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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