San Antonio Update
by Andrew Chalk
(reprinted due to lack of popular demand from 2015, when it appeared in Cocktails and Joints (RIP))
Just back from a trip to San Antonio, the fastest improving gourmet location in Texas (but still deep below the national radar). Lots of new things to report on but here are just a few.
First, some unambiguously good news. Uber is back in town. The Big Taxi monopoly is broken. That is good for consumers and local businesses who will see more visitors as the sprawling city of San Antonio just got easier to get round. Satellites of the hotel hub around the River Walk such as Pearl, Blue Star and the east side will particularly benefit.
First stop was breakfast at Amaya’s Cocina, a friend’s recommendation. I have written about this elsewhere but the bottom line is that this humble location (that looks like it would crumble under a stiff wind) is doing a lot more than just tacos. The French-trained chef turns out some carefully instrumented dishes like a poached pear salad topped with crisp bacon and jalapeño cream cheese ($5.50, breakfast and lunch) and hand-rolled pasta, ground beef, San Marzano tomatoes and fresh cheese ($10, lunch) that belie the humble surroundings. Service is attentive and very friendly. This was a real find and I have promised my referring friend that I will take back half the bad things that I have ever said about him.
A La Mode Gelato. Husband and wife team Josh Biffle (Texas) and Diletta Gallorini (Toscana) met in Italy while he was practicing his original profession of architecture. He decided that he loved gelato and was cool on architecture. Thus, their business was born. They just opened this fixed location in the Blue Star Arts Complex in May after a stint at local markets This is quite simply some of the best gelato that I have tasted - on three continents. Watch for them to belatedly get attention on the national food scene months after smart San Antonio residents have made a la mode their local favorite.
Almost next door is Halcyon Coffee House, the San Antonio outpost of a concept from Austin. It is relaxed (with a lot more room than Starbucks) and the coffee is good. At night Halcyon morphs into a bar.
Just down the row of shops is the singular but unpretentious Bar 1919 – named in memory of the year that saw the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, instituting Prohibition. 1919 is located in the Blue Star arts and entertainment complex on the river walk a mile south of town. The bar itself is easy to miss, being at basement level on one end of an undistinguished mixed use strip. Inside, the atmosphere is in the “not see and not be-seen” genre of design; the lights are low, the windows covered over’ all light projects out from the bar.
Owner Don Marsh is a 24-year veteran of the San Antonio cocktail scene, having worked at numerous bars, including Bohanan’s, and self-taught at each stage. The specialty at 1919 is dark liquor, that is, whisky. Marsh claims to have the largest selection in the city. Yet he is also a fan of tequila and mezcal and shows a large selection of each. To illustrate where he is less of a fan, he offers up that he only has two vodkas. He is also a fan of beers and has over 100. A back room functions as an event space for seminars by distillers and brewers to avid fans of the drinks.
1919 runs an unusual loyalty program. Customers with coins minted for the bar can obtain discounts on a different drink each week.
For a taste of 1919, Marsh made me a 'True Azul' and served it in a vintage glass (left), from 1944 in fact.
1 1/2 oz infused tequila (1919 uses a reposado infused with poblano, serrano and red bell peppers),
1/4 oz crème de violet
1/2 oz honey syrup
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
Smoked sea salt
Add all tequila, creme de violet, honey syrup and lime juice into a pint glass with ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass half lined with smoked sea salt and a lime wedge garnish.
Southerleigh at Pearl (not “the” Pearl, or “a” Pearl, just Pearl) adjacent to the soon to be opened Hotel Emma (and with a spyhole into the hotel bar) is a boisterous brewpub turning out beer of consequence and food to match. We liked the wood roasted beets, turnips and lemon-thyme goat cheese appetizer ($8). The beets, in particular had been concentrated, which increased their sweetness and reduced the raw vegetable flavors. The deviled eggs with bacon and onion marmalade ($6 for three) were a great rendition of this (over) common appetizer. Our mains of pan fried red snapper topped with sauce Étouffée ($24) and Old School Stuffed Crab with Celery Root Remoulade ($13 for 2 crab) were hearty and perfectly cooked. Sides are à la carte and we recommend the gulf crab spiked mac and cheese, the jalapeño cheddar grits and the zucchini and squash. However, these are seasonal so expect changes as the menu changes daily.
You can choose beers from the list or, for more currency, a blackboard of over 10 selections of beers brewed in house. The brewery is actually upstairs and visible from the main dining area. If you get a chance, reconnoitre the place before choosing a table. There is an outside patio that is dog-friendly, the main dining room, a side table right at the kitchen suitable for singles, and a back room with more sumptuous seating and (maybe) a little more quiet.
Dinner at Saveurs 209 could not be staged more differently than the previous two two locations. Instead of the hip location, we head down to the lower end of Broadway - four stout blocks in distance but much farther in character from the hustle bustle of the popular River Walk. Instead of a high six-to-seven-figure budget for decor, the walls are painted an austere and serious white. Instead of culinary eclecticism, there is disciplined French technique.
