Grizzelda’s has more flair than focus

March 01, 2017
Palm trees line the covered patio dining area of Grizzelda’s in East Austin. Rodolfo Gonzalez FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The server at Grizzelda’s explained the restaurant’s concept to the adjacent table: “It’s interior Mexican cuisine meets coastal Mexican. With a Tex-Mex flair.”

The description left me searching my mental database for the chin-scratching emoji, but it also validated the story the decor had already communicated. The East Austin restaurant that opened near the end of last year has a lot going on.

There’s the jewelry-draped St. Francis statue behind a bar underlit with bright splashes of pink; wicker-style basket light fixtures here and modernist industrial starburst lighting there; handsome wooden flooring with geometric patterns; wallpaper with a jungle-beach theme; lush green velvet chairs; and cast-iron table bases with marble, oval-shaped tops. And that’s just inside.

On the covered and enclosed outdoor space there are palm trees, textured and sparkling throw pillows and bright red metal chairs next to gold ones next to patchwork Partridge Family ones. All underneath a chandelier. Those who remember previous tenant Taqueria Los Jaliscienses will have trouble recognizing the space once inside the squat stone and concrete confines.

Adam Jacoby and husband Kris Swift came to the dining scene’s attention in the summer of 2014 when they opened Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile, thanks in part to the stunning ranch-style design from Swift, the Jacoby Restaurant Group’s creative director. While the design at their first restaurant hit all the appropriate notes, neighboring Grizzelda’s seems to be playing multiple instruments at once. Loudly.

The collection of ultraluxe shabby chic aesthetic touches careens off into unharnessed eclecticism, the effect a mash-up of the last decade of Mexico City restaurant design combined with some whirlwind R&D trips to Tulum. Even when you have the appropriate ingredients with which to work, re-creating your favorite dining room from Mexico City or Tulum can be as difficult as making great tacos or tuna tostadas, no matter how simple it may appear.

The lack of a concise narrative extends to executive chef Albert Gonzalez’s menu that, as advertised, pulls from various parts of Mexico like a culinary grab bag. Appetizers and crudos make up about half the menu, and while the tuna tostadas ($18) speak to the Mexican coast, frequenters of Mexico City will recognize the crudo as a play on the appetizer at Contramar that launched a thousand homages. Here, the cubes of pink fish sit on layers of thick, lardy tortilla chips that taste like fried triangles of your grandma’s pie crust. Three chips, smeared with chile aioli muted by fatty wedges of avocado, arrived stacked high and draped with a cascading tower of microgreens. With such hulking chips, the crunch of crispy fried shallots was lost, but their burnt taste was not.

I don’t know where Grizzelda’s gets their avocados, but they are ripe, full of good fat and make for a lush guacamole. I guess the smoky guacamole de la casa ($11) is one of the Tex-Mex plays mentioned, because you probably won’t find many guacamoles with stiff bacon and roasted garlic south of the border. I do know where the restaurant gets its beef. Jacoby’s and Grizzelda’s both source beef from the Jacoby family ranch in West Texas, but if that relationship benefits them financially, they aren’t exactly passing the savings along to the customer. The 14-ounce ribeye at one dinner cost $56, which is more than you’d pay at Jeffrey’s. The chewy meat lacked a seared finish as well as the fatty flavor you’d expect from the usually marbled cut. We paid an extra $8 to have the ribeye served as fajitas, meaning with supple homemade tortillas (always a plus), grilled peppers and onions and salted sour cream.

The steak was part of a small selection of main courses that also included a Oaxacan-inspired tender half-chicken slathered in a deep and vibrant mole rich with notes of earth, chocolate and anise ($24), and a less impressive and undercooked chili ($19) stuffed with crispy chunks of pork cheek in a dull guajillo cream sauce ($19).

Grizzelda’s falls into that category of restaurants that appeal to the hang-out-and-have-a-few-shared-plates-and-cocktails crowd. Serving that communal purpose were build-your-own taco plates of puerco pibil ($16) — all achiote and orange juice working to soften dry pork — and seared red fish ($19) sweetened with heirloom pico de gallo; creative cocktails like the CDMZ ($13), which uses allspice dram and smoked rosemary to give woodsy breath to smoky mezcal, and the gently tart Mi Amor ($12), a sotol-based drink puckered with lemon, raspberry and a lambic reduction, helped relax and heighten the vibe.

But don’t relax too long with your smokey glass of Alipus Santa Ana del Rio mezcal ($10) and that dish of fried cauliflower ($7), tingly with pickled coriander seeds and flagged by a cheese crisp more chewy than crackly. Grizzelda’s, which seats about 100 people, advertises two-hour dining windows on its reservations page and reminds you of that stipulation when you arrive. With undercooked churros waiting at the end of your meal, at least you can skip dessert.

Grizzelda’s may want to whisk you away on a vacation, but it does so on its own terms, with food and ambiance that make it a little hard to settle in. They seem intent to offer a transportive experience, but it feels more like being trapped inside a three-dimensional postcard from a place in Mexico that you can’t quite identify.