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.

 

 

Austin’s Best Desserts 2013

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*UPDATE*  3/3/14  So sad to say- Cinnamon’s has closed its doors. Happy to say Philip Speer is working on a new bakery/cafe called St. Philip. Trace has a new pastry chef I have yet to check out but fortunately Janina O’Leary passed up big city offers to stay in Austin at the new brick and mortar for very popular food truck La V, opening this week! Steven Cak expands his dessert offering along with parkside’s expansions with chavez and olive and june. And finally Jodi Elliot will also be opening her own bakery very soon called Bribery. I will do a full post along with a couple of new spots once all of these open. It has been a very sweet year in desserts in Austin!

It is time once again for the AFBA city guide! I drew the difficult task of bringing you the cities best desserts. It is such a broad category, I decided to give a shout out to some of my favorite pastry cases and trailers available at any time your sweet tooth might be calling you and then focus on the high end dessert porn available at Austin’s finest restaurants.

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Chef Loic Duchesne at Cinnamon’s.

One of my first jobs was as a baker at a small chain that specialized in cinnamon rolls located at the Lincoln Village shopping center. The same little store is now an independently owned bakery called Cinnamon’s run by French Chef Loic Duchesne. The cinnamon rolls are huge, buttery, and delicious, just like the ones I remember from the summer I gained 10 pounds. Chef Loic does a booming business with the soup and salad crowd as well as American favorites like chocolate chip cookies but just like a corner patisserie in Paris, there are a rainbow of pastel macarons and chocolate croissants ready to whisk you away on a virtual visit to the City of Lights.

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The pastry counter at Vespaio Enoteca.

Another one of my favorite dessert cases is at Vespaio Enoteca. While Vespaio is one of the best Italian places in town and worth a long leisurely visit, more often I find myself in a rush and the case here carries a nice assortment of European style desserts and breads as well as charcuterie and antipasti perfect for a picnic on the go. Just need a bottle of Pinot and you are ready for whatever Austin adventure awaits you.

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Give me one of everything! Pastry counter at Hillside Farmacy.

Hillside Farmacy  could also be known as Chef Sonya Cote’s favorite things. The walls are lined with local products, most of which have little in common except that Cote likes them. And she does have great taste. The pastry case is an assortment of local bakers and their best products, many of which are usually found only at the weekend farmer’s markets. So sleep in on Saturday and check out Hillside instead.

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The Flying Pig- Fresh fried donut covered in bacon and maple icing. Just wash it down with a lipitor smoothie.

 

 

 

The Flying Pig, a giant fresh fried donut covered in bacon and maple icing, has long been one of my favorite indulgences courtesy of Gordough’s, one of the first trailers to start the current dining craze in Austin. I have not had the pleasure of visiting their new brick and mortar, Gordough’s Public House, which offers sandwiches and burgers made from donuts as well as craft cocktails and a fine assortment of beers but I have heard great things. Even the salads are served with a “piping hot garlic donut.”

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Frozen Hot Chocolate from Holy Cacao.

 

 

My other trailer pic is Holy Cacao, which is most famous for its yummy cake balls but I am in love with the frozen hot chocolate. Most shakes I find too thick and cloyingly sweet but the folks at Holy Cacao start off with a European style super thick hot chocolate, add it to Bluebell chocolate ice cream, and top it off with enough ice to keep it slushy without watering it down. SO. FREAKING. GOOD.

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Popcorn and a Movie from Swift’s Attic.

 

 

One of my favorite desserts last year was the Popcorn and a Movie by Callie Speer at the wildly popular Swift’s Attic. I was also impressed with a seasonal apple dessert I had but unfortunately the lighting is not exactly photographer friendly. The food at Swift’s is imaginative and flavorful and so are the desserts. They recently started a brunch on Sunday’s with Foie Gras PB&J Pancakes that I must try. Mmmmm, foie!

Lemon tart from Trace.
Lemon tart from Trace.

