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Jan 17, 2007 09:36 PM

What to Try Before I Totally Give Up on Castle Hill

Castle Hill is often recommended (somewhat perplexingly, in my opinion) as a “fine dining” or “budget fine-dining” restaurant. I agree that the wine list is nice and the restaurant has a convivial, easy atmosphere. But I have to say that I don’t really like any of the food that I’ve tried there. They seem to serve what a 'hound called Austin Bear once characterized as “Austin Stoner Food,” by which he or she meant food that has too much on the plate and too many flavors, but no subtlety or sophistication.

I wasn’t impressed with my small mixed-greens salad at Castle Hill, which I sampled with my main course before committing myself to eating an entree-sized portion for lunch or dinner. [To anyone who doubts that side salads can be good, I suggest you try the ones at Backstage Steakhouse.] CH's side salad was composed of standard mixed greens that were not very fresh (some pieces were brown), with a few slices of Roma tomatoes and cucumbers, some carrot matchsticks, and shredded cabbage. The habañero-pecan vinaigrette was as sweet as a honey-mustard dressing, with only a faint hint of habañero. The mini biscuit that accompanied the salad was good enough. In fact, that tiny biscuit may have been the best part of my meal that day.

I also tried a fish special of grilled escolar, a trendy or, more cynically, aggressively marketed fish in the family of oil fish and snake mackerels. [Some people might not want to eat fish labeled or sold as escolar; you can do a Google search for more details]. The escolar at Castle Hill was moist, just cooked-through, and buttery, but it came with a sour-cream- and avocado-based sauce that didn’t do anything for it. In fact, since the fish itself was fatty, this was an odd combination. Maybe something like a Frankfurter grüne sosse (an herb-filled green sauce with a cream or mayonnaise base) would have been good. The lack of appeal extended to the color of the sauce, which was more white than green.

The roasted potatoes that came with it were sticky inside; only the coating was crisp. They seemed to have been coated with olive oil and broiled too quickly. The asparagus were sub-par. Again, they were brushed with olive oil and grilled—in this case, until they were very well done. No salt, not much flavor from the olive oil, no garlic. In other words, it was just plain, overcooked, out-of-season asparagus.

The dessert I tried on my first visit was the lemon curd pavlova. I’ve had pavlova that looked more like a shortcake, somewhat like this in appearance:

At Castle Hill, the pavlova was very different. A thin wreath or circle of meringue had been extruded through a pastry tube, baked, then placed around a small pool of lemon curd that was more sweet than tart. The whole thing was then framed on the outside with a thin line of “fresh fruit salsa,” which apparently translates as plain cubes of kiwi, mango, papaya, and nothing else. The meringue was baked a bit too long, as the thin crust on the outside was a bit tough and the interior texture was not moist or chewy enough.

Against my better judgment, on a subsequent visit to have a glass of wine and dessert, I gave in to a friend’s urging to try the peanut-butter mousse pie. People love this dessert, but I found it way too sweet. Then again, I almost never like desserts based on peanut butter. The decaf coffee was decent, but only by diner standards.

I realize that many people love Castle Hill’s salads. However, I’m leery of salads that consist of huge piles of grazing greens with grilled meat or fish thrown on top, all accompanied by an ambitious but usually over-sweet dressing and some fried appetizers. From what I’ve seen on other diners’ tables, Castle Hill’s salads remind me of the ones at Austin Java. (This impression was reinforced by tastes of my friend's "Interior Mexican Style Chile-Lime Grilled Chicken Salad on Mixed Field Greens with Guacamole-Corn Relish, Queso Blanco Cheese, and Bluecorn Empanadas." My tastes lean more towards French salads (simple tossed green salads with a vinaigrette dressing), mixed salads that build on the French salad with two or three additional ingredients like nuts or fruits, and simple warm salads like frisée aux lardons.

My best guess on possible items that aren’t overly sweet or fussy are the main courses of pork or beef tenderloin, although the dinner menu lists fig relish, candied walnuts, sweet Marsala, AND balsamic vinegar in the preparation of the former, and caramelized shallots, port, and balsamic vinegar in the latter. Plus, tenderloin is a notoriously bland cut of meat.

Can someone who has recently had one of these dishes describe their preparation? Does anyone know of another course that might be more to my liking?

