Blog of an aspiring foodie

Cullens – a review (posted to B4UEat)

Posted by beer_chris on 9-July-2008

It’s been a little while. However, I just wrote this review for B4UEat for Cullen’s Upscale American Grille, which opened in March out here on my side of town. Here is the review:

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I’m with the other diners. The gaggle of hostesses seem confused about which of them should address you when you walk in, and also are absolutely resolute in asking ‘do you have a reservation’ with a certain ‘are you sure you belong here?’ disdain in the question. On my last visit the floor manager dressed one of the girls down in front of my party for not knowing exactly what table we were headed for. Remarkably unprofessional, and certainly not ‘upscale’ – but I digress. What truly upscale establishments do so well is to create a sense of calm and ungussied elegance – without losing an iota of the fine dining experience. This has the effect of making the diner feel absolutely welcome and at ease without sacrificing any of that ‘special event’ feel to the experience. That dichotomy is at the essence of my most memorable meals out, and Cullen’s has yet to master it. I think this is because everyone at Cullen’s – from the uptight hostesses and front of the house manager to the waitstaff – are so intent on projecting an air of upscale that they forget that the guests are there to enjoy themselves, not feel self-important or in awe of their surroundings.

All that said – the place is amazing. The building, artfully designed with curved hallways and partitions, is decorated primarily in stone. The wine ‘grotto’, visible as you enter, looks like a small tower off to the side of the entryway. The thumbprint reader/entry lock to the grotto is an impressive and technologically savvy touch. The entire place is wired up – from the over the top items like the flatscreen digital artwork and touchscreen wine list to the handheld wireless order entry system carried by the waitstaff.

The food, appropriately so, is the strongest point of all. Chef Paul has done a masterful job of creating a deep and varied menu with lots of choices without selling out for the sake of simplicity on anything I have had in my two visits. Dishes are executed with enough flair to rightfully carry the upscale mantra. The steaks are cooked perfectly, and absolutely must be since the chef works with USDA Select CAB and not Prime meat. Prime rib is one of the best I’ve had. The short rib ravioli is solid. The sides, normal steakhouse fare, are OK  – grits are overwhelmingly drowned in butter and cream. Pizza is another weakness – as although the restaurant has an open flame masonry pizza oven they have chosen to fire it with gas (!) rather than charcoal or wood. That’s a tragedy I hope Cullen’s remedies soon.

There is a real winner on the dessert menu – the strawberry symposium should rank with the best desserts in the area. Other fare (creme brulee trio) is done well – and with enough uniqueness to again earn the ‘upscale’ tag. Lavender and chocolate is an interesting (if not especially inventive) combination, and the mascarpone pudding is a nice add to a well-done vanilla creme brulee. The open kitchen is a real treat, and gives diners a chance to see the brigade in action. Note – on my last visit I noticed an Amana microwave over the shoulder of one of the pastry line cooks. I watched that thing like a hawk all night, wondering what exactly could be put in that device. I finally looked up late in the evening to see the timer counting down – I couldn’t wait to see what was being shortcutted in that kitchen – but nothing ever came out of the insides. The thing was being used only as a timer – of course this was a good thing.

I am not much of a wine aficionado, but the list seems reasonably large with enough choice for even a simpleton like me. The wine steward hails from Austin and (like most ‘wine guys’ I’ve dealt with) was probably the most personable staff member on the floor. He was not in on my second visit (a Sunday), and the floor manager did a reasonable enough job guiding me to what I was after – even if he did show off a bit by talking himself through what region numbers our vineyards were in – I don’t know what that means, but he seemed impressed with himself.

As most probably are, I was immediately impressed on my first visit with the tablet PC-based wine list. However, it’s unwieldy and hard to deal with when asking for recommendations. The poor steward spends more time tapping away looking for the bottle he has in mind then telling you what is special about it. The touchscreen device is a nifty whiz-bang toy, but it may make sense to offer a printed list as an alternative for those of us that don’t want to bother with a laptop at dinner.

Prices are reasonable. Price points are just a hair lower than what I would consider ‘standard’ for fine dining in town. Not a steal by any means, but what I would expect for food of this quality. However, if they cannot get their service straightened out, they simply will not get the business they are looking for. It takes time to cultivate knowledgeable and passionate staff, so this can be forgiven – for now. The staff should sit with their wine steward to get service figured out – and fulfill the upscale dreams.

Bottom line, the food is great – which is a great apology for all kinds of other issues. I highly recommend a few visits to make it through the various offerings – and don’t forget dessert!

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