King of the Hill
Regal Dining at Reasonable Rates
Castle Hill Cafe
1101 W. Fifth, 476-0728
Lunch: Mon-Fri, 11am--2:30pm
Dinner: Mon-Sat, 6pm--10pm; closed Sun.
I'm always fearful when I walk into Castle Hill Cafe that time, popularity, or some behind-the-scenes alteration has finally spoiled my favorite Austin dining spot. After all, it's difficult to stay on top in the restaurant business, where so many enterprises excel for a year or two, then falter and coast on reputation. But invariably I leave the restaurant impressed that owners Cathe and David Dailey have maintained the outstanding cuisine, quality service, and unpretentious decor that makes dining there such a pleasure.
For considerably less than you'd expect at a fine-dining establishment, Castle Hill offers an assortment of exquisite dishes favoring tastes of the American Southwest, southern Europe, and the Far East, plus an extensive list of affordable wines to match just about any of its daring creations. A knowledgable and proficient wait staff is happy to abet diners pair food and drink, and, although the restaurant's large, single dining room can get noisy, the surrounding burnt sienna/purple two-tone interior and tasteful folk art create an enjoyable atmosphere in which to enjoy Chef David Dailey's decidedly bold fare.
No dish exemplifies Castle Hill's penchant for unabashed flavors better than the Tuscan-style lamb tenderloin with rosemary polenta ($14.95), which stands as one of the best meals I've had in five years of dining in Austin. The succulent lamb was dressed with a mixture of arugula, mozarella, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, basil, fruity olive oil, and cinnamon croutons that appeared possible overkill on paper but proved delightful to the taste. The flavor of each ingredient at once stood out and supported the mélange, creating a boisterous harmony that was supplemented by the well-seasoned polenta. The spinach-and-egg penne with smoked chicken and asparagus in asiago cream sauce ($11.95) also shone. An uncommonly good balance of cheese and cream made the sauce delectable, and the dish's hearty mixture of chicken and pasta was bolstered by a smattering of mushrooms and artichoke hearts.
The entrees at Castle Hill change biweekly, and I was sad to overhear from the woman sitting next to me that I'd missed out on the previous menu's beef in blackened tomato, chile-pasilla sauce. Happily, however, I settled for the peppered beef tenderloin with wild mushroom gravy and dijon pesto served with garlic whipped potatoes and a relish of parsley and green peppercorn ($14.95), and was not disappointed. The dish's presentation was impressive, with the two perfectly grilled medallions crossed over roasted garlic-speckled potatoes and surrounded by a black-and-mustard swirl of sauces. The spicy beef and tangy pesto married perfectly the gravy's balsamic vinegar base, and the crisp, pungent relish offset the tender meat nicely; a robust 1993 Cline Cellars mouvedre ($4.25/glass) proved a delicious finish.
Moving away from Italian accents, Castle Hill's appetizers boast elements of Chinese, Indian, and French cuisine. My dinner companion and I were particularly pleased with our waiter's recommendation of fried goat cheese and ancho chile-blackened tomato chutney ($4.50). Chutneys are a specialty at Castle Hill (at the moment, the seasonal chutney is plum, served with bread and fried brie for $4.50), and the sweet, piquant condiment made a superb if unlikely partner to the powerful cheese. Served with fresh slices of baguette, the opener was very substantial, enough to serve three or four. The black bean-hoisin sauce over our chicken and pork dumplings ($3.95) countered sweet and tart flavors commendably, and the pairing of crunchy napa cabbage and ground peanuts provided a fine contrast in texture to the soft, tasty dumplings. My favorite of the restaurant's appetizers, however, was the lamb empanada with cilantro-mint-yogurt dipping sauce ($3.95). The superb blending of flaky pastry, curried lamb and herbed yogurt is not to be missed.
The one recipe at Castle Hill that came up a bit short for me was the garlic-basil grilled shrimp with rice noodles in Vietnamese coconut curry ($13.95). I'll attribute my lament to a predilection for Vietnamese cuisine other than curry, which usually features lots of fresh herbs and other condiments, but I would have preferred the dish to have more lemongrass and basil to complement the flavorful trio of shrimp, asparagus, and bean sprouts that topped the linguini-shaped pasta.
Dessert at Castle Hill is a case of the rich getting richer, with the decadence of each item on the menu somehow surpassing that of its predecessor. After struggling to decide between the lavish sweets, my companion settled for the super-dense, triple-layer chocolate mocha torte ($4.25), which may have set some sort of record for cocoa intensity, while I gorged myself on a huge helping of New Orleans-style banana bread pudding topped with espresso-bourbon sauce and chantilly cream ($3.25) that was as scrumptious as it was immense.
The indulgence of the final course reminded me of the one complaint that I've heard about Castle Hill in general: that sometimes the dishes there are too much; that their flavors overwhelm people of milder tastes. But whereas the restaurant may not be for the burger-and-fries-only kind of guy, it is for the rest of us an unparalleled adventure in high-end cuisine, maintaining a friendliness and casualness suited for Austin diners. And despite the many upscale restaurants that have opened in the capital over the last few years, Castle Hill Cafe remains the best fine-dining value in the capital, possibly in all of Texas -- hands down. n