- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Georgetown was never part of Jacob Hilbert’s original plan. But when you’re looking to start over, sometimes the where isn’t as important as the how.
The 40-year-old chef spent the first part of his cooking career earning praise in his native North Carolina and New Mexico before personal demons derailed his life. He regrouped and reestablished himself back in Wilmington, N.C.
But the rebirth went south, and, spurred by a legal battle with his former business partner, Hilbert headed west to his wife’s home state of Texas, and, ultimately, Georgetown — where a pass through the town square, an old café and the financial and emotional support of friends and family combined to give Hilbert another shot.
As with many stories of this nature (and they’re probably not as rare as you might think), the complicated tale has had its dark and ugly moments, but it also explains how the bright and beautiful plates on display at the Hollow made their way to Georgetown.
Hilbert doesn’t pander to diners with the expected comfort foods often found in such locales, although he may be having a bit of fun with his gorgeous vegetable terrine. The artful plate reinterprets and renews the dreaded aspic salad, its colorful wobble flush with the pure flavors of carrot and cauliflower. Pickled golden beets sit astride the Alice in Williamson County terrine surrounded by sour walnut crumble and crowned with an ethereal bubble of red beet foam.
Something tells me Georgetown wasn’t demanding beet foam when Hilbert opened shop in 2013. And even bigger cities like Austin have a strained relationship with prix fixe menus. But the Hollow doesn’t shy away from the upmarket convention, serving a three-course dinner for $38.
The dishes in the “firstly” section, as the Hollow’s whimsical menu lists it, are small but not precious. Coq au vin presented as a crispy-skin-wrapped cylindrical slice speckled with celery root and apple and siting in a pool of rich and viscous red wine and mushroom sauce.
Hilbert relishes in preservation techniques, creating a creamy bed of fermented congee for a firstly course of roasted quail with cauliflower in hay butter. The whole herb-flecked bird served in a textured cast iron bowl looked like an entrée writ small, and while the flavor was big, the tiny bird tied tight with string made for frustrated plucking of meat from the doll-house bones. It was an exercise in futility compounded by the bowl’s pebbled surface, which limited cleanly scooping the congee.
The quail’s pot echoed the Hollow’s attempts at a Hill Country aesthetic, but the restaurant’s design could use some editing. With a few too many lantern light fixtures, splatter-painted faux taxidermy and modern art paintings, the dining room looks like a mash-up of multiple gift shops you might find ringing the town square.
But the hodgepodge bric-a-brac reflects a certain folksy charm one associates with family-run restaurants. Hilbert’s in-laws reinforce that family vibe. Mother-in-law Jeanne Davis works the front-of-house, and one night father-in-law J.R. made the rounds, wearing a baseball cap and glad-handing like a county commissioner at a community barbecue.
The Hollow’s unofficial ambassador may not speak the chef’s language, but he likes what the kitchen has to say. J.R. told our table he’d never heard of gnocchi, but he sure loved dumplings. Who needs semantics when white-wine-bathed doughy pasta pillows served with butter-roasted rabbit alight with tarragon, crisp asparagus and wild leeks are this good?
Other staff not related to Hilbert or wife Lynda also glowed with familial pride, like the server who showed us pictures of the dishes directly from his phone as we contemplated our order. Probably not a move you’d see at most upmarket restaurants but one that didn’t feel out of place at the Hollow.
One of those Instagram-worthy dishes was a first course of beet-cured redfish crudo blushed like a smoke ring at its edges and roused with ginger and citrus vinaigrette. The curing process speaks to Hilbert’s thoughtful approach to dishes, like a seared and roasted entrée of lamb tossed in leek ash and rosemary and served with a robust homemade chermoula brimming with North African spices.
The Hollow’s small kitchen and adherence to a local and seasonal ethos means you’ll confront redundancies with vegetables and sides, like ubiquitous Brussels sprouts that accompanied another excellent lamb loin, this one served with the sweet tang of jardinière and fennel-apricot jam. The vegetables reappeared with a rosy duck breast and crispy confit leg, as well as a sumptuous plate of braised short ribs that ran flabby with gelatinous fat.
But when the vegetables are prepared this well, and dinner is accompanied with an easy drinking and moderately priced 2013 Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley’s J.K. Carriere ($56), repetition can be forgiven.
After solid dinners full of impressive technique and bold flavor in a completely unexpected environment, separate desserts marred by a soapy prickly pear glaze and caramel ice cream as stubborn as taffy felt like anticlimax. But a few stumbles can’t ruin a good story. Just ask Hilbert.