Stephan Pyles is known as one of the progenitors of the Southwestern cuisine movement, which introduced all corners of the nation to a host of beloved dishes, including the cowboy rib-eye and a variation on the caesar salad that includes a welcome kick of chili powder and a jalapeño polenta crouton. Together with Bruce Auden of Biga on the Banks, Dean Fearing and Robert Del Grande, he made sure people came to love a new balance in their food, through the lively addition of heat and other regional ingredients, thereby broadening their palates.
Now, he's bringing those flavors to San Antonio in Sustenio, a new restaurant that anchors the Éilan Hotel and development off I-10, near Fiesta Texas.
Sustenio isn't about blazing new culinary trails in a city known for its Tex-Mex and Texas cuisine, Pyles insists.
"I would never say that I was bringing (Tex-Mex) to San Antonio," he says. "Here you have a wonderfully rich Hispanic culture. I think, at Sustenio, the food I'll be doing will have some unexpected twists, but it will be food San Antonio is comfortable with."
That includes a parade of his greatest hits, including tamale tart with Gulf Coast crab and that Southwestern Caesar.
Diners will also get to sample various styles of ceviches from the raw bar that's part of the restaurant's big open kitchen.
Passion fruit margaritas at Sustenio
"I like to do ceviche with a lot of different flavors and colors, like a tasting tray of eight different ceviches that looks like a rainbow of color," he says.
He starts each variation with sashimi-grade seafood. Then he takes a fish, such as Texas flounder, and pairs it with avocado and tomatillo for a soothing green color, while ahi tuna could be paired with chile and golden tomato for a sunburst yellow flecked with red and Ecuadorian rock shrimp are marinated with orange and popcorn.
Each is refreshing and welcome on a hot day, while sitting on the restaurant's spacious patio or at the community table near the raw bar. Both overlook the kitchen, with its brick oven, which is used for pizzas. The rest of the menu includes poblano-asiago soup with golden pepper foam, a tamal made with seared foie gras and corn pudding, coriander-cured rack of lamb with Ecuadorian potato cake, bacon-wrapped Devine wild boar loin and Texas beef tenderloin with modern chiles en nogada.
Meanwhile, there's a colorful bar area where the staff will be creating a vast array of liquid favorites, including several of Pyles' signature cocktails. One is the Piña Diablo, which mixes three types of rum, fresh pineapple, piloncillo, mint, serrano chile and vanilla; another is a passion fruit margarita with both sugar and a serrano pepper on the rim on the glass.
Pyles, known to many from his PBS series, "New Tastes from Texas," was born in Big Spring, to the west of Dallas. He made his start in the restaurant business in the 1980s before opening Star Canyon in 1994. The restaurant put him on the nation's culinary map and earned him accolades from many in the national media.
The wine tower at Sustenio
His focus these days has been on his eponymous restaurant in Dallas as well as Samar by Stephan Pyles. His food has also evolved, incorporating flavors from his global travels into its decidedly Texas base. Many of these dishes are, after all, taken from what he grew up and provide a level of comfort that can't be beat.
Though he has a host of commitments from his other restaurants and his charity work, Pyles plans on spending every weekend in San Antonio at the beginning, then cutting back to every other weekend. The rest of the time, Sustenio will be under the operation of executive chef David Gilbert, who has been working at Pyles' side for several years. Local favorite Philippe Placé is general manager.
When Pyles is not working, he's often found working for charity, such as Share Our Strength and UNICEF, both of which were given generous checks raised at Saturday night's grand opening. His efforts for these non-profits mean a great deal to him. That includes the annual awarding of the Stephan Pyles Scholarship, a $15,000 gift that is given to a top culinary school student. Mention the effort and his usually easy-going speech suddenly takes on a greater excitement at the thought of the number of chefs in the making he's been able to help.
One of the big fundraisers benefiting the scholarship fund is a dinner in which the previous year's winner joins a lineup of elite chefs, including San Antonio's Jason Dady, to prepare a multi-course dinner. Last year's winner was a student at the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America.
A chef at Sustenio makes shrimp ceviche.
In the meantime, Pyles' attention is on launching Sustenio successfully. It's been more demanding than creating a gorgeous restaurant, from the private dining room in the glassed-in wine cave to the tower of bottles that dominates one end of the dining area. Living up to the name has meant forging relationships with area farmers, ranchers and other food producers, so that the kitchen offers a high level of sustainable foods, from bison to honey.
The region has a greater wealth of foods to choose from when compared with Dallas, he says, which makes it especially attractive to food lovers, whether they chefs or merely eaters.
"I'm thrilled to be in San Antonio," he says.
Sustenio at the Éilan Hotel, 17103 La Cantera Parkway is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For reservations, call (210) 598-2950.
Chefs work their food stations at the Sustenio grand opening.