 

 

Yet another Austin chef as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award Rising Star is Janina O’Leary from Trace. O’Leary has a long list of prestigious chef’s she has worked with like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Pichet Ong. But she brings her own sense of color and balance to the desserts she crafts at Trace. With all of her prestigious training, I am anxious to watch this talented hand blossom into her own super stardom.

 

Chocolate Parfait from Foreign and Domestic.
Chocolate Parfait from Foreign and Domestic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jodi Elliott is the pastry genius behind Foreign and Domestic. She has recently started a Bake Sale on Saturdays at the restaurant. The sale starts at 10am and lasts until they run out, which means, get in line by 9:30 and be happy with whatever you get. But try especially hard to get some popovers if you can.

My top 4 dessert places, well, the pictures pretty much tell the story. Fantastic, creative, blending of the savory with the sweet, gorgeous, works of art.

First up is Steven Cak at Parkside

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Tropical Tart- Coconut tapioca, ginger granita, mango, mint, coconut ice cream
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Goat cheese custard, macadamia soil, white chocolate cremeux, candied kumquat, hibiscus foam, basil ice cream.
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Carrot cake mousse, roasted pineapple, cream cheese, licorice mint, carrot gel.
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Milk chocolate soup, candied beets, rose gelee, pomegranate, milk chocolate ice cream.

Next up is Philip Speer and Andrew Lewis from Uchiko-

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Chocolate mousse, red beet, toasted milk, blood orange.
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Fried milk, toasted milk, chocolate milk, iced milk sherbet.

Next is the delightful Erica Waksmunski of Congress

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Chocolate 7 ways- Pine nut, pomegranate, olive oil ice milk.
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Chef Erica
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Vietnamese Coffee Pots de Creme, hazelnuts, orange zest, condensed milk foam
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Warm butterscotch pudding, tangerine, English toffee, cocoa nib sorbet.

 Finally, one of my favorite people in the pastry world, Plinio Sandalio from the Carillon.

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Dark chocolate terrine, raspberries, white chocolate custard, chocolate crumbles, hazelnuts.
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Almond cake, tomato jam, foie gras ice cream, marcona almonds.
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Corndog- cornmeal fritters, hot dog ketchup, mustard ice cream.
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Rooibos cheesecake, cucumber granita, green chartreuse meringue, lime curd.
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Yogurt panna cotta, pistachio financier, pistachio custard, campari gelee, grapefruit sorbet.

Best Desserts in Austin

Roasted tomato sorbet with cherub tomato confit and chevre fondant from Philip Speer of Uchi/Uchiko.

Austin has a ton of dessert options, from trailers to fine dining to bakeries you are sure to find something to satisfy that sweet tooth.

Two of the best restaurants in town are Uchi and her sister restaurant Uchiko.  You may have heard of them, Tyson Cole won a James Beard Award last year for best chef Southwest and if there is any justice in the world, Paul Qui will be crowned Top Chef tomorrow night.  As ethereal as their food is, I always save room for dessert.  Sometimes two.

 

Peanut butter semifreddo with apple-miso sorbet from Philip Speer at Uchi/Uchiko

Director of Culinary Operations at Uchi and designer of desserts Philip Speer was just nominated for a James Beard Award for the third time.  His plates are as beautiful as they are tasty.  Speer uses familiar flavors and combines them with bold techniques to make a sophisticated presentation.  One of his biggest sellers is the peanut butter semifreddo which came to him one day when he was making a sack lunch for his daughter.

My next post talks about the Social Hour they offer at both restaurants.  If you go, make sure to try the desserts as well.

 

 

 

Guanja chocolate terrine with grapfruit segments, candied baguette, and chupa nut puree from Plinio Sandalio at the Carillon.

The Carillon is the restaurant located at the AT&T Executive Center on the University of Texas Campus.  This is one of the best restaurants in town that nobody seems to know about.  It is probably due to the fact that it is located in a hotel/conference center run by UT and is only open to staff for breakfast and lunch but it opens for fine dining to the public in the evening and it is outstanding.  I have been a huge fan of the executive chef, Josh Watkins, since his days at the Driskill.  As much as I love Watkins’ food, his dessert program did not do justice to his high caliber food.  That problem was recently resolved with the addition on Plinio Sandalio to the team.

