A Southwestern Concept Goes South
chavez is a better-than-average hotel restaurant, but is that enough to attract locals?
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., June 20, 2014
I have been a fan of Shawn Cirkiel's food since his days at Jean-Luc Bistro and have patronized all his establishments (parkside, the backspace, Olive & June) consistently; they're ideal places to take family or out-of-town visitors for a memorable meal. So I was beyond excited to see that the Radisson Hotel restaurant space was coming into Cirkiel's capable hands. I have visited chavez now on a number of occasions and have come to the unfortunate conclusion that, for me, this is not his finest outing.
I could barely contain my anticipation the first time I walked through the doors at chavez. The redesigned space is absolutely stunning, with a modern feel similar to parkside's, featuring white subway tile, custom wood planters and concrete siding, elegant tables and light fixtures, and floor-to-ceiling windows providing a spectacular view of Lady Bird Lake. We perched ourselves at the bar overlooking the pool for happy hour, which features half-priced cocktails, beer, and bar menu. We enjoyed the tostaditas de cangrejo (regular price $10), topped with chunky lump crab and fresh avocado slices, and the baby back ribs, accompanied by manzanilla olives, paper-thin slices of watermelon radish, and carrot escabeche, although the agave glaze was a little too sweet for our taste. The cocktails are pretty good and boozy, and we especially loved chavez's Sazerac ($11) made with mezcal and piloncillo. For a refreshing summer drink, try the Congress ($10) – Tito's vodka, hibiscus syrup, fresh lemon, and cava.
We were so impressed with this foray that we decided to return for dinner on a special occasion. Sadly, the experience was completely different. First off, I failed to find dishes that fit my concept of Southwestern cuisine, a term that evokes the late Eighties aesthetic of Texas and New Mexico celebrity chefs Stephan Pyles and Mark Miller, who introduced it to the country at early Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festivals, and local chef David Dailey's signature dishes that made Castle Hill Cafe Austin's most popular restaurant in the Nineties. Perhaps a better description of the food at chavez would be Hill Country or Central Texas cuisine, although in truth, the menu leans heavily on Mexican dishes. But I have a suspicion that Cirkiel didn't want to limit himself to the stereotype of heavy, greasy, cheesy food that his main audience – hotel guests – might assume from that.
We wanted to order a bottle of wine from their extensive list, but our server knew absolutely nothing about the wines. Thankfully I found a favorite in the Amayna Sauvignon Blanc ($58) and decided to splurge since it was a special occasion. It was perfect for the excellent raw bar selections: fresh oysters with traditional accompaniments ($3 per oyster) and a beautifully presented sliced raw bass ($11) marinated in lime and drizzled with chile guajillo sauce. But from there on, everything seemed a bit off. I was leaning towards the striped bass with hoja santa ($23), but we'd already had a lot of seafood and our server spoke highly of the grilled hen ($16), served with cauliflower purée and roasted florets, pickled red onions, and salsa verde. We thought the combination odd, but the hen was juicy; still, the dish lacked any real wow factor. Even more disappointing was the lamb in mole poblano ($22). I should have known better – lamb is not traditionally paired with this style of mole. A bright and vibrant mole verde, or a lighter mole colorado or pasilla sauce would have been a better pairing. But even so, the chavez mole was way off, bearing no resemblance to authentic mole poblano. It was entirely too sweet, had no chile flavor or depth, and if I didn't know it was Shawn Cirkiel's restaurant, I would have sworn the sauce came straight from a jar. And when chayote is served, even as miniature balls for garnish, it needs to be cooked all the way. Knowing what amazing desserts Steven Cak can make, we tried the mango con queso ($10), which was rich and refreshing all at the same time. If you like mango, this dessert is for you.
Recently, we returned to chavez for brunch and had an improved experience. Service was accommodating, although not stellar, and the food we had was good. However, a local is unlikely to enthusiastically pay $11 for two eggs, potatoes, and bacon (even if it is house cured). We tried the salmon ceviche ($9) which was outstanding, and the sopes de carnitas ($10), which were not traditional sopes, but nevertheless tasty. However, these dishes can be enjoyed for half price at happy hour, which ultimately is when I would recommend that Austinites try chavez. Otherwise, it's a decent hotel restaurant for visitors who are not familiar with real Mexican food or the culinary mastery that Shawn Cirkiel produces in his other venues.