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  1. From reading your posts, I'm beginning to understand that your tastes are pretty nuanced, and you've got a whole breadth of food experience that I don't possess. Having me give you advice, especially in a fine dining discussion, might be like a color-blind guy picking out wallpaper for for someone without any impairment. But I'll give this a shot.

    First, go with friends. Many of the appetizers are large enough to put you off your dinner, but good enough that you want one or two. A party of three or more is preferred.

    On the subject of appetizers, I like the fried brie; other people I've gone with have complained that this dish is bland / not worth the calories. I also can recommend the pork tenderloin flautas, the cheese torta, the lamb empanadas, and the fried goat cheese. My wife also favors the dumplings; in my opinion, they're just OK.

    I enjoy their salads. Like you, I enjoy "less-is-more" classic salads -- my favorite salad in town is probably the salad Lyonnaise at Chez Nous (be sure to request that they add bacon / lardo) -- that dabble in pure flavor essences and combinations. The entree salads at Castle Hill go the other direction, with a hearty, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. I guess I'm a chow agnostic: I have no preferred style, and I'm ready to embrace deliciousness regardless whether a dish is designed using principles of European minimalism or a heartier, more jumbled American approach.

    Of their salads, the "Interior Mexican" is superior to the others. Really, a great salad. You will be overwhelmed by how full you can get consuming this salad.

    Their menu rotates, and I agree that sometimes the flavor combinations they present are thoroughly tricked out and possibly schizophrenic. Their "kitcken sink" approach reigns, I suppose. But if you get on their email announce list, they'll let you know what they've got going on. I usualyl wait for a pork tenderloin that sounds good; in my opinion, they do a good job with pork.

    If I'm going to Castle Hill w/o doing menu recon, and the pork tenderloin doesn't look appealing, I'm basically autopiloting to the "Interior Mexican" entree salad or the beef tenderloin, always medium rare. As you mention, the wine list is pretty great; they'll have a great red to pair with my food, regardless of what I order.

    I generally don't eat their fish. I find that preparing fish in a non-sucky way is one of the hardest of tasks for restaurants; why set them up to fail? My wife favors their fish, and (if memory serves) has had rainbow trout that she really enjoyed there.

    Hope this helps! Good luck!

    1 Reply
    1. re: tom in austin

      Thanks for the feedback on the beef tenderloin and pork dishes at Castle Hill. The extra information will be very helpful. Both tenderloin dishes struck my eye as I perused the on-line menu, but it's good to hear from other 'hounds who've actually tried them. The untreated streets in this neighborhood are still quite icy, but within a few days, I’ll try the main courses and appetizers that you suggested.

      I didn’t mean to draw a false distinction between “European” and “American” cooking styles. Sometimes Southwestern food is done very simply, and sometimes it isn’t. I suppose the question is: Are the flavors interesting or distracting overall? [If you’re still reading the Austin board, Scott, I borrowed this terminology from your discussion of Trece.] I love Boudro’s take on Southwestern food, for example, which achieves the same fusion of flavors without resorting to an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, like Castle Hill does. In fact, even salads like the Southwestern Caesar at Boudro's manage to evoke Southwestern ingredients and cooking styles without “jumbling” too many flavors. It’s also worth remembering that there’s no excuse for bland vegetables at a “gourmet” restaurant, and that desserts like that pavlova are offensive to anyone who loves dessert. (And who doesn’t?)

      By the way, though Austin restaurants usually do a poor job with fish, it’s not that hard to prepare it well. You’re almost too kind. I had a delicious herb-encrusted fish at Boudro’s in San Antonio right before Christmas. I’d ordered the black drum, but they’d just run out, and I can’t remember what kind I chose as a substitute. I do remember that the fish was perfectly cooked and came with an outstanding chipotle-red-pepper beurre blanc. It was accompanied by very good Israeli couscous and West Coast mushrooms. I was at a lunch with nine people, and everyone liked what they ordered, from appetizers and soups through desserts and coffee. Even the child's plate of coconut fried shrimp, served with housemade creamy horseradish sauce, was delicious. Excluding barbecue restaurants and the Backstage Steakhouse, no place in Austin that I’ve been to recently has delivered a meal that similarly pleased as diverse and large a group of diners.

      I really admire your openness to deliciousness in all its guises, tom in austin. Although I’m open to all kinds of good stuff, I just don’t find as much of it as I’d like. As a chowhound, I want every bite to blow me away. Life’s too short to waste time consuming underwhelming chow, especially at “fine dining” prices.

