The restaurants of the JW Marriott
While the JW's Corner restaurant bubbles with Downtown energy, its fine-dining Italian cousin might be better suited for the name. Largely forgotten in its wing off the lobby, Osteria Pronto's beiges and grays reach for a certain type of tastefulness – the deshabille slouch of an Armani suit – without seeming to think much about fit. There's something out of place about Pronto, a lack of something to latch onto. Even the best hotel dining in Austin never quite transcends the location, but there are parts of Pronto that feel particularly corporate, as if the surfaces have been picked for easy cleanability rather than guest comfort (in fact the dining room is practically indistinguishable from its Indianapolis namesake).
But never mind the practicality of buying lighting fixtures in multiples, the menu is (mostly) different. And a fascinating look at how the JW Marriott folks view Austin. It drops some Indianapolis affectations, with no zuppe, insalate, or pollo parmigiana to speak of – replacing that with vague descriptors like "sausage." One can practically hear the meeting where it was decided that Austin is a little more casual. No doubt the word "weird" was spoken. But that examination of Austin's quirk didn't really yield a picture of what Italian food should be in Austin.
Mostly, Pronto sticks to the basics. The lasagna ($19) was advertised as being four layer, but I wasn't entirely sure what those four layers were built on. A fork stab yielded plenty of ragú but scant noodles. Served with a side of slightly sweet marinara, the preparation felt like a meatloaf, but didn't deliver any of that down-home comfort. Meat sauce was used to better effect in the conchigliette bolognese ($18), but the presentation – a rounded pile of grub-like ridged shells – was unfortunate.
But the less heavy (though definitely not light) pasta dishes were more successful. Tagliatelle ($18), served simply with clams in a white wine sauce, was as easy as a shrug – and a nice alternative to Austin's mussel-mania. The buttery smoked chicken tortelloni ($19) gets a spike of brightness from tomato chutney. The best pasta dish, Straw & Hay ($17), coats bicolor noodles with an assertively garlicked cream sauce and oozing soft-boiled egg. It's a classic preparation, save for the newfangled "put an egg on it" flourish, and it should be the largest picture on the restaurant's dream board.
The agility with classics extends to the "to share" starters (Indianapolis gets antipasti). Bruschetta ($11) is presented as a flight with easy tomato, eggplant, and pepper versions. The balsamic jelly helps balance the salt of the prosciutto di Parma chip in the burrata ($14), but Austin is rapidly approaching its burrata event horizon. What is listed as calamari ($14) is actually a full fritto misto with rock shrimp, artichoke, lemon, pepperoncini, and leeks in the fried mix – all in a thin, well-seasoned batter. That those vegetables were fried is probably for the best. The local lettuce salad ($8), was dressed properly (lightly, not drowned), but the droopy leaves could have used a little spackle to keep them presentable.
The bruise of a salad showed an inability to match price point with quality. This became more egregious later in the meal. The sea bass ($34) was overcooked with an off-putting polenta, the scallops ($28) although brilliantly paired with fried sunchoke, were a bit tough. The hazelnut, chocolate crepe "cake" ($10), presented as a showstopper, seemed to be made of layered frozen pie dough. Just don't call it a cake, or you will quickly be corrected.
Which leads us to the most confounding part of Osteria Pronto. The service, the traditional strong point of hotel restaurants, was spotty, something that threw the food into sharp relief. The first visit's A-team was warm and attentive, the host set us quickly without a reservation, the kitchen sent out dishes without any lags. But the second visit's B-team quickly erased most of that, the tone set immediately by a front desk who seemed wholly disinterested in any aspect of her job. The waitstaff were more concerned with our experience, but seemed to lack any knowledge of where they worked. Unless the kitchen tightens up some of the offerings, maybe that's for the best.
Osteria Pronto110 E. Second, 512/608-4490
Breakfast: weekdays, 6:30-11am; weekends, 7am-1pm
Lunch: weekdays, 11:30am-2pm
Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30pm
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