One of the things I love most about the Austin food scene is that it's not afraid to surprise me. Some of our best food emanates from the most unlikely places, from trailers to convenience stores. Although it's not quite in the same genre as the latter two examples, The Carillon falls into the same category for me. It's part of UT; it's a hotel restaurant...both of these attributes would make it easy for The Carillon to get away with mediocrity, but there is nary a trace of that here.
I've had several meals and attended a number of events at The Carillon, including a couple of complimentary blogger events (one of which I blogged about here). A week ago, we got the opportunity to experience their six-course tasting menu, thanks to a Groupon they had run some time back. It was the last weekend that the Groupon could be used, so the dining room (which is quite large) was totally packed, and pretty much everyone in the place was having the tasting menu. This could easily have been a (literal) recipe for disaster, but from where we sat - which had a view into the open kitchen - it did not appear that Chef Watkins ever lost his cool.
The view from our table.
Nor did the food seem to suffer one iota. We've eaten many a tasting menu, and there is very frequently a course or two that is good, but not great (and sometimes "good" is an overly generous descriptor). Not so here; every single course was excellent, and we were both unreservedly delighted with our meal.
They started us off with a little amuse of lemon and basil panna cotta and a nice little tuna tartare.
The complimentary bread is baked onsite, and is studded with chunks of garlic. It has a nice crust and the inside is the perfect texture with a tiny bit of chew. Oh, and did you hear that chunks of garlic thing? Yeah. Mmm hmm.
Our first course, this nairagi napoleon, was the perfect spring dish. Raw nairagi (also known as striped marlin) was chopped and served stacked with fresh cucumber slices, a bit of Texas grapefruit, and some smoked chevre to bring it all down to earth. Smoky, creamy earth.
Then we were served this gorgeous sea scallop, which was resting on a bit of cauliflower puree and served with asparagus, a bit of vanilla citrus sauce, and a dusting of sumac. Wonderful.
Our third course married elements that I would not have thought to put together - white tuna was crusted with pistachios and served with a blueberry puree and chantrelle mushrooms. I had a bit of a "what?" moment when this dish was first described to me at a blogger event a few days earlier, but one taste made me a believer.
Our next course was probably my favorite course of the evening. Chef Watkins poached prime beef tenderloin in olive oil using an immersion circulator, which ensures even cooking throughout - and results in one of the most flavorful and tender preparations I've tasted. He served it with a potato purée, a peppercorn sauce, and a lovely fritto misto of fennel, which really livened up the dish.
At this point, I was starting to feel full. But I pressed on through a plate of braised beef short rib with vanilla sweet potato, carmelized onion, and more chantrelle mushrooms. The Texas Beef Council would have been so proud.
Continuing on in the "dark brown and delicious" theme, we finished off the meal with a Guanaja chocolate terrine accompanied by a baby scoop of coriander ice cream and crystallized cilantro. So smooth, so rich, and so sorry was I when it was gone...in part because I knew that meant I'd soon have to transport my body to another location.
It was a wonderful meal and a terrific experience, largely enhanced by the fact that we happened to run into three other couples we knew, and were lucky enough to be seated next to blogger Rachel Naugle and her husband Doug. As a result, we spent most of the meal chatting with them, which was super fun - although I know we interrupted their date night (sorry, guys!).
The Carillon has rightfully earned itself a place on my favorites list for fine dining in Austin. The food is consistently excellent, the wine pours are generous, and the pricing is reasonable for what you get - the tasting menu described above is normally $60 per person, which for sure is on the low end for tasting menus of this quantity and quality (of course, the tasting menu is not the only option, here; you can also order off their regular menu). And Chef Watkins is always the picture of graciousness, even while his kitchen is being barraged by a pack of ravenous, coupon-wielding patrons. You've got to admire the man for that.
Chef Watkins will also be serving many of these same dishes at the Grand Wine & Food Affair in Sugar Land, Texas from April 27 - May 1, 2011. If you happen to be in the area or are in the mood for a foodie road trip, check it out!
(at the AT&T Executive Conference Center)
1900 University Avenue
Austin, Texas 78705