Fed Man 55: The Carillon (4)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 4: The Carillon
In the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at UT, 1900 University Ave. 512-404-3689, www.thecarillonrestaurant.com.
Hours: Breakfast 6:30-10am Mon-Fri, 7-11am Sat-Sun. Lunch 11:30am-1:30pm Mon-Fri. Dinner 5:30-10pm Tue-Sat .
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.25.12
June 2014 update: The American-Statesman's Matthew Odam reports that chef Josh Watkins has left the Carillon. Story here.
“The Carillon Restaurant is an institution of fine dining.” These are the facts on the Facebook page, and they are not in dispute. Because what are institutions for, if not fine dining? I’ll tell you: Institutions are for undergraduates, policy wonks, married couples and citizens of Shawshank. Institutions are also places we go when, to use the medical jargon, we’ve flown over the cuckoo’s nest. Say hi to Plinio Sandalio while you’re up there. He’s the Carillon pastry chef who came up with corny dogs for dessert.
Mustard ice cream, fried corn-batter bites, sweet ketchup infused with ... hot dogs. What do you expect from the guy the Carillon stole away from Congress last year, the same guy who brought campari pop rocks and foie gras cookie sandwiches to that refined environment?
The novelty factor aside, Sandalio’s work represents a step forward for the Carillon, at least from the time I reviewed it for the Statesman in 2009. Between the precise blocks of pork belly with fried mint, the coffee-rubbed steak with mesquite-smoked syrup and the raw hamachi with hazelnuts, the Carillon earned my first four-star rating almost entirely on the kitchen craft of chef Josh Watkins. At the time, the desserts were just punching the clock. “Not an insult,” I wrote at the time. “Just an invitation for them to rise to the same level.” Consider the invitation accepted.
In the three years since that review, Watkins has grown the Carillon menu beyond its original template of a dozen dishes to 19 or more. The menu is divided into Lite, Raw and Hot small plates running $10-$16. Full plates — including a fork-tender beef tenderloin poached in olive oil and finished with smoked maple syrup — are $28-$38. A three-course dinner is a solid value at $50, built with full portions from a main course and any two of the appetizers or desserts.
The feather in the value cap is a three-course tasting for $29, if you can handle being one of those people who eats dinner before 6:30. In September, that dinner started with neatly seared slices of scallop whose caramelized silken brine was finished with apple-fennel jam and creamy goat cheese. As trim and precise as those flavors were, that’s how rowdy the tastes and textures got on a plate of luscious pork jowl with breading as spiky as a bowl of Cap’N Crunch: roasted apples, flash-fried lobster mushrooms, pudding made from that funky North American banana wannabe called a pawpaw. For dessert, Sandalio laid out dots of feta cheesecake with gelled red centers and the evergreen jolt of juniper streusel.
If that was a petite package deal, the menu’s wider bounty brought a Caesar salad reimagined as five neat bundles of white asparagus with toasted cheese and anchovy as well as robust fish preparations like escolar with candied jalapeño and risotto fritters or one of the city’s best seafood dishes: mero with carrot-ginger reduction. The fish, already a neat block of firm ivory flesh, was cooked to a caramelized edge, then dressed with sauce like a cabaret siren, whispering sweet somethings with gingery-hot breath.
As powerful as its turf repertoire of bacon-poached lamb or rosy veal tenderloin can be, the Carillon plays a masterful hand with raw fish, finding equilibrium for the oil with sweet figs and tart threads of Meyer lemon or by dressing out white tuna with citrus confit and brown butter vinaigrette.
After a strong start, the Carillon has done nothing but get better. The wine list has matured beyond its bottle-by-committee beginnings, and the service experience that once felt like a college-waiter roll of the dice has evolved into a staff that can pull off a Russian-style plate drop: every diner’s dish touching the table at the same time. Can the Carillon ever transcend the echo chamber space it occupies at the AT&T Institution ... er, Center? Speaking of institutionalized, a friend compared the stiff, formal decor and its accordant burnt oranges and golds with the ballroom of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” That’s either an easy punchline or an invitation for the pastry chef to build something unhinged and frozen to match.
(TOP: Chef Josh Watkins representing the Carillon at the Live Fire event at the Salt Lick in April 2014. His roasted chicken with green bean casserole was one of my favorite dishes in Austin. FIRST INSET: The Carillon's dining room; mero with carrot-ginger reduction, top right; pork jowl with roasted apples. SECOND INSET: Veal tenderloin and pattypan squash; scallops with fennel-apple salad; corn-dog dessert with mustard ice cream. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants