The restaurants of the JW Marriott
Generally speaking, hotel restaurants aren't meant to be singular dining experiences. They are meant to fill a need in travelers' lives as they move from Point A to Point B and beyond, fueling the body in the liminal space that is not-home. But a hotel smack-dab in the middle of a booming downtown of a city with an equally booming dining scene necessarily needs to bring something to the table besides oversized guest suites and pillowtop mattresses. And when that 1,000-room hotel sits atop the burial ground of Las Manitas, there had better be some incentive to attract diners beyond the captive audience of paying guests.
Corner, the flagship of among three highly touted dining offerings at the JW Marriott, occupies prime real estate at the intersection of Second and Congress and attempts to entice prospective diners via an outdoor bar occupied by (mostly) beautiful people seated in luxurious outdoor furniture, cocktails in hand. Those who are duly enticed enter via Congress Avenue and approach the host stand, which seems impossibly and inhospitably far away from the entrance, and are seated in one of three cavernous dining rooms, each with a different vibe. A bright and airy dining area is great for families and brunchers, while an adjacent room offers a slightly darker ambience with larger tables suited for birthday parties and girls' nights. A much darker interior bar area offers a more casual vibe, complete with banquette booths for Goodfellas-style confabs. It was in one of the latter spots we occupied one recent Saturday night, a dead zone behind a large pillar that rendered us invisible but provided a vantage point of the kitchen, which we mined for entertainment during the long gaps in service, speculating as to whether the line cook engrossed in his smartphone was looking up recipes or retweeting invitations to transfer to another kitchen job.
Because it was a later dinner and we were hungry, we went big with the starters, diving into the chips with three dips ($10). The ramekins of salsa, queso, and guacamole were serviceable, but they were served with a pile of shards in the place of tortilla chips, which hampered our enjoyment of the dips. The shishitos two ways ($9) – blistered in a king's ransom of oil, breaded and fried – were fine, but a lime crema dipping sauce detracted and went largely untouched. Entrées were hit or miss. The short rib tacos ($14) had good flavor, but could have been richer and more tender. The accompanying chimichurri sauce was unmemorable and brought nothing to the table beyond a flash of green. The fish tacos ($16) were overwhelmed by an overdone sweet-salty-spicy breading. My companion ate one of three tacos and left the remainder untouched, a fact that went unremarked-upon by our server when he came to clear our plates. The Corner burger ($16) was fine, a reprise of the Burger Bar's Big Mouth burger topped with candied jalapeños, bacon, and a pungent bleu cheese. Among the entrées at our table that night, only my grouper dish ($24) was truly excellent – a modest portion of brioche-and-pecan breaded and pan-fried fish sitting atop a mound of velvety pureed potatoes and delicate haricots verts.
Rather than explore the limited dessert menu, diners may want to devote those calories to a deep dive into the beer, wine, and cocktail offerings. While Corner isn't going to put any of this city's more innovative cocktail programs out of business, the Dovetail (a play on a paloma, $12), and Corner margarita ($10) met our conservative boozing needs. But the sweet teeth among us went unsatisfied; the avocado cheesecake ($8), dressed with a prickly pear and raspberry coulis, was a resounding failure of imbalanced flavors (it's possible to make a savory dessert out of surprising ingredients, but this wasn't it). Meanwhile, the pumpkin cake ($5) displayed some significant problems with ratio. There was no structure to the cake, which had a sticky crumb indicative of too much fat in the batter. Back to the drawing board for the pastry team.
A subsequent visit for brunch was similarly out of balance. Our starter of zucchini cornbread ($8) was excellent, with an appropriately sweet and crispy top, a pleasantly fluffy texture, and a crunchy underside contributed by a generous oiling of the cast-iron skillet in which it was baked and served. My husband's crab cake benedict ($17) offered a generous portion of crab unadulterated by cheap fillers, topped with smoky tomato sauce; the weirdly flat(tened?) English muffin on the bottom was the only questionable component. My crispy chicken sandwich ($15) was unappetizingly greasy, from the over-buttered bun to the sodden breading (more of that Mighty Cone material) on the chicken breast; again, the barely touched entrée went unnoticed by the service staff when the plates were cleared. We appreciated the dietician-curated children's menu, which offered a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to be ignored by the restaurant's younger diners (I did enjoy the roasted carrots that came with my picky daughter's whole wheat penne, $8).
It's possible to have a decent meal at Corner, at a not-unreasonable price point. As hotel restaurants go, it's above average. But it's also a simulacrum of a restaurant, despite its claim to "authentic Texas dining." All the signifiers of a Texas-bred restaurant are there, from the denim-esque napkins to homey dishes like cornbread and tacos, but there's something missing. The strange service ethos and oversized space offer no comfort, very little pleasure, and the whole experience feels transactional at its core. With so many excellent restaurants within walking distance – Swift's Attic, La Condesa, Congress, and El Naranjo all leap to mind – not to mention the wealth of other innovative and non-corporate restaurants in Austin that offer a blend of pleasure and hospitality that engenders conviviality, it's hard to justify the hassle and expense of a trip to Corner, especially if it requires more than an elevator ride down to the lobby.
Corner110 E. Second, 512/608-4488
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