In the Basque region, tapas reign among those who want to spend an evening out, grabbing a small bite or two while bar hopping.
It’s not a dining format that has translated successfully to San Antonio. As I’ve said before, this city, by and large, has never been fond of the small plates concept. Legions of germaphobes find the idea of sharing food repulsive, while others just think the kitchen is trying to gyp their customers by not filling their plates with proper portions. Plus, too many people just don’t want to eat what everybody else does.
I don’t fall into any of those categories. I love the excitement that comes from taking a bite of one dish and then sampling another, tasting what friends have ordered and what arrives next. So, imagine my delight when I found myself jumping from one small plate restaurant in the Southtown area to another recently. My evening started at Johnny Hernandez’s new The Frutería, 1401 S. Flores St., and ended at Bite, Lisa Astorga-Watel’s haven for small plates at 1012 S. Presa St.
Beneath The Frutería’s name on the sign outside the door, the restaurant is billed as a “botanero,” meaning it specializes in botanas, or snacks. Also known as small plates. So, don’t expect one of the five chiles rellenos to be some overstuffed monster on a platter with rice, beans and shredded lettuce on the side. The slightly misnamed Chiles Anchos con Pollo was actually only one chile, a beautiful burnt-red rehydrated pepper that had been stuffed with lightly spicy shredded chicken tinga and topped with a hearty tomato sauce and a dramatic drizzle of crema.
It disappeared in just four or five bites, but I enjoyed each as I alternated it with a taste of Pulpo a la Plancha (a cold grilled octopus salad) or Puerco en Mole Blanco, slabs of crispy pork belly in a silky white chocolate mole with slivered almonds and a dramatic slice of fried plantain twirling up as a garnish. Other temptations from the dinner menu include carne asada, grilled sirloin in a guajillo sauce; camarones con fruitas, shrimp with a medley of mango, pineapple and orange as well as jícama; and huitlacoche con rajas, corn truffles or fungus with roasted poblanos.
Given the name of the place, I had to try the fruit cup for dessert and was rewarded with a large bowl of freshly diced apple, pineapple and strawberries with blueberries and more in one refreshing serving that was made even more mouthwatering with a touch of Lucas, chile and lime.
The Frutería takes that fruit and carries it over into its cocktail program, matching tequilas and juices in a rainbow of colors. Since I’m no fan of sweet cocktails, I asked my server for a suggestion. He recommended the Seis Chiles Margarita, said to have everything from habanero to ghost pepper in the mix. What arrived was beautiful, with a slice of red pepper floating atop the drink — and the first taste certainly showcased the intense flavors of the peppers and their innate fruitiness, but without the heat. But by the second sip, a candied quality swamped all other flavors, and I quickly lost a desire to finish it.
The interior was still being worked on while I was there, but Hernandez has done a beautiful job of capturing color and an elegant sense of Mexico without the decor echoing the serape-and-sombrero look of the old school taquerias in town. Everything from the open kitchen to the bustling tables suggested that The Frutería will be a vibrant addition to the ongoing renovation of that block of Flores Street.
I moved on to the jewel box that is Bite, a dining space so cozy that small plates seem a natural. The pleasant interior design is a major improvement over the sparse sandwich shops that have come and gone in the space, which bookends a plaza with Torres Taco Haven. And the pop art canvas of a woman declaring in a cartoon bubble, “Oh my God Darling!! Southtown is so cool!!” gives the right sense of playfulness to set you at ease.
Most everything offered called my name, whether it was the cioppino or the carbonara on the specials board or escargots from the menu.
While sipping a glass of sparkling Spanish rosé, I settled on a dish from the Basque country, Boquerones Basquaise, an enticing array of tangy, white anchovies fanning out from a mound of a ratatouille-like salad of eggplant and tomato. Though the dish practically screams summer freshness, it displayed a vitality that made it refreshing, even on a cold, windy night.
It was followed by an off-the-menu special, veal-stuffed mushrooms with a touch of cheese on top. The mushrooms that provided a sturdy base for the delicately seasoned meat were king trumpets, and texturally, they resembled the octopus earlier at the Frutería. The heat of the dish just caused everything to melt together into a few exquisite tastes. The size of the serving was also fairly generous.
I would have preferred to have both dishes served at the same time to allow a little grazing, but it was not to be. Perhaps such kinks will get ironed out in the near future. I’d also like to suggest new seats at the bar. The stools are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. Worse still, they made me feel off-balance, which is a sensation that I’d prefer to let my cocktails provide.
Then the owner came in, a move that was welcomed by her regulars and Astorga-Watel did make the rounds to greet everyone there, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately, she was wearing a perfume that was a little too strong for so small a place. Though she was standing across the restaurant, her scent obliterated the aroma of the wine in my glass — and it was Torrontés, a dry Argentine wine with one of the most floral and expressive bouquets in the wine world. Within moments, her perfume literally took my breath away and sent me out of the restaurant gasping for air. (A word to restaurateurs of all stripes: Leave the heavy colognes at home, unless you’re using it to mask any flaws your food and wine may have.)
A final word: Dining on a few small plates can add up. The stuffed mushrooms at Bite, for example, were priced at $18. Nothing at The Frutería was quite as expensive — most of the prices run in the $5.50-$8.50 range — but, with the exception of the fruit cup, nothing was that substantial, either. Add a drink or two, though, and your bill could be higher than you might have realized.
1401 S. Flores St.
Lunch/dinner: Tuesday-Saturday. Brunch: Sunday
1012 S. Presa St.
Lunch: Thursday-Saturday; Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday