Carpenters Hall tortellini in Parmesan brown butter is one of Austin's best pasta dishes
After an intense week of weather, work, worry, burst pipes and generalized anxiety, the evening called for comfort. And for continued support of a restaurant industry stretched beyond its limits yet again.
I passed quickly through the dining room of Carpenters Hall last Monday afternoon in a rush to catch up with superhero humanitarian chef José Andrés before he left the restaurant of former protégé Jorge Hernández and headed out to deliver more meals on behalf of his World Central Kitchen.
It was the first time I’d walked through a dining room in almost a year. It was empty. And it stirred me. Not just because of the memories of dining in a pre-pandemic world, but because I caught a glimpse of the kitchen where Hernández and his spartan team had worked in an emergency capacity for days feeding those in need.
After a week of scrambling, sometimes without power, to feed a late rush of hotel guests while boxing to-go meals to be distributed throughout the community, Carpenters Hall reopened for dinner to the public last Tuesday night. Its tranquil patio felt like the peaceful place to take a moment, breathe, enjoy the insanely nice weather and dig into some comfort.
The temperature outside was just cool enough for me to require a hat to keep my bald dome warm, which meant it was perfect for a winter dish of butternut squash tortellini. The pasta, which has been on the menu at the small hotel’s restaurant since the beginning of the year, is the first collaborative effort between Hernández and Carpenters Hall head chef Lou Perella, a former executive sous chef at Union Square Cafe whom Hernández recruited to return to Texas, where he previously worked at Olamaie and Qui.
When you think filled pasta, you probably think heavy, and you may think treacly. Somehow this al dente pasta, despite being filled with mascarpone, ricotta and butternut squash and served in a cheesy sauce, avoids that. Maybe it’s the preserved lemon and dill throughout that perk its wintry weight; maybe it’s the fact that the butternut holds back on sweetness; maybe it’s the technique and time that make the Parmesan buttery unlike a traditional brodo but without the heft of a cream sauce.
It’s obviously some combination of all of the above. The result is a rich, savory, bright, umami-laden riff on a classic. And, at the risk of the embarrassment that comes with doing that hacky food writer thing where I tell you the sauce is good enough to drag your food through: I did just that, cleaning the bowl with plump shrimp plucked from their bed of grits, sopping it with tender quail and even stringing through the tensile strands of pasta from my fideo.
I sought comfort. This kitchen, despite its exhaustion, delivered.
Carpenters Hall. 400 Josephine St. 512-682-5300, carpenterhotel.com.
Matthew Odam writes about restaurants and more for the American-Statesman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @odam.