Restaurant Review: Tillery Kitchen & Bar
Eastside eatery offers confusing experience
Reviewed by Melody Fury, Fri., June 30, 2017
I really wanted to like it. Living on the Eastside, I drove by every few days and watched the ongoing construction with anticipation. My neighbors rooted for it to be a dog- and kid-friendly hangout with affordable food and drinks.
In January, Tillery finally unveiled the handsome structure, featuring a soaring angled roof, floor-to-ceiling windows, and an expansive patio facing the scenic river. The interior was decked out with a white marble bar, wood paneling, and leather dining chairs that contrasted the white and dark blue walls. It's stylish and comfy, but not new or unique to this side of town. One would hope that the fare would match such a well-executed space.
What did come as a surprise was its "fun, fabulous, and Mediterranean" menu, debuting sharing-friendly plates, priced just high enough to summon scrutiny. As East Austin continues to attract ambitious restaurateurs launching a rush of hot ticket establishments, diners rightfully demand both quality and value. Local, seasonal sourcing is now the standard, while cuisine-driven eateries are expected to home in on specific regional flavors. It was unclear how Tillery's Mediterranean-influenced fare would measure up in such a competitive market.
At first contact, the staff and menu seemed muddled about the definition of "Mediterranean." With coastlines that span over three continents, the Mediterranean Sea is at the heart of immensely diverse flavors from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Confronted by my best inquisitive attempts, servers met my curiosity with dissatisfying, overarching responses about "Mediterranean" spices and herbs. One server related that executive chef Justin Trapani studied "Mediterranean cuisines" on a stint "overseas." The vagueness sat uneasily with me.
The more I observed and tasted, the less I understood. At one point, I had a reality check with my fellow diners. Was I missing something? Were they feeling confused about the food as well? Am I the only one seeing this? Their similar reactions prompted me to jot down even more questions. Here are the top 10:
1) The wrinkled menus were handed to us with food smudges on them, which soured my appetite and immediately heightened my caution. Had the staff taken up finger-painting?
2) The green gimlet and Tillery Tea Thyme cocktails turned out bland, a disappointing turn when they sounded so enticing on the menu. The sage margarita was nicely balanced but I couldn't pick up on any sage flavor. Where were the herbs hiding?
3) Why are you so salty, Tillery? The blackened baby beets were properly roasted until lightly charred and tender, and the chicken liver pâté had a velvety texture. Unfortunately, the heavy salt prevented me from eating most of it.
4) Are they aware that Austin gets really, really hot? The pappardelle was excessively greasy. The house-made pasta, already rolled too thickly, was dressed in a cloying pork confit ragu that was simultaneously stringy and oily. The addition of cream and egg yolk formed a sticky oil slick at the bottom of the unfinishable plate. Tossed with perfectly cooked Cape Cod clams, olives, mushrooms, and tomatoes, the fettuccine was much more appropriate for a largely outdoor restaurant.
5) Random vegetables on two large triangles of thick white toast do not a bruschetta make. Where were the quintessential garlic-rubbed crusty bread and good ol' olive oil? Even the sunny-side-up duck egg could not save the awkward kale and pickled green bean topping.
6) The potato croquettes were bready like hush puppies. Were dark forces at play? (Still on the dense side, the Windy Hill Farms lamb fritters were a heartier option and had a nice crunch.)
7) The chicken livers were grilled nicely overall, with the larger pieces still soft in the center and the smaller ones slightly overdone. But how exactly were tart citrus segments supposed to complement the minerally offal? If anything, they only drew out and intensified the iron flavor.
8) How did the chef determine which herb mix to add to each dish? Is it necessary to add Italian parsley, tarragon, and dill to the already complex fettuccine? And to top the chicken livers with mint, dill, and basil? The seemingly random barrage of herbs clashed against one another and the other ingredients.
9) The "Chef Preparations" showcase fish, steak, and sweetbread at market price. While I understand the wish to prepare whatever is freshest, does it make sense to serve the exact same sides with such different proteins? (That day, the rib eye rested on a corn puree alongside lime-scented lima beans and was topped with grilled garlic scapes.) The individual components were interesting and prepared well but wrestled for their place on the plate. The requested medium-rare steak arrived medium. When asked, the server insisted that it was grilled correctly. He later shared that he does not eat red meat.
10) Smoky and succulent, the Redbird Farms citrus chicken skewers were the surprising winner. Watercress and citrus added zest to the bed of greens on which the two skewers sat. Am I cheap for thinking that $18 is a bit steep for such a basic dish? You can be honest.
The questions flowed, but somehow we still made it to the finish line. To close, they offered two dessert options. The ice cream flight included fun flavors like maple bourbon and "watermelon dreamsicle," but the mulberry ice cream was disappointingly grainy. The generous slice of flourless chocolate cake sprinkled with granular sugar offered no surprises.
After each visit, I left feeling perplexed and uneasy. After all, I really wanted to like this place. If they begin to put as much care into the food as they did into the construction, Tillery would no doubt be a success. At this moment, the overall experience lacked polish and cohesion. The generic Mediterranean spin seemed to do more harm than good by setting them up for needless expectations. As more questions built up in my mind, I found myself seeking refuge in the surroundings. I gazed out toward the river and daydreamed of what this restaurant can be when it overcomes its identity crisis. I remain hopeful that they will find their voice.
At a Glance
The concept: Vaguely Mediterranean fare served on a scenic patio
What to eat: The Redbird Farms citrus chicken skewers with zesty flavors perfect for summer
What to drink: The sage margarita, although it is more margarita than sage
Best splurge: The market steak, as long as you have some wiggle room on doneness
Best time to go: At sunset, when the patio offers a swoonworthy view of the sky
Expect to pay: $100 for two with drinks and desserts
Tillery Kitchen & Bar3201 E. Cesar Chavez, 512/524-0580
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com