Tempura squash blossoms
Culinaria's annual Restaurant Week came to a close with an impressive dinner at Fig Tree Restaurant, offering a rewarding finale to eight days of special tastes from some of the city's finest restaurants.
It's always a treat to dine at Fig Tree, with its spectacular view of the River Walk, and this meal was certainly no exception.
Our evening started with a delightful amuse bouche of a fried pepper Jack ball with the tiniest bit of heat serving as a hint of bold flavors to come.
It would be hard to say which of the appetizer options was better, a dilemma that happily presented itself through all three of the meal's courses.
Was the better dish the tempura-battered squash blossom stuffed with goat cheese? This was a happy blend of crispy hot dough on the outside while the cheese largely stayed cool and creamy at the center of the blossom. A tomato coulis added a welcome acidic brightness.
Or was it the watermelon soup with lime and jalapeño? This simple yet artful blending of three fresh flavors worked so well that you had to wonder why the trio hasn't become a summertime mainstay throughout the state.
The main course options both had roots in northern Africa, with touches of general manager Moe Lazri's heritage filling the dishes.
Grilled cobia was firm yet supple with the freshness of the fish making itself apparent in every bite. A chermoula sauce with garlic and preserved lemon worked well with both the fish and the caponata on the plate. Every detail of the dish merged into a richly satisfying whole.
And yet I would have to give the prize here to a tagine filled with tiny pearls of buttery couscous on which lamb, merquez sausage and a vegetable medley of zucchini, carrots, turnips and garbanzo beans as well as white raisins had been arranged. The presentation of the dish was particularly dramatic with the conical dish placed in the center of the table, and a miniature version filled with spicy harissa next to it.
Lamb, merquez sausage, turnips and more over couscous
We helped ourselves to spoons of fork tender lamb with a touch of jus, well-seasoned sausage and the delicate pasta, all made even more inviting with a touch of harissa adding a fruity and fiery touch. Yet the turnips were what won over everyone at the table — and they drew us back for seconds and thirds until they had run out. That is a sentence I never thought I'd type, but even the two non-turnip fans, myself included, were drawn to cubes of the firm, slightly sweet root vegetable.
Chef Byron Bergeron stopped by our table and explained the lengthy process by which the couscous had been made, according to Lazri's instruction, and every forkful made it clear that it was worth the effort. (The chef also announced that he would be leaving Fig Tree at the end of the month, with his assistant Chris Spenser taking over. So, you have a few more days of sampling Bergeron's distinctive cuisine.)
Both dessert options pleased. Peach Melba featured the expected fresh peach and raspberry, but it was the pristine vanilla ice cream that sent spoons back into the glasses for more until the last drop could be scraped from the bottom. An almond tart was filled with several forms of nutty richness, from a not-too-sweet marzipan in the base of the tart crust to toasted slivers on top. A dollop of whipped cream and diced poached pears added color, texture and flavors, but they were surprisingly not needed, at least in the opinion of this almond fanatic.
A bottle of 2008 Simi Merlot was a nice companion to the lamb with the jus, the couscous, the squash blossoms and, well, even the hot buttered rolls, which had a dense crust and yet was so fluffy inside.
Service deserves a special mention for being among the most professional, best informed and least obtrusive that we have experienced recently.
This year's Restaurant Week ably demonstrated how the celebration has grown in just a few short years. I may need to go on a diet, but I'm also ready for another run.
Fig Tree Restaurant
515 Villita St.