Foreground- Goat cheese cheesecake/mango pudding/candied cashews Background- carrot cake fritters/ mustardo/cream cheese/candied pecans from Plinio Sandalio at the Carillon

Sandalio originally comes from Bolivia but spent most of his life growing up in Houston.  He is known for his daring desserts that combine savory elements like foie gras or offer surprising twists like flavored pop rocks. I always look forward to his inventive design.

 

 

Huge tip-  the restaurant validates for its parking garage.  It is one of the few places downtown you do not have to worry about parking.

 

Additional fine dining desserts:

Steven Cak from Parkside presented this beautiful beet dessert at the Dessert Project on Sunday
One of my all time favorites is the Chocolate Soup at Wink

 

 

Tons of pastry cases around town including many Mexican bakeries that you should try but that is subject to a whole separate post.  Here are a few of my favorite European style bakeries:

La Patisserie offers gorgeous macarons as well as French pastries and tasty sandwiches.
Walton’s Fancy and Staple is owned by Sandra Bullock and offers delicious desserts and sandwiches on fresh baked bread
Vespaio Enoteca offers cookies, breads, pastries, cakes, tarts and more next to a gourmet deli case capable of stocking a picnic basket with tasty treats as well as a sit down area with a menu, full bar, and espresso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do not forget the trailers!  Far more delicious desserts than I can count but here are a few of my favorites:

Holy cacao offers those cute little cake balls and homemade s’more fixings but my favorite from here is the iced hot chocolate. The incredibly decadent hot chocolate is mixed with chocolate ice cream and mixed into a refreshing beverage sure to cool you down and quell even the biggest chocolate craving.
La Boite recently changed suppliers for their almond croissants but I am happy to report they are still as close as you can get to Paris. They also sell beautiful macarons, delicious coffee drinks, and the award winning Confituras preserves.
Gordough’s has relocated to 1503 S. 1st along with Izzoz and Dock and Roll. Gordoughs offers huge fresh fried donuts with an abundance of topping options. My favorite is the Flying Pig topped with bacon strips and maple icing.
One of the first trailers to start the wave, Hey Cupcake has the tastiest cupcakes in town. They offer several varieties but my favorite is the Double Dose, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. They have several locations around town including a brick and mortar.

Congress

The buzz for David Bull’s return to the Austin culinary scene started at least a year ago.  First came the news that there would be three spaces.  Second would be the more casual bar/restaurant, Congress would be the upscale dining destination, and Bar Congress would concentrate on cocktails and connect the two spaces.  Then came the news of his all star cast- Rebecca Meeker  (Driskill, L’Atelieras) as chef de cuisine, Adam Bryan  (Lamberts, East Side Showroom) as bar manager, June Rodil  (Uchi, Texas Best Sommelier 2009) as beverage director, and Plinio Sandalio(Noe, Soma, Textile, James Beard nomination for Best Pastry Chef 2010) as pastry chef.  Expectations were soaring as Bull blogged about the progress of the build at base of the luxury condos the Austonian in the heart of downtown.  An early fall opening for 2010 was not surprisingly pushed back.  Perfection takes time and restaurant perfection takes twice that when you figure in the city of Austin permitting.  The restaurant finally premiered in the waning hours of 2010 for a New Year’s Eve bash. 

Every report I heard was fantastic but I patiently waited a few weeks just to be sure the restaurant had its legs before venturing in.  I could stand it no longer when I read Pat Sharpe’s review in the New York Times and booked a table towards the end of February.  I entered the restaurant through Second, a very modern looking space with a great people watching windows and deck.  No happy hour yet but rumored plans of one will bring me back.  I stopped at Bar Congress, the small almost hall-like area for a brief chat with Adam Bryan and to sip on his delicious take on a gin and tonic, the Congress GT.  Bryan infuses the gin with hops that gives the drink the color and flavor of beer.  With house made quinine, of course.  Great start to the evening.

