Restaurant Review: Geraldine's
Rainey Street dining matures
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., Jan. 29, 2016
Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 7-11am; Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-2pm; Happy hour: Mon.-Fri., 5-6pm; Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10-pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Bar: Sun.-Thu., 11am-11:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-12:30am; Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 8am-2pm
It's a wonder how hotel restaurants choose to use their real estate. They shove restaurant space near downstairs lobbies, maybe hoping harried travelers will flop down in a banquette. In return the diners get the click-clack of shoes and luggage rollers, and maybe close proximity to a multi-stall restroom. Bon appétit.
Press the fourth-floor button to Geraldine's, however, and there is a sense of arrival. Your first impression is likely a nod to how beautifully the panoramic views frame the glistening skyline (or maybe, if you have recently been to Bullfight, a thought about who wore the tiles best). The conversation about the Hotel Van Zandt's marquee restaurant usually centers around how "Austin" the restaurant is, but in many ways it feels pleasingly out of place.
On both review visits (and a couple of non-review pop-ins), Geraldine's clientele skewed older. There's plenty here to attract a younger demographic, but that adults are flocking to this trendy new restaurant says a lot about chef Frank Mnuk's approach. Certainly, he works in the same global contemporary realm as many of his contemporaries (I see you, furikake), but it is a little less flashy, a little more understandable. Order the hush puppies ($9) and you get exactly that. True, the ranch dressing served to the side has the insertion of fennel and the pups themselves are enlivened by fermented chiles, but they are still, ultimately, really good hush puppies. The corn skillet cake ($13) doesn't get its salt and smoke from pancetta or speck, but from Tennessee ham. Even the cassoulet ($12), with its very in-the-moment heirloom beans and black trumpet and littlefoot mushrooms, is heaviest on the latter part of French country.
That doesn't mean that Mnuk is simply leafing through American Cookery. The parabolic landscapes of present-day plating are still here (although often garnished refreshingly with simple, chopped herbs), but the components (in form if not quality) can be found on most grocery shelves. That's not to say they aren't used in innovative ways. Roasted slices of cauliflower ($13) are paired with a mustardy vinaigrette, basil purée, and cashew crunch. Humble cucumber freshens up a couple of dishes – playing off pepitas and snapper in the ceviche ($15) and adding to the Grecian allure of the Gulf shrimp ($26). Brown butter, one of the easiest feats of kitchen alchemy, is perhaps expected with Gulf snapper ($23), but not when tangerine supremes are thrown into the mix. That dish, woven with streamers of acorn squash, along with the bracing yellowtail tacos ($5) served in taro shells, are loudspeaker announcements.
A few of the dishes get bogged down in Mnuk's populist instincts. I have no fundamental problems with the sweetish crispy pork ribs ($19), but I wished for a newer accompaniment than pickled watermelon. The salt-roasted beets ($9) with dots of goat cheese mousse, similarly appeals to that denominator. The only real disappointments, however, were the Alaskan king crab ($32), a dish with too many flavor profiles that still did not mask the less-than-exquisite protein, and the cabrito gnudi ($15), whose goat negated the delicateness of the ricotta gnocchi.
All that culinary seriousness ensures that Geraldine's is a place for grownups, but it's also a place that encourages grownups to be a little immature. Some of that is for the best, like the live music that adds an electricity to the clubby atmosphere. But during dinner hours, I'm not sure the lights need to constantly change colors. And, like many places in Austin, I am definitely sure that the service needs to be less adolescent. On the second review visit, the entire operation struck the right balance of friendly and professional, coursing the small plates perfectly, but the first (terrible) server was wildly inattentive, slapdash without any positive associations. But hey, I'm sure this isn't his real job.
But even he couldn't spoil the highlights. Much has been written about pastry chef Callie Speer's nostalgic approach to her craft, and there is certainly some of that here. Her Oh Oh ($6) reworks Little Debbie Ho Hos, the trio of breads served with cultured butter (a popover, a slice of country loaf, and a buttermilk lavash – $6) come straight from Grandma's kitchen, and the biscuits and (chocolate) gravy spiffs up a childhood classic. But Speer gets far too little credit for her palate. Her lemon buttermilk pie ($9) brings in gingersnap spice, almond, and the concentrated tart of dehydrated apples. The goat cheese cake ($9) is allowed to be unapologetically earthy (assisted here by oats) and the chestnut honey ganache gets a savory note from espelette. All of these dishes are playful and referential, but to stop there in the appraisal is to damn Speer with faint praise. At Geraldine's, she deserves almost any superlative you might throw at her.
The balance between craft and cheek shows in the cocktail program as well. I am glad that the town has drinking options beyond $2 you-call-its, but humor has been lacking from this current age of celebrity mixologists and pseudo-speakeasies. Chief of bar operations Jennifer Keyser has some very sober libations on her menu, a dignified old-fashioned and an elegant French 75 ($12), but her signature menu realizes that, ultimately, all this liver damage is in service of a buzz. There's mischief in her presentations, like the heady cocktails served in plastic flasks – Dreams of San Juan ($18) is one of the few uses of banana that manages not to taste like Laffy Taffy – or the tongue-in-cheek high times of Willie's Cup (High West double rye with hemp seed milk, garnished with a sage sprig, and a red bandanna held in place by a roach clip). But it's not all concept. The Velvet Voice ($12) pits hibiscus-infused vermouth against mezcal and Campari, and Deep in the Heart ($12) reinvigorates the fizzy vodka drink with saffron-colored Strega.
Those drinks surely were at least partially responsible for the reports we heard of Geraldine's getting rowdy once the live music starts. Just because you arrive feeling classy, doesn't mean you have to leave that way.
Geraldine's605 Davis, 512/476-4755
Breakfast: Mon.-Sat., 7-11am
Brunch: Sun., 9am-3pm
Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm
Bar: Sun.-Thu., 10am-1am; Fri.-Sat., 10am-2am
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com