      Thanks again for the tips.


    2. I love their basil cheese torte appetizer. I know it's been done forever, and people have been critical of them for leaving it on their menu. But pair it with a nice glass of wine and I'm in heaven. They also had a great vegetarian salad that had spanakopita and other little nibbles with it, but I think they took it off their menu.

      1. I’ve said before that I seriously wish Castle Hill would implement a BYOF (bring your own food) policy. However, armed with advice from local ‘hounds, I returned to the scene of the crime to try some new dishes. On the evening I dined there with friends, I could see why this restaurant is so appealing. The service was friendly and professional; our server made wine recommendations that were both affordable and enjoyable. Plus, at dinnertime the restaurant has a mellow, adult vibe. However, I still think their food is a long way from being truly delicious or even really good.

        For appetizers our group of four went with the fried goat cheese and the torta. The former were made with unseasoned, heavy bread crumbs that were reminiscent of the breading used in chain-restaurant fried mozzarella sticks [think Gregg’s, for anyone familiar with Rhode Island]. At Castle Hill, they serve instead hockey-puck-sized rounds of goat cheese. In my opinion, the cheese-to-breading ratio was a bit high. I’d like more crunch with less cheese in every bite. If you like a large mass of soft, hot, mild cheese and don’t care about the flavor of the bread coating, this might be your kind of appetizer. When we tried them, however, the cheese rounds were very dark brown from being fried too long. They were served with a chutney made from ancho chiles, tomatoes, and spiced pecans that was somewhat piquant and pleasant enough in flavor and texture. We didn’t finish this appetizer.

        Lucinda’s basil-cheese torta is a soft rectangle of fresh basil pesto, cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted pine nuts. This torta can be thought of as pesto-lite, as cream cheese is the dominant flavor. Although this appetizer bears an unfortunate resemblance to the lime-cream jello desserts of a bygone era, or pistachio ice cream, it could be nice in context. I think it might be good as a sandwich spread with rare roast beef. To me, the torta is not exciting on its own. The sliced French bread—probably from Sweetish Hill—served with the torta didn’t help, with its Wonder-Bread-like crumb (interior) and soft crust. The butter was good, though.

        Two people tried the “Interior Mexican Style Chile-Lime Grilled Chicken Salad” as a main course. It came with guacamole-corn relish, queso blanco cheese, and two blue-corn empanadas.

        The conception of this dish seems to be a deconstructed taco salad: It consists of chicken chunks, strips of red bell pepper, salsas, and a guacamole/relish, with blue, red, and yellow fried tortilla strips in place of the fried taco shell. My problem with this dish is that, aside from the salsas, it was not flavorful, and their “mixed field greens” were mainly large pieces of Romaine lettuce (tearing the lettuce into diner-friendly bite-sized pieces wouldn't hurt, either). The chicken was supposed to be red-chile-lime-marinated and grilled, according to the menu, but it tasted like plain, unseasoned chicken breast, sautéed far ahead of time, then heaped on the salad. Any part of the chicken that touched the red-chile sauce that was drizzled on the plate was quite spicy. A sour-cream based “green” salsa, served on the side of the salad, also had a spicy kick.

        The salty tortilla strips tasted as though they were cut from tortillas and fried in-house. The guacamole was okay: It had lots of tomato chunks and onions but not much other flavor. The “guacamole-corn relish” appeared to be guacamole—and then a separate vinegary “relish” made of corn kernels and black beans. The empanadas seemed like they were made with whole-wheat flour. With an undercooked and gummy pastry shell and that ubiquitous bland cheese filling, these were not good. This was a busy salad on standard-issue greens, with bland meat but some spicy salsas. My opinion was that this dish could have been much better. My friends didn’t finish their salads.

        At tom in austin’s suggestion, I had the roasted pork tenderloin in balsamic reduction. This was a fairly well-cooked piece of meat, not over- or under-cooked. It had the typical spongy texture of tenderloin, not unlike the consistency of mediocre smoked brisket (like the one served at the chain Texas Land & Cattle). But, some people love this cut of meat because it’s so tender. The reduction sauce wasn’t good—It had only the faintest hint of balsamic vinegar and mainly tasted buttery. The pork tenderloin was served with veggie mashed potatoes, with the skins on, and tender-crisp green beans that had no seasoning apart from the oil that was used to sauté them. Very mushy pickled cabbage was also served on the side. I’ve had better jarred versions of this. [Note: The new dinner menu on-line has changed; now, they’re offering roasted pork tenderloin with Vietnamese-cashew curry, sweet potato pudding, caramel glaze, asparagus relish, and fried eggplant fritters.]

