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.)
The 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.
Of 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.
From 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.
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.
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.