Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Carillon Restaurant - Austin, TX

Posted by Kurt

I took a quick trip to Austin this month for a family vacation, and I flew in a night before everyone else, so I made plans with a friend to try a restaurant that used a little more molecular gastronomy than my family members would enjoy.  It turns out that I gave my friend the wrong date (by three months, ouch - I originally said I’d be in town in December and didn’t catch the typo and made all the rest of the plans with “We have reservations for the 21st at 8:30!” I am an idiot.), so I waited by myself for a few minutes debating between eating alone or going to bed early after a long day of travel.  I decided to stick around and enjoy the 6-course tasting menu, and I’m so happy that I did.

To start the night, the chef sent out a complimentary amuse (I don’t know if it was standard with the tasting menu or just a pity plate for the lonely guy - and let me clarify again that the miscommunication was mine, and my lack of a dining companion was not her fault).  The plate had two little nibbles of well-prepared raw meat.  On the left was a tiny cracker, a little bigger than a thumbnail, with a mound of steak tartare worked with some truffle oil, and on the right was a metal spoon with a mixture of hamachi tartare and delicately diced pineapple, topped with a tiny fried shallot ring.  I went for the spoon first and loved it.  The mixture was soft and sweet, with just one crunchy note from the shallot.  Perfect first bite for the evening.  The steak was also amazing too - rich flavor from the truffle oil (and the bread underneath too, I think), and tender meat.  If I had eaten left to right, I would have had a rich bite and a cool palate cleanser, which has kind of an “open and close” feel.  The dish would have felt complete that way, but as a start to the meal, I wanted it to have the opposite function, opening me up to the meal on its way, so I’m satisfied with my choice of going backwards.
The first official course was raw marlin (my waiter told me the Japanese name, which was much more impressive, but I’m writing this review from the notes I scribbled on the back of the receipt at the end of the night, and I lost that bit of data).  It came finely diced, mixed with cucumber bits of the same size, molded into a column about the size of four silver dollars.  The rest of the plate was a perfect wedge of Texas grapefruit, a nibble of celery salad, and a few dots of smoked chevre.  There was a little oil and lemon zest drizzled across the plate to bring each element together.  I loved this course, and it would have been a perfect start even for a table that didn’t receive the amuse bouche.  Everything was cool and crisp, with a little bitter flavor in the celery, a tart splash from the grapefruit, and some mellowing tang from the cheese.  I cleaned my plate.
This was the first of the fish courses, a seared piece of escolar with a pistachio crust on top, served on a blueberry puree that trailed along the plate toward a mound of mushrooms (chanterelles, I think), garnished with three tiny blueberry halves.  Visually, the dish was striking, even in the low light of the restaurant, with the bold purple of the puree and the green of the pistachio and the orange mushrooms, and I loved the way the berry and nut flavors complemented each other.  The fish was also perfectly cooked, firm and delicious.  Personally, I’ve never enjoyed mushrooms, and the ones on this plate had the slime factor that turns me off, so I ate them all to be polite but didn’t enjoy them.  I suspect that mushroom fans will love them, but as much as I loved the rest of the plate, this component would stop me from ordering it in the future if I had the opportunity.  Still, everything else was amazing and challenging, with enough sweetness to keep me really happy.
This dish was simply amazing.  The small piece of fish had been marinated for 24 hours in miso, coconut milk, and honey, then it was seared and gently placed on a mix of sauteed spinach and maitake mushrooms, surrounded in the bowl with a carrot-ginger reduction.  I loved the sweet/spicy sauce, I loved the delicate texture of the fish, and in this context, I even loved the mushrooms.  They added a bold earthy flavor, especially with the spinach, that balanced out a generally sweet dish.  My only complaint is that the coconut flavor in the fish didn’t present as well as I think it should have - somehow the sweetness wasn’t there, and the bitter note that coconut can sometimes have pulled the perfectly balanced circle of flavors into more of an oval.  Everything else on the plate was so perfect that I can still recommend it without reservation, but something was just a bit unpleasant about the coconut.  This became my favorite dish of the night.
The first entree course was a chunk of pork belly, marinated and seared, topped with an Asian pear salad, a fried mint leaf, and a diablo glaze (my waiter explained it as a red chili pepper reduction).  Wow.  The garnish was a cool crunch to perfectly bring out the savory tender pork beneath.  And the pork belly was definitely tender, almost to the point of being liquid, in the best possible way.  I once learned at a pig roast that my favorite part of a pig is the face, which comes off the pig in little slivers that lose solid form completely in your mouth, and this dish brought back fond memories of that epic meal a year ago.  I know that pork belly is really trendy these days, and a favorite of contestants on Top Chef, but I had expected it to be like thick bacon, and it was so much more than that.  This dish beat the mero to become my favorite dish of the night.
The second entree course was a big chunk of olive oil poached tenderloin, served on a fingerling potato puree with a peppercorn demi-glace, alongside a fried mixture of shaved fennel and artichoke hearts.  This dish easily became my favorite dish of the night.  The meat was amazing - bright red (this is one to avoid if you don’t like the look of rare beef), almost tender enough to cut with a fork, just enough pepper to be interesting but not overpowering.  And the potato puree was like mashed potatoes, obviously, but so smooth and creamy that it really deserved the the fancy name, especially by the end of the dish when the demi-glace was all mixed in.  For me, the fried portion of the dish was heavy and oily (I don’t like artichoke in the best of circumstances, and making it oilier takes it that much farther out of my preferred flavors), but I feel like that may be a regional thing.  If someone were making this in the Northeast, I suspect that the vegetable component on this plate would have had a lighter hand, but a Texas diner likely wants something more like what was served.  
This dessert was a last little morsel for a nearly perfect meal.  A little cube of rich bread pudding with brandied cherries, a brandied cherry sauce, and a little cup of something that I think my waiter called a limoncello gelato (the texture was much more like a sorbet, which is better than a gelato for a citrus fruit, so I would have called it a sorbet from the start).  The bread pudding was a little rich and heavy after such a powerful beef course, but ending with the light frozen citrus dessert was perfect.

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