        Desserts were not great. Our table split a large cylinder of what should have been called a no-banana banana-bread pudding. It had some raisins and walnuts in it, but not enough, in our opinion. Egg and nutmeg were the most notable flavors (aka eggnog). The cylindrical shape also seemed to work against this dessert. It needed more surface and less volume, so that there would be less of the bland, mushy middle. This was not a very good version of bread pudding.

        At the recommendation of our server, we also tried the tiramisu, a recent addition to the menu. Thick layers of cream alternated with amaretto-soaked cake (which didn't seem to be made from the traditional ladyfingers). Chocolate shavings garnished the top. The liquor-soaked parts of the cake were enjoyable, especially the bottom layer, which soaked up a great deal of the liquid. However, this dessert was too sweet for my tastes. A single bite was not bad, but I was bored by the end. The coffee—both regular and decaf—was good, by diner standards.

        This restaurant is usually characterized as “fine dining” or even “budget fine dining.” To me, however, Castle Hill seems more like a “creative” diner—serving conceptually more interesting versions of plain, simple food like salads and fried cheese, while not always succeeding in their execution. Personally, I think some of their conceptions of dishes are also more distracting than delicious.

        What we ordered was better than many items I had tried previously, and I thank all of you who made suggestions.


        1. Last night's whimsical visit to Castle Hill reinforced three things:

          1. I still really like the Interior Mexican Salad. This was the highlight of the night. My wife ignored her entree (described below) and picked at my salad. This salad really does win my "Favorite Entree Salad" award. [Note: MPH doesn't like this salad, and if I were you I'd trust him over me.]

          2. Their non-salad entrees continue not to totally jam me. Their flounder special (basically a paella, but not mixed together) was really mediocre, despite sounding absolutely delicious. Their description: "Seared Flounder with Spanish Shellfish Stew, Saffron Risotto Cake, and Red Pepper Rouille –
          Pan seared Flounder served in a sauce made from chorizo, clams, mussels, fish fumet, mirepoix and cream. Served on top of a saffron-risotto cake topped with a red bell pepper puree made with anchovies, lemons, and red chile paste."
          Now, doesn't that sound amazing? While the base sauce was delicious, and the flounder wasn't overcooked, the clams and mussels were extremely sparse. To make matters worse, the sweet drizzled sauce on top of the flounder was jarring and unwelcome, and the risotto cake was overly crunchy.

          The base sauce (more of a broth, actually) that the whole thing sat in was the best part. The dish would have been improved by halving the amount of flounder, getting rid of the sweet sauce and risotto, improving the clam and mussel quality, and doubling the amount of the base sauce.

          3. While their wine list has changed dramatically since my last visit, it is still excellent and their staff continues the trend of knowing their stuff as far as the wine list is concerned. Not outrageously priced, either.

          1. I don't get Castle Hill either. The atmosphere is nice and the food is okay, but I have never found it especially memorable. I won't ever go back after one of the worst service experiences of my life- but even leaving that aside I fail to see what is special here.

            Your post pretty much sums up my take on the matter- basic bad cooking decisions that yield something acceptable to a general audience but lack an attention to detail that would make the food inspiring- and in ways that would not add time or cost to the actual preparations.

            If you want to see the Castle Hill concept perfected and taken a step further, head for Mirabelle- which is owned/run by those who made Castle Hill famous.

            And if you want something in the area that is cozy, casual, light and wonderful- check out Cafe Josie.

            Again- Castle Hill is not exactly bad, but I expect these days they thrive on past reputation and a steady influx of newcomers to Austin who are not attuned to just what an incredible network of food and wine lovers we have here.

            1 Reply
            1. re: elpaninaro

              I'm with you on the service. We booked three tables upstairs for a celebration a while back, and it was one of the worst service experiences I've ever had. One of the rudest and most useless waiters I've ever met. I'd maybe go back with a group of four or less, based on previous good experiences, but never with a larger group.