The dining area at Congress is intimate with high ceilings,  gorgeous lighting, and varying shades of off white.  Service was concerned without hovering and friendly without being overly familiar.  I ordered a glass of a “safe” Spanish red which I knew would be good but when I inquired about a bolder choice, I was promptly brought a sample of my new favorite red, the 2003 Hochar Pere et Fils, Chateau Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. The silky texture was punctuated with spice and big red fruit that settled into a finish of leather and tea leaves. 

The 3 course tasting for $65 gives the diner their choice among some drool inducing options of 2 starters and a main course.  There is also a 7 course chefs tasting which looks to have increased from when I was there to $110.  Add on some “Enhancements” like foie gras mousse for $22,  American Ossetra caviar for $36, or the dessert tasting for $22 and we are venturing into “renegotiating my home loan to be able to afford dinner” territory.  I will say now, it is worth every penny but be warned you may have to eat on the cheap for a month afterwards until your food budget balances out again. 

My first course is the lead picture on this post of the steak tartare with oysters and truffles.  When it first arrived, I delicately tasted each component noting the individual flavors and textures, which were delicious but not mind blowing.  Then I composed the “perfect bite.”  You know the one, a little of each element gathered on the fork in hopeful anticipation.  That bite transformed the notes of each into a harmonious song on my tongue.  Who would have thought oyster and tartare brought together with earthy truffle?  David Bull, that’s who. 

 Next up was the hamachi sashimi with grapefruit and avocado.  I love the combination of the delicate hamachi with the bitter punch of the grapefruit supremes and the creamy fat of the avocado but to be honest, I’ve had it before.  Bull puts his twist on it by adding crunchy cubes of turnips like adding a bass riff to a classic.

 More surf and turf on the next course with 2 huge sea scallops topped with molasses bacon in a bed of sweet corn puree and grilled corn salad.  The scallops were perfectly seared and almost raw in the center, just how I like them.  The sweetness of the scallops was highlighted by the crispy, sticky maple bacon as well as the fresh corn and herbs.

 My final savory course brought a ribeye cap with an espresso rub cooked sous vide to a perfect pink served with a salty sweet smoked caramel sauce and a side of the richest, creamiest pommes puree.  This dish literally brought a tear to my eye.  Meat and potatoes but like none I had ever eaten.  Every bite was the perfect blend of salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth, bitter, spice, and umami.  I was so happy to see David during the Stars Across Texas event last month serving a small version of this.  I hope you got to taste it as well.

Oh but children, we are not done yet!  David Bull’s genius is balanced by his playful pastry chef Plinio Sandalio.  I first tasted Chef Sandalio’s work at Textile in Houston last year, sadly on their closing night.  With my background in pastry, I quickly developed a sugary crush.  Chef Sandalio was nice enough to bring out my first dessert course at Congress so I could finally meet him in person.  I think I made him blush when I told him I felt like a 12 year old meeting Justin Bieber.  No need to worry, Chef, I have no intentions of stalking you.  But I may or may not be stalking your desserts, depending on what the court order says. 

First dessert brought a thin strip of star anise pound cake with a quenelle of  “toast sorbet”, mandarin jam, sesame pudding, and candied cashews.  Like with Bulls savory dishes, Sandalio’s desserts bring together a harmonious chord of sweet, savory, crunchy, cold, with a burst of citrusy acid to round it out.

Second dessert consisted of feathery light sweet potato beignets with a sprinkling of chicory on top accompanied with salted butter ice cream and pecan brittle.  I think one of the secrets to a great dessert is the proper use of salt to both enhance and contrast the sweetness and Sandalio is a master.

 My favorite dessert came last with Chef Sandalio’s version of Strawberry Shortcake.  Almond cake topped with strawberry jam, green chartreuse ice cream, and-  wait for it-  Pop Rocks!  Campari flavored Pop Rocks.  The dense cake with the sweet jam turned into a fizzy symphony, kind of like strawberry shortcake champagne.  DEE-LISH-US!

So when your tax check comes in or if you get a lucky scratch off, head to Congress.  It’s worth it.

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