Elegant but Uneven
There's room for improvement at Goodall's Kitchen & Bar at the Hotel Ella
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Dec. 27, 2013
Open daily: breakfast, 7-11am;
weekend brunch, 11:30am-2:30pm
I have a confession. I've been in love with the stately Goodall Wooten mansion since I lived a block away as a college student in the early Seventies. Even though it was student housing at that point and reflected hard use and neglect, the classy pedigree and fine bone structure were still evident to me. The most recent incarnation of the house is the Hotel Ella, named for Dr. Goodall Wooten's bride, Ella Newsome. They moved into the house as a young married couple in 1900 and lived there until the Forties, always prominent members of Austin society. Though my long-ago fantasy of turning the house into a bed and breakfast was financially unrealistic, I've always wanted someone to succeed at making the charming house a viable and vibrant part of the community again.
Its interior newly renovated by Michael Hsu, the Hotel Ella offers 10 suites in the mansion and another 38 in the annex. The dining room and cozy bar are on opposite ends of the main floor, each with its own working fireplace and tall windows that overlook the wide veranda. Both rooms are tastefully appointed and comfortable, reflecting substance without pretension. The staff is friendly and obviously proud to welcome guests to the lovely facility. But are the food and service up to the task of really bringing the lovingly restored house to life? Based on our experiences this month, I have my doubts.
Two friends joined me at 6:30pm for what we thought would be an early dinner at Goodall's Kitchen & Bar on a recent chilly evening. There was an inviting fire in the dining room fireplace and a few large parties already seated. That unfortunately proved to be a problem. It appeared that in servicing the large tables, our food would get lost in the shuffle: All three of our entrées came out cold or at room temperature, the table wasn't bussed between courses, and our three-course, three-person meal ran until 9pm. While my guests raved about the quality of the cocktails – termed elixirs, tonics, and cures, in a nod to Wooten's profession as a physician – our overall meal was not particularly successful. I found chef Scott Mechura's menu plainly confusing, from the offerings (local heirloom tomatoes after the first freeze?) to the descriptions, the portion sizes, and the balance of sweet flavors in savory dishes.
The restaurant offers a $39 three-course prix fixe dinner ($55 with wine pairings) with an upcharge for ordering a rib eye ($9) or lamb chops ($12). I chose a bacon-wrapped quail appetizer, the half rack of lamb, and the snickerdoodle poppers recommended by my server. One friend requested the brussels sprout fries, the grilled rib eye, and the Texas apple cake with bleu cheese ice cream, while the third member of our party opted for a bowl of bean soup, pasta Amatriciana, and the Nutella crème brûlée. We waited what seemed like a good 30 minutes before our appetizers arrived, and that's when the problems started. Though the beans in the soup were robust and hearty, the broth was overwhelmingly salty and the wire basket of fries was mostly potatoes with two or three brussels sprout halves thrown in as garnish. However, my quail dish was perfectly done, each half wrapped in crisp bacon, four or five bites of toothsome bird.
After another long wait, our entrées arrived, and none of the food was hot. By the time we'd cut into things and realized the temperatures, our busy server was gone and didn't get back to the table until we had already eaten part of the meal. They generously offered to re-fire our plates, but we had already been there an hour and a half at that point and said no. Our server did delete the upcharge for my cold rack of lamb, which turned out to be two lollipop chops, a total of four little bites of meat nestled against a toothache-sweet parsnip puree and an eggplant dish with no flavor whatsoever. My friend who ordered the rib eye had more meat than she could eat in one sitting, but found the ultra-sweet red wine reduction on her meat unappetizing. The bacon listed on the menu was noticeably absent from my other friend's pasta dish, so we were counting on dessert to save the evening; didn't happen. The Texas apple cake was warm and moist and the crème brûlée velvety, but the bleu cheese ice cream on the cake and the chunks of coarse salt garnishing the crème brûlée both struck discordant notes. The poppers were also disappointing – dense, bready profiteroles filled with a nondescript pastry cream and rolled in cinnamon sugar.
A return visit for brunch was also beset with problems. This time, we were one of only two tables in the dining room, so kitchen timing should have been less of an issue. My friends raved about the spicy Bloody Marys until I ordered one for myself, without the Tito's. What an excellent eye-opener! However, the kitchen still moved very slowly, our table wasn't bussed between courses, and a couple of really odd things emerged. The house pastry tray with butter and jam ($8) featured a warm and delicate blueberry muffin, a hearty and healthy bran muffin, and an ugly, packaged crescent roll that must have fallen off the Sysco truck. The eggs Benedict ($15), chef's spinach omelet ($14), and the Pancho & Lefty ($14) – their take on huevos rancheros – were all truly fine and worth the trip. The buttermilk fried chicken ($19), on the other hand, was a bizarre concoction served in a wide soup bowl with mashed potatoes on the bottom, and a boneless, skinless chicken breast under a crispy tarp of fried chicken skin. The chicken was paired with grilled asparagus and honey butter poured over the entire dish so that all the savory elements sat in a pool of sweet syrup. While each component of the dish was tasty, the amalgam didn't work for me at all, and I wouldn't order it again. I think my dream house deserves a wonderful restaurant with accomplished service. It doesn't have one quite yet.