Restaurant Review: Highbrow, Lowbrow?
Pub grub gone posh and gas station gastronomy
Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., May 13, 2011
Haddingtons601 W. Sixth, 992-0204
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-3pm; brunch: Saturday-Sunday, 11am-3pm; dinner: daily, 5-11pm; bar: daily, 11am-2am
Fancy a bit of English ambience? Welcome to Haddingtons. If you haven't yet been in the building since it was Thai Tara or Tocai, you're in for a big surprise. The place now has the look and feel of a rural English pub. You enter a room with rustic wood walls and a massive bar that announces this is definitely a place to drink. There are also a few smallish dining rooms as well as a petite area for alfresco dining.
The look may be pub-grub, but the food, wine, and mixed drinks aim for a higher (and more expensive) standard. In French terms, this is a restaurant masquerading as a bistro.
Haddingtons is drawing the attention of local mixed-drink lovers because of the presence of award-winning mixologist and part-time crime novelist Bill Norris, who can always be counted on to provide wildly inventive drinks that somehow never steer too far from the time-honored classics. We tried two distinctive drinks. The Conundrum ($12) is a blend of blue corn whiskey, sloe gin, and Fernet Branca, an Italian Amaro that dominates the flavor, giving it a touch of bitterness to offset the sweetness of the sloe gin. It took some convincing to get me to try the Dubliner ($9); the cute name refers not to Ireland, but Dublin, Texas, home to the only United States plant which has always produced Dr Pepper with cane sugar. Why? Because the Dubliner is made from Irish whiskey, a Dr Pepper reduction (!), and a touch of the liqueur Aperol. It was really wonderful. The Dr Pepper adds a touch of cherry and prune flavoring that plays very nicely with the woody Irish whiskey.
True to its look, Haddingtons has a small but exceptional list of beers, and not all are English. In fact, it has more Texas beers on tap than UK beers. But on a hot day, nothing beats the Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse ($6 for a half-liter), a luscious, rich, heady beer.
The wine list is both intelligent and creative. Even better, there are a good number of Old World wines instead of the usual California-dominated list. The prices are quite high, like at a white-tablecloth steak place. We chose a bottle of Chateau de la Chaize ($34), a spectacular red wine from the southern part of Burgundy. Unfortunately, when it arrived it was warmer than the ambient temperature of the room, as if it were being stored near a heat source. The concept of serving reds at room temperature is meant to reflect the temperature of a European cellar, not a Texas kitchen. Haddingtons management (who are quite knowledgeable about wine) should take a look at the care of its red wines.
The food was mostly very good. The best thing we had was a set of Pots With Soldiers ($4 each pot). We chose two pots, one an espresso-sized portion of rich duck-liver mousse topped with a delectable, sweet gelée. The other featured a truffled egg custard with a raw egg yolk atop that was the most delicately flavored concoction of the night. The two pots came with toast points for dipping, but here again, Haddingtons shot itself in the foot. The menu stipulates that if you want any more of its pleasant but unremarkable toast, it'll cost you $2. What is the point of advertising this on the menu? Does Haddingtons want to look stingy?
From the entrée menu, we tried the pulled Niman Ranch pork shank ($28), a small serving of butter-tender pork atop cheese polenta with a pleasant topping of mustard-braised spring onions and tomatoes. The jus was flavorful and a luscious addition. The 8-ounce center-cut strip ($26, or $42 for a 12-ounce dry-aged strip) came with steak fries, roasted onions, and artichoke hearts. Steak lovers refer to this type of cut as "firm," and indeed it was not for tenderloin fans. But the flavor was beefy, and there was a bit of marbling to give it a rich mouthfeel. On a separate visit with a group of about 18, Haddingtons provided a glorious whole piglet, something it advertises as a specialty. The price varies, but it was a festive event with delightful, succulent pork.
Judging by the full houses we've seen at Haddingtons, the restaurant has many fans. The beer and liquor program is unassailable. Haddingtons jumps right into the handful of top bars/restaurants in Austin, and a good server can help you navigate the menu to find the best choices. The red wine program needs some help, but given the wonderful choices on the list, I'm hoping for some improvements soon.