When you have dined at hundreds of restaurants, you must remain vigilant to stave off concept or menu fatigue, as well as your own preconceived notions. I always keep an open mind, open heart and open mouth when a new restaurant opens. But sometimes weariness encroaches.
My mind bubbled with mild concern when I first heard about what I assumed would be a new addition to our stuffed Americana scene. I feared the restaurant was going to slap some comfort food into a historic building with overwrought design touches in East Austin and be pleased with itself. There’d be fried chicken and biscuits, or something, and the gauze of redundancy would muffle my hopes.
Then a beautiful thing happened. I looked at Rosewood’s menu online, and intrigue grabbed ahold of me. There was some familiarity (fried chicken) along with some curiosities (Texas octopus?), but there was also clearly a point of view. This wasn’t “Southern food” or comfort food writ large; it could specifically be located in South Texas. Grilled vegetables, snapper ceviche, barbacoa, shrimp tacos. My mind took on the expansiveness you feel as you move through the verdant pastures south of Interstate 10 into South Texas Brush Country heading toward Victoria and the Gulf Coast.
And when I walked into the historic home, I didn’t feel as if I were entering a gimmicky museum or precious diorama of the past. The late 19th-century Victorian house in East Austin stood with a quiet nobility and just enough artful adornment to make it comfortable and modern while honoring its 128-year history.
Everything looked good on paper. But, as they say in the world of sports, that’s why they play the game. While Rosewood undeniably has a culinary narrative and a lovely canvas on which to express its story, the telling is choppy and uneven.
Chef Jesse DeLeon, formerly a sous chef at Geraldine’s, and partners Chas Spence and Clark Evans briefly operated a pop-up restaurant, Victoria Provisions. And that name would also work nicely for the restaurant in the former East End Wines building at the intersection of Rosewood Avenue and 11th Street.
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The menu captures the spirit of Victoria, a town some refer to as the Crossroads due to its geographic relationship to Houston, Austin and San Antonio. You get a sense of that location with fresh snapper salty with sprinkled furikake and swept up and blown through by floral cilantro and avocado purée ($12). The Sunday traditions of South Texas find their way onto a plate of lush barbacoa ($30) lashed with pickled onions and salsa verde. And the flavors of the farm find harmony when a pile of smoky charred green beans topped with crispy onions and soaked in mushroom cream like a deconstructed Thanksgiving casserole ($14) arrives with rosy sliced medallions of tender filet, a great steak even if the $50 price tag on the 7-ounce cut resembles swanky steakhouse prices. Fried chicken of course gets its due, as well, and with ginger and puya chilies that could have passed for Szechuan peppers leaving their light buzz lingering on the lips, the moist bird is a smart South Texas-meets-Asia take on a classic ($14).
If those dinner dishes and the plump and crunchy shrimp on a lunchtime taco ($14) served on a toasty if slightly undercooked homemade flour tortilla were representative of the execution and flavor profiles as a whole, I would have walked away a very happy diner.
But equal lows matched each of those highs. There was a grilled and puréed butternut squash dish ($12) that didn’t know if it wanted to be room temperature or cold. Land and sea fought to an unsettling draw with beef tartare soaked in a screaming oyster vinaigrette and unctuous bone marrow served in a hollowed bone ($16). Creamer pea risotto ($13) was at once mushy and gravelly. Knobby shrimp were slimy with squid ink ($12), and the tips of octopus were grilled to an ashen and acrid finish ($16), though the pear escabeche was a clever and light touch to balance the depth of a black garlic mole.
The dishes at times stacked up at a table for two and arrived more slowly at a circular six-top crammed awkwardly into a corner that led to a never-ending game of musical chairs when nature called. The service at both dinners and lunch was always gracious and gregarious, however, whether in one of the peaceful dining rooms — one decorated with oak tables and antlers above a fireplace that gave the space the warm appeal of dining in a friend’s elegant Victorian ranch house — or in the bar area, which features a wine wall highlighting some of the smart, surprising and very affordable offerings.
Beyond the fried shrimp taco, lunch left me with more questions than satisfaction. Was the barbacoa, repurposed in taco form, really best served with a fried egg aioli ($12)? Why isn’t there more fat in the beef used for a patty melt layered with cold poblano queso that barged through the brioche ($12)? And if a restaurant advertises its whole-animal butchery, isn’t it odd to serve smoked pork sourced, I was told, from its awesome neighbor Micklethwait Craft Meats, and odder still to toss the sandwich meat in industrial tasting barbecue sauce ($14)?
Desserts brought me full circle to my initial wrangling with Rosewood. I would have thought on paper that I’d like cheddar apple pie with oatmeal stout ice cream ($14) more than the spiced squash cake ($12). But the stubborn crust and clumpy cheddar spuma of the former and the piquant ginger sorbet and pecan toffee of the latter proved once again why we don’t judge meals before eating them.
They also left me wrestling with those notions I had when I found myself first attracted to Rosewood. There’s a hackneyed trope common among some diners who post on crowd-sourced review sites. It’s a variation of, “I wish I would have liked it more,” or “I really wanted to like this place more.” I’ve always scoffed at the hackiness of it, but sometimes it really is just that simple.