The new Paggi House's model is 'Nothing you expect, everything you want.' Um ...
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., Oct. 21, 2005
200 Lee Barton Dr., 499-8835
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm; evenings: Monday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday, 5pm-12mid; Saturday, 6pm-12mid; Sunday, 11am-3pmwww.paggihouse.com
I was glad indeed to see that someone was restoring the historic Paggi House and bringing the restaurant back to life, and I was eager to visit and try it out. The new owners, Bobby Sharp and Rick Engel of Austin Java, took great care and worked hard to clean up and repair the building, and the results are amazing. They added impressive decks, enlarged the bar, and created a comfortable, airy space at the historic plantation home. They even transformed the house's old well into a really cool underground lighted water feature, all while keeping the building's aura of old Austin.
In regard to the restaurant itself, they enlisted chef George Thomas, formerly of Truluck's, to create a new menu of contemporary dishes, and they recently added a lunch menu with simple fare. They also serve a down-home "chicken and waffles" Sunday brunch. They added a good wine list and a menu of specialty cocktails to attract a young and hip clientele. Late at night they host DJs and the atmosphere transforms into a night club. And here is where I think the problem with Paggi House lies: It still doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it a swanky cocktail bar, a nightclub, a contemporary fine-dining restaurant, or a casual eatery? Trying to be all these things at the same time is undermining the owners' efforts to achieve its full potential.
Paggi House is a great place to enjoy a drink on the gorgeous decks or garden patio for happy hour or on a nice, cool evening. Among the specialty martinis, the pink X-Rated Mojito ($6) combines vodka, X-Rated fusion vodka (flavored with blood orange and tropical fruits), fresh mint, and lime juice. The WOWsabi Martini ($6) was an interesting concoction of Grey Goose Orange vodka, Cointreau, lime sorbet, and a pinch of wasabi. Both had good flavor, but were too sweet for my taste. The Mexican Martini ($6) was fine, but I didn't taste the promised blood orange. The beer and wine selections are plenty for those not in the mood for a sweet cocktail.
The lunch fare features simple fare that resembles what you may find at Austin Java, such as fresh salads, sandwiches, soups, and pasta dishes, and it even retains the former Paggi classic, the Jackson Salad. But the food attractions here are the "small plates" created by Thomas and available in the evening. According to the menu, these are "smaller than entrées and larger than traditional appetizers," but most of the ones we sampled were appetizers, and some portions were even smaller than appetizer size.
On an early evening visit during the summer, we sampled a Shrimp Cocktail ($13.50), six large shrimp beautifully presented on a martini glass with fresh coconut, green mango, and an orange sauce spiced with Caribbean curry. While it was very good, we thought the portion was too small for the price. Thinking we wanted something filling, we ordered the Honey Apple Short Ribs With Bourbon Reduction ($10). To our surprise, out came one small rib drizzled with some sauce. Granted, the meat was falling-apart tender and the sauce was rich and tasty, but $10 for one rib? The large Tempura Roll ($11) was filled with crab meat, fresh mango and jalapeños, and drizzled with different sauces. It was beautifully presented, but not quite worth the price.
More recently we went for Sunday brunch, again with mixed results. Paggi House faces some logistical problems regarding the setup of the buffet and traffic flow. An example is the build-your-own Bloody Mary bar ($12), which is set up right next to the entrance between dining rooms. This, added to the fact that there's no surface to place the glasses on, makes it difficult to fix one's drinks. The bar has a varied selection of commercial mixes and hot sauces to choose from, but the garnishes are unimaginative, and there's really nothing unique or remarkable that sets this bar apart. I was disappointed. The Bottomless Mimosa ($12) is a better choice.
The stars of the brunch buffet ($12) are fried chicken and waffles. The fried chicken is excellent, with a light, crispy, and flavorful coating, and the waffles are very tasty and soft. There is a good selection of items to top them with, as well as fresh fruit and pastries. Other items included crispy bacon, breakfast sausage, biscuits and gravy, and an elusive egg dish that eventually turned out to be rather unremarkable. However, most items on the buffet table, whether on a chaffing dish or not, were not kept warm enough, so everything was served cold. If that chicken had been hot, I probably would have had a fried chicken epiphany right there and then.
Meanwhile, the young waitstaff is friendly and eager, but perhaps a bit inexperienced and undertrained. We also noticed that at times there are too many of them standing around, with the service inefficient. Too much staff can be detrimental, especially during a buffet when customers help themselves to the food.
Trying to do "Nothing you expect, everything you want," as Paggi House's motto claims, might not be the best idea after all. What I want and expect in a restaurant are good food and drinks, good values, good service, consistency, and comfort. I hope Paggi House can figure out what direction it wants to take so that future experiences are more fulfilling.
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