Chef Josh Watkins (who drew national attention as executive chef at the Driskill Grill) unveiled his refreshed “New American Grill” menu at a media party last Thursday at The Carillon. The food was spectacularly good; the downside is the University of Texas restaurant’s academic-institutional feel.
Initially Watkins was tasked with establishing the AT&T Center’s entire catering operation; with that open for a year and a half, he now is focusing on its fine-dining experience at The Carillon, and it shows. The quality of the entire meal and evening was top-notch. Of special note, the Carillon offers a $38 prix fixe menu – an entrée, plus any two cold or hot first courses – that’s an outstanding value. (Add paired wines for $12.) For a grand celebration, try the six-course tasting menu, selected nightly by Watkins, for $60; add $22 for paired wines.
Our first course, an iceberg lettuce salad with bacon and blue cheese, didn’t sound exciting. But Watkins updated the classic with minced red pepper and a chervil ranch dressing; the baby iceberg was topped with intensely flavorful house-smoked bacon and Maytag bleu cheese, yet tasted more delicate than rich. For the second course, we sampled hamachi crudo and crisp pork belly. The hamachi was reminiscent of sashimi dishes at Uchi, with a similarly inventive use of hazelnuts, currants, and ponzu. The pork belly (also house-smoked) was wickedly decedent and delicious, accented with a Diablo glaze, Asian pear salad, and fried mint.
The main course offered was a tasty New York Strip steak, coffee-rubbed and topped with mesquite syrup and candied garlic, served with a wonderful side of roasted parsnips. Preferring a fish, I tried the mero, which was topped with toasted pine nuts and dried cranberries, and served over riced cauliflower with lemon zest – another memorably delicious vegetable. The dessert was a cherry vanilla bread pudding, served with goat’s milk vanilla bean gelato – too good to leave a bite behind. (It’s a testimony to the meal that I’ve already found three excuses to recite it course-by-course to friends.)
The Carillon would be an excellent choice for a business breakfast or dinner. However, it felt too cavernous for an intimate tete-a-tete, or romantic date. The space has soaring ceilings, good acoustics and muted music; we found it easy to carry on a quiet conversation, which offers another big plus for business dining. The service was attentive and elegant. Table décor included a burnt-orange fresh orchid and a pretty burnt-orange glass lantern – like the food, sophisticated twists on a classic. (But Sooners, beware.)
The breakfast menu is hotel-pricey; breakfast tacos are $10, granola pancakes are $12. The lunch buffet is a reasonable $10.95 (Soup, Salad, Pizza, Deli Bar, and Beverage) or $16.95 (Full Buffet, which includes daily entrees - e.g. Roasted Pork Loin with Green Peppercorn-Apple Jus; Barley Casserole with Sun Dried Tomatoes, Basil Pesto - and side vegetables.) Officially at lunchtime it's a “Campus Club” only for university employees and their guests; but no one is turned away.
The walking-distance proximity to UT’s Blanton Art Museum, Humanities Research Center, and Texas Performing Arts at Bass Concert Hall makes The Carillon well worth remembering when attending arts events on campus. The dessert menu features pastries and cheeses, a thoughtful selection of flavored loose-leaf teas, coffees, late-harvest wines, spirits and cocktails – it would be a lovely way to end an evening, after attending a “B Scene” social at the Blanton. UT Campus, AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center 1900 University Ave. (@ MLK), 404-3655 Public hours: Breakfast daily, 7-10am; dinner Wednesday-Saturday, 5:30-10pm Campus Club: lunch buffet for UT faculty, staff and guests, 11:30am-1:30pm See review, Dec. 25, 2009 http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/review?oid=oid%3A931281 Carillon online: http://www.meetattexas.com/restaurants.html
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