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.

Bad to the Bone Chef Smackdown

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From left to right, Shawn Cirkiel from Parkside, Sandy from the JB and Sandy show, and Paul Petersen, formerly of the Gage in Marathon

Bad to the Bone was exactly that!  On Saturday night at Stubbs, instead of the usually stellar rock stars on stage, chefs took over the place for the evening for an Iron Chef style competition benefiting the Sustainable Food Center.  Each of the chefs got to choose a mystery ingredient which they all had to incorporate into their dish.  The mystery ingredients were tangerine, goats milk, and achiote, a traditionally Latin spice also known as annatto that has a sweet and slightly peppery taste.

I was thrilled to be able to attend because I am fans of all three of the competitors and consider them some of the top chefs in Texas.  Each has worked in the Austin area but only Shawn Cirkiel currently has a local restaurant, parkside, in the heart of downtown on 6th.  Recently named one of the Hot ten New American taverns by Bon Appetit magazine, parkside does upscale casual in a uniquely Austin way.  Shawn brought the gold home to Austin and captured the winning votes from both the crowd and the judges with a creamy and tangy goat milk sorbet served alongside an achiote and tangerine fritter which closely resembled the famous donut holes served at the restaurant.

David Bull, former executive chef at the Driskill
David Bull, former executive chef at the Driskill

David Bull, following an announcement the day before that he plans to return to Austin in the fall with two new restaurants at the Austonian, did an achiote glazed salmon with smoked bacon grits, goat cheese crema, and tangerine spinach salad.  Salmon is tough to keep at the right temperature without drying it out like you must do for a large crowd.  I did like the flavors and remember fondly a fabulous dinner at the Driskill that will have me as one of the first in line when he fires up the grill in Austin again.

Paul Petersen, rock star
Paul Petersen, rock star

Paul Petersen had a restaurant in Buda called Little Texas Bistro that was the subject of rave reviews.  I put off driving all the way out there for dinner and missed my opportunity to say I knew Paul then.  He packed off to win even greater praise and national attention as the executive chef at the Gage Hotel in Marathon, TX.  I finally had the opportunity to sample Paul’s cooking at one of his classes at Central Market.  His rock star style of teaching and cooking was as entertaining as his food was fresh and exciting.  The class was filled with rabid fans from Little Texas and I could see why.  At the Smackdown, Paul served annatto crusted pork loin with goat’s milk corn pudding and achiote seared tangerine.  The pork loin was tender and delicious but my favorite dish of the night was the fabulously creamy corn pudding.  The savory and warm dish resembled a loose polenta which pooled on the plate beneath the juicy pork loin.  Last time I saw Paul there were rumors of a new restaurant in the Austin area but he is currently at Rick’s Chophouse in McKinney.  Please come back, Paul.  We miss you!

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