Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review
Carillon has the right staff, a perfect location in the center of town, and a talented young man at the creative helm
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., Dec. 25, 2009
The CarillonAT&T Executive Education and Conference Center
1900 University Ave., 404-3655
Breakfast daily, 7-10am; dinner Wednesday-Saturday, 5:30-10pm; lunchtime reserved for UT faculty and staff, 11:30am-1:30pm
In a relatively short time, Josh Watkins has developed a solid reputation among Austin foodies as a creative chef with a gift for combining ingredients in new and exciting ways. He was the chef de cuisine at the Driskill Grill during David Bull's tenure and then took over as executive chef upon Bull's departure. Not long after, he was hired away by the folks who operate the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. With rooms going for a couple hundred dollars a night, the center needed a high-end chef who could also deal with all the day-to-day tasks of any hotel kitchen: weddings, parties, multiple restaurants, room service, etc. The jewel in the hotel's crown, the place Watkins would really be able to demonstrate his prowess was to be the Carillon.
Let's start with the good news. The nighttime menu shows Watkins' flair with flavors and ingredients. We tried the four-course chef's menu for $45 (three-course is $38, and six-course is $60; great deals for the hungry diner) and saved almost $60 by going for the menu pricing instead of making the same selections à la carte.
We started with an organic mesclun salad, which was lightly dressed to emphasize the freshness of the ingredients. We also had the crisp pork belly, which was lean as pork belly goes, with a tangy sauce, some pears, and a fried mint leaf.
Next up was a delicious concoction simply called Hawaiian Blue King Prawns, which included three big prawns, heads on, plus three clams, all over a bed of homemade pappardelle with a touch of saffron. The braised beef short ribs were meltingly tender and sat on a light-as-foam bed of celery root with a hint of apricot flavors. The home run that night was olive oil poached prime beef tenderloin, tender and perfectly cooked, served on a bed of lightly whipped fingerling potatoes.
For dessert, we split a goat cheese cheesecake with lingonberries and caramel. The caramel was delicious, but there was a curious flavor, something we just couldn't identify. We asked the server, who asked the chef. The answer was a tiny bit of thyme – very creative!
The wine list is well-priced and inventive, if quite small for a place of these standards. The service is very pleasant, and even though there was a big party going on at the same time, the staff kept everyone happy. The atmosphere is very modern and quite pretty. It's also stone quiet. The Carillon would be a great place for an intimate date because, like most hotel restaurants in Austin, it has many fewer diners than it deserves. There were only three occupied tables the night we were there.
When a server told us the restaurant's big business was at lunch, I wanted to see what kind of crowds the Carillon actually attracts. Since lunchtime is restricted to University of Texas faculty and staff, I asked fellow restaurant reviewer and UT staffer Mick Vann to join me. Lunch is a $16.95 buffet, and as buffets go, it is quite nice. None of the foods are overcooked, and it's easy to put together a healthy lunch. Unfortunately, it is also uninspired. Green beans are crisp but uninteresting. The blackened salmon has a dark seasoning but no bite. The garlic in an artichoke and garlic soup is overwhelming. The service is pleasant enough. The place was nearly full.
So here's the bad news. You take a chef like Watkins, give him a beautiful restaurant, and then only open for dinner four nights a week? Make lunch a steam-table affair and exclude the general public? Make breakfast only from 7 to 10am and no weekend brunch? This is like the Yankees bidding on Alex Rodriguez and then making him a batboy. The bottom line is that dinner at Carillon is spectacular if you don't mind being alone in a restaurant later in the week. Lunch is out unless you work for the university, and breakfast is served like most hotels: a combo of omelets, cereals, and buffet items. The potential for greatness is there. It has the right staff, a great physical plant, a perfect location in the center of town, and a talented young man at the creative helm. Hopefully, management will see the light and let this place live up to its potential.