The Austin Chronicle

Once and Future

Castle Hill cafe, an all-time Austin favorite, is not resting on its laurels

By Rachel Feit, September 17, 2004, Food

Castle Hill Cafe

1101 W. Fifth, 476-0728

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2:30pm

Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 6-10pm

As Castle Hill Cafe closes in on two decades in business, it continues to be one of Austin's most beloved dining spots. The flamboyant flavors that have become the restaurant's culinary trademark still please palates. Castle Hill's warm-hued interior maintains its busy hum, and the restaurant's service staff, which has hardly changed since the early Nineties, is by now so well trained that it should be teaching extension courses. Indeed, if there is one restaurant that embodies Austin style, it is the Castle Hill Cafe.

Not content to rest on the laurels of past success, however, owners Michael Vilim and Cathe Dailey have of late been tinkering with their time-tested formula. Habitués of this eclectic eatery undoubtedly will have noticed some restrained changes taking place in recent months. Vilim and Dailey have redecorated the dining room, modifying the color scheme, and have added wood floors as well as stylish new lights. They have expanded their parking and have even begun to experiment with new culinary themes. Loyal fans, fear not: The iconic flavored butters, the busy bursting plates, and the wild robust fusions still dominate the menu at Castle Hill.

However, the kitchen staff has been experimenting with cleaner, more unified plates that reflect the influences of the restaurant's Cordon Bleu-trained chef de cuisine, Eric Williams, formerly at Castle Hill's sister restaurant, Mirabelle. His mark can be felt in dishes like an elegant Moroccan barbecued salmon over large-bead Israeli couscous, new desserts, and a new series of appetizers that moves away from exotically spiced empanadas and dumplings while leaning toward such French classics as cured salmon and dill.

During a recent lunch, though, I found myself very much at home over a marinated Roasted Pork Tenderloin ($10.95) with two sauces: coconut red curry and a sweetish spicy sesame. The perfectly cooked loin fanned across the plate, bumping up against twin piles of mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. A delightful mound of red cabbage slaw topped the meat, while two creamed-crab-filled wontons gave accent to the whole ensemble.

A Mexican Style Salad ($9.95), tossed in a smooth, smoky green-chile dressing made for a delicious midday meal. This was no wispy rabbit snack – the lettuce was piled high with red-chile-marinated chicken, black beans, onions, avocados, and corn – and it was accompanied by two crisp masa empanadas and two feather-light corn muffins.

A subsequent dinner left me a little disappointed over the main courses, however, which featured Coconut Crusted Shrimp ($20.95) that were heavily breaded and dry, and a Grilled Beef Tenderloin in Bordelaise ($22.95) topped with foie gras butter that was frankly too rich. Castle Hill is like that: The vigorously seasoned dishes can be too much, or they can be divine. Often it depends more on an individual's mood than on any real flaw in the preparation. On this particular night, mostly I regretted not having any stamina for the excellent Banana Bread Pudding ($5.25), the Mocha Toffee Torte ($5.75), or the heavenly Crème Brûlée ($5.95) on the dessert menu. As the restaurant settles into its style makeover, I look forward to sampling the new tastes the kitchen offers – and I will cross my fingers that this Austin institution continues to provide the stellar service, the fabulous wines by the glass, and the cozy atmosphere that makes it one of Austin's favorites. end story

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