of celery root puree with fat asparagus tips and a black pepper gastrique.  Every component was designed to highlight and enhance the dish as a whole.  This attention to detail is what propels this meal to an occasion.

For dessert we chose the goat cheese cheesecake with huckleberry compote and salted caramel and the guanaja chocolate terrine with crystalized cilantro, burnt orange reduction and corriander cream.  The cheesecake was light and creamy with a buttery, crunchy graham cracker crust.  The slightly sweet huckleberries with the salted caramel made for a flavor symphony.  The chocolate terrine is deceptively small but delightfully rich slice of truffle heaven, paired with an almost honey like orange reduction and topped with a tiny dollop of corriander spiked cream, I found myself slippng into a sleepy chocolate coma.

Our server was enthusiastic and charming.  When she was unsure of a wine pairing we were not happy with, the manager was quick to step in with a wonderful substitute that speaks both to the customer service of the restaurant as well as the exceptional wine list.  I see many visits to The Carillion in my future. I hope to see you there.

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