The Hightower needs time to find its groove
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., April 4, 2014
Sun.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10:30pm
Just as soon as the Argentine-inspired steak house, El Arbol, closed in 2011, the chef and general manager announced their intention to create an affordable neighborhood restaurant and bar in East Austin. Business partners Victor Farnsworth and chef Chad Dolezal did just that in early 2014, opening the Hightower in a space that has been home to various restaurants over the past 30 years. They've outfitted the low-ceilinged main room with a tall communal table, with the long bar and the small kitchen oriented on one side, and tables, chairs, and a wrap-around banquette on the other. The interior is done in shades of gray with recessed lighting overhead and accents of black fabric and wood panels.
I've dropped into the Hightower twice recently with different groups of friends and am still in somewhat of a quandary as to what to say about it. Even after follow-up conversations with the owners, I'm not certain that with only two months under their belt, Farnsworth and Dolezal have yet to fully realize and execute their vision – or maybe it's just that I'm not their target customer. There are too many miscalculations and things that don't make sense to me here to elicit a rave review. On the other hand, there is some impressive food coming out of Dolezal's kitchen.
Our first group of diners arrived early on a Saturday evening to find the restaurant busy with large parties. With the low ceilings, loud music on the sound system, and a roomful of hard surfaces, the noise level was only a couple of decibels below deafening. Reading the gray-on-gray menus was somewhat of a challenge in the very dimly lit dining room, but since offering small, sharable plates is part of the concept here, we ordered almost the entire appetizer menu. Many of the appetizers arrived in bowls with serving spoons, and our gracious server made sure we each had small plates on which to portion out the bounty.
Our two favorite choices were the blistered green beans ($6.50) with farro, honey mustard, candied pecans, slivers of leek, and mint, and the brussels sprouts ($5), tossed with house peanut butter, golden raisins, sambal, and lemon. In both dishes, the vegetables maintained some texture and were accented by carefully layered flavors, tart and tangy with the occasional sweet notes. One friend found the pickled vegetables ($5) with caraway ranch dressing far too tangy for her tastes, but some of us couldn't get enough of them. Dolezal's palate seems to run toward the tart and tangy, which suited most of us just fine, and he's confident about his use of salt. It's not on the table, and we didn't need it.
When our entrées arrived, the dim lighting made it almost impossible to appreciate the plate presentation and also somewhat difficult to identify the various components of each dish. Our group of retired chefs and caterers would have had a lively discussion about our reactions to the various dishes we were sharing, had we only been able to hear each other. While we found some admirable qualities in each offering, there were missteps on several plates. My hanger steak ($17) arrived medium rare, with slices arranged on a flavorful avocado puree. The meat was excellent, but the accompanying fries were a total loss. The potatoes weren't particularly crispy to begin with, and as they cooled, the cheddar and cotija cheeses on top congealed into a grainy, unappetizing glop. Bear in mind this steak will only be served medium rare; temperature requests and substitutions are politely declined. Scallops ($17.50) in dashi cream broth were really more of a soup, with no hint of the Italian sausage promised on the menu. And as appealing as we found the fried boudin balls ($10) with roasted carrots and an apple mostarda that gave the dish a bright acidic pop, the purple hull peas on that plate were seriously underdone; al dente legumes equal gastric distress. Enough said.
Several things about this dinner didn't make sense to any of us, such as the fact that so many of the dishes came in bowls with condiments and sauces that were eminently sop-worthy, but there was not bread anywhere on the menu. Dolezal confirmed that omission was by design in an attempt to keep the food affordable. However, everyone at our table would have gladly paid another 25 to 50 cents more a plate for the bread with which to truly clean our plates. There was also the issue of dessert. When we asked for the dessert menu, our server said they hoped that guests would spend their dessert money at the bar. Dolezal later explained they were planning to offer "adult sno-cones" in such flavors as strawberry fennel and Kahlua coconut milk, but their sno-cone machine was not yet in operation. As someone who won't be finishing a meal with a cocktail or an adult sno-cone, I would have appreciated a dessert option. Without one, the money I would have spent on it stayed in my pocket. The cost-saving measures of no bread, no dessert, and the use of good-quality, heavy-duty flatware wrapped in cheap, flimsy paper napkins may help the restaurant's bottom line a bit, but they struck me as amateur missteps that distract from a successful dining experience. Considering Dolezal's skilled hand with vegetable cookery and savory flavors, I'll be curious to try the Hightower that evolves over the next few months. My initial impression is one of blurred vision.