And so there should be. The chef, Caitline Nykiels, went to culinary school in Paris and then worked in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in France. Her father, Sylvain, got his degree in hospitality management but found himself unable to get a job in that field in France. He became a limousine driver and one of his clients, a wealthy American who hired him for extended periods when in France, suggested he start his own limo company. That eventually led to him moving to the United States and falling in love with San Antonio. He and his wife opened Saveurs 209 last year with their daughter as chef.
The dishes are unlike anywhere else in town. Call them modern French, informed by classical French technique. For example, a starter of daïkon radish ravioli with crab and reduced grapefruit juice ($13) is a sensuous combination of brininess in the crab meat and vegetable in the raviole. Two of them served side-by-side on a black eggshell finished plate are even visually evocative.
Calamarata pasta, tomato concassé and parmesan crumble ($12) is another surreal blend of flavors, all assembled in an attractive package.
Among the very French dessert list, the strawberry and vanilla mille feuille, strawberry sorbet ($10) was a satisfying choice as was the homemade ice cream.
Check out the wine list here, it features some interesting and unusual French selections, or let Sylvain tell you about his love of burgundies.
The small and unpretentious Saveurs 209 was perhaps the most charming restaurant we found in San Antonio recently. Possibly an unpretentious successor to Le Rêve. Its integrity of ingredients, clarity of culinary concept and preparation of the cuisine make it worthy of success.
Ostra, the seafood restaurant at the Mokara Hotel and Spa is right on the River Walk. The hotel has won countless awards and Ostra, its flagship restaurant, is at ground level, which lets you take a seat on the patio, just yards from the river. We choose a table just inside, but looking out. The cuisine is prepared and served in an opulent and stylish manner. We start with ahi tuna tacos draped with wasabi sauce dressed with micro greens, seaweed and lime slices.
Next was tuna tartar. Made from ahi tuna, cucumber, avocado, tomato, ponzu sauce on a miniature wonton shell and topped with wasabi crème fraîche.
An imaginative interpretation of crab Louie uses a Belgian endive as the container for juicy blue crab, radish, asparagus, pickled serrano and classic louie sauce.
Likewise, the ceviche is a house interpretation of a classic based around local seafood. There is a Texas redfish core mixed with aji pepper sauce, lime and cilantro, all served ‘tostada style’, i.e. on top of a (locally made) corn tortilla.
Chef John Brand knows the flavors that hit the hot buttons and gives his dishes arresting visual design. Ostra is a seafood restaurant that stands second to none and demands a visit from the serious gourmet traveller.
Maybe it was because we went for brunch and the B-team was on, maybe it was just bad luck, but folc was our only disappointment. The biggest problem was service. When our waitress disappeared for ten minutes while we were waiting to order, I caught the eye of a waiter with nothing to do (he was leaning on the counter in the center of the small restaurant). I explained the situation and wondered had the waitress had gone out for a cigarette? His response was to inform me that she did not smoke and then to speculate why she may have disappeared for so long. In these situations you have to ask “what would Danny Meyer expect”? Clearly, that this unoccupied waiter take our order and get it to the kitchen. Apparently, that was asking too much and we were left to continue waiting. It turns out that folc expects serving staff to also be bar staff and our waitress was preparing cocktails for a large table of eight people, which takes over ten minutes.
The other problem was that the food arrived cold (maybe because our waitress was tied up preparing cocktails and leaning wallflower’s head wasn’t into the job).
Skip folc, which is currently “folced up”.
Coffee. Courtesy of Brown Coffee Company. The modest coffee bar one block down from Tuk Tuk in the ground floor of a partly-leased new apartment complex almost drags the coffee purist in from the street. The provenance of every bean is documented and the preparation is meticulous. If you take your coffee seriously, this place is worth a stop.
Bakery Lorraine, just round the corner from Brown Coffee Company, is not just a bakery, it is a bakery founded by emigrées of Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s bistro. The items on the limited bakery menu are all stellar quality but Bakery Lorraine is best known for its macaroons. Since opening a couple of years ago they have established a citywide reputation.
The Alamo Brewing Company is not new but had an event to raise money for ALS. There was live entertainment, food trucks and a tie in to buy beer and contribute to ALS. It was great fun on the patio of their centrally located brewery. I tried their Oktoberfest beer, which had a maltiness to the taste and the sunset red color of this seasonal beer.
Imagine you did a mash up, not of web content, but of national cuisines. The result would be something like Hot Joy. Here, tater tots are presented as part of a chaat, Indian street food, with scorched chili ranch, paneer, tamarind, sev, onion and cilantro. Shrimp chips are served with a queso mixed with chili jam. It is a genius combination of flavors. Sichuan dan dan noodles are served with crunchy pork, sesame chili, peanuts, black vinegar and pickled cabbage. Hot Joy is inspired yet disciplined. The apparently incongruous combinations work. Expect imitators.