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2012 Was a Year of Eating Well

The Pearl has become a food lover’s center for festivals as well as restaurants.

Bliss is aptly named.

As we approach the end of 2012, it’s time to look back on the many great flavors that we sampled. The list is lengthy, thanks to a decided upturn in culinary offerings across the city, both on the dining scene and for the food lover in general.

One of the biggest food stories of the year was the continued growth of the Pearl Brewery, which saw the opening of three praise-worthy eateries and a trendy bar. It also was the location of an increasing number of food festivals, meaning thousands from all over the city were showing up on a regular basis for cooking demonstrations at the Saturday farmers market, for paella, burgers and barbecue or tamales, and for the restaurants, all in the quest of good food.

A glimpse into the kitchen at the Granary.

The list of new restaurants includes the Granary ‘Cue and Brew, which restored beer making to the premises. Artisan barbecue, fine brews and an irresistible condiment known as ‘cue butter all made this a welcome addition. The Boiler House Texas Grill and Wine Garden delivers on the belief that quality grilled meat is prerequisite in the Lone Star State, and the massive setting, covering two stories, is epic enough to complement chef James Moore’s ranch-style fare.

The most intriguing addition, though, is NAO, the Culinary Institute of America’s full-service restaurant, which has provided San Antonio with its broadest and most authentic taste of South and Central American cuisines to date. These exciting flavors, from seafood stews and roasted meats to an inviting cocktail program, have somehow not been able to secure a foothold before in a city that values its Tex-Mex above all; yet in just a few months, NAO has developed a local following, and its client base should grow as word continues to get out to the rest of the country that the school has a campus and a destination restaurant here. When the visiting chef series returns, with culinary stars from countries as diverse as Brazil, Peru and Argentina, you’d be wise to make your reservations as soon as possible.

The CIA’s flagship restaurant in San Antonio.

NAO is also built on the concept of small plates, which has also not been widely popular in San Antonio. Yet Bite in the Southtown area and a revitalized Nosh on Austin Highway are joining in the effort to break that mold.

Southtown continued to attract diners from across the city, as Mark Bliss returned with a new restaurant, the aptly named Bliss. The warmth of the place, the impressive setting and the comfort of the food, especially when enjoyed at the chef’s table in the kitchen, all help place it among the city’s best.

Johnny Hernandez opened two distinct venues in the Southtown area, if not Southtown proper. They include the Frutería at the Steel House Lofts, where you can get everything from market-fresh fruit for breakfast to an impressive array of, you got it, small plates for dinner, and Casa Hernán, an airy catering facility and brunch spot in his own home.

Another welcome addition to the Southtown scene was the Alamo Street Eat Bar, a food truck park that featured crazy good burgers from Cullum’s Attaboy, the Peacemaker combination of pork belly and fried oysters from Where Y’At and the DUK Truck’s duck confit tacos. Add Zum Sushi, The Institute of Chili, Wheelie Gourmet and a few other visitors, as well as a great beer lineup, and you’ve got some wonderful fresh treats. And what do food trucks provide but small plates, albeit from different plates, giving you the feel of being on a tapas trail?

An “Eat Street” crew films at the Point Park & Eats.

Another food truck park that opened up north in Leon Springs was the Point Park & Eat, which also offers a great beer selection and a wide array of foods from a lineup that has changed in the months that it’s been open. The culinary confections come from trucks such as Skinny Cat, Gourmet on the Fly, Blazin’ Burgers and Say-She-Ate.

Television continued to discover may of these culinary gems. Say-She-Ate was one of four food trucks filmed for the TV series, “Eat Street.” The others include Rickshaw Stop, Tapa Tapa and Society Bakery. Meanwhile, PBS celebrity chef Ming Tsai came to town to film segments of “Simply Ming” with Diana Barrios Treviño from Los Barrios, Elizabeth Johnson of the CIA, John Besh of Lüke (visiting from New Orleans) and Johnny Hernandez at La Gloria.

Sustenio, with Stephan Pyles’ blessing and David Gilbert’s gifts, made people realize the Eilan Hotel Resort and Spa off I-10 was not just a pretty façade. Its menu, with much of the dishes derived from local meats and produce, features an exciting array of ceviches that captured the freshness of the sea and a number of dishes using South Texas Heritage Pork products.

The $13 Burger at Knife & Fork.

The gastropub movement continued with the opening of Knife & Fork in the Stone Oak area. An outgrowth of the Bistro Six food truck, it offered a $13 Burger worth every cent, an extensive cocktail program and a laid-back atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the bistronomy craze — a hybrid of “bistro” and “gastronomy” — could be found in Laurent’s Modern Cuisine on McCullough Avenue. Next door to the still-vibrant and dependable Bistro Vatel, it proved that a segment of San Antonio does love its French food.

For those who enjoy a meal every now and then at home, the number of gourmet groceries grew, thanks to the addition of Trader Joe’s in the Quarry Extension and a second Whole Foods on Blanco Road, north of Loop 1604. The food warehouse Gaucho Gourmet expanded its hours to the public to six days a week, while Groomer’s Seafood reeled in even more seafood lovers, especially when lobsters hit a mouthwatering low of $5.95 apiece.

Classic cocktails have made a comeback.

San Antonio lifted it spirits high during the year. Distilled spirits, that is. Mixed drinks, both shaken and stirred, got a huge boost from the first annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference. But it didn’t stop there. The Blue Box in the Pearl and the downtown Brooklynite joined the likes of Bar 1919 in the Blue Star Complex and the bar at NAO as havens for hand-crafted classic cocktails. A rye sour shaken with traditional egg white, a real martini made with gin and a pisco sour bright with freshly squeezed citrus were all incentives that made exploring these nightspots fun.

Expect beer’s popularity to soar in the new year. Beyond the excellent brews at the Granary, we await Alamo Beer’s ambitious plans for a downtown complex that will feature a restaurant as well as a brewing facility as well as the launch of Branchline Brewery.

What else can we expect? The Pearl will continue to expand with the openings of Jesse Perez’s Arcade Midtown Kitchen and an as-yet-unnamed venture from Steven McHugh as well as the move of Green Vegetarian Cuisine, all of which will add to the draw of the campus. Culinaria has announced plans for a community garden center offering food and agricultural education for the city. Andrew Weissman is taking over the former Liberty Bar site on Josephine Street.

With these strides forward on so many fronts, the city’s culinary scene should continue to offer some enticing new flavors for anyone with a healthy appetite.

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Laurent’s Places the Spotlight on Fresh Ingredients

Porcini Ravioli at Laurent’s Modern Cuisine

The restaurant world can at times seem like a tangled mess to the public, even to those of us who try to keep up with who is where. All too often, the game ends up being the culinary equivalent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” and the customer is the one who is left confused.

Michael Burkle carves cote de boeuf tableside.

Without going too much into the history of the situation, chef Laurent Rea, formerly of Olmos Park Bistro, has moved a few doors down the street to open Laurent’s Modern Cuisine in the space that once housed Shiraz. It’s somewhat smaller that his original space, and if our recent meal there is any indication, it’s one that suits the chef’s sensibilities well.

Little has been done to the interior, except for the addition of a floor-to-ceiling vase and greenery at the center to break the view. The spare gray walls give the space a modern feel in keeping with the cuisine, which carries the European tradition of using the freshest and best ingredients in simple yet memorable ways while showcasing a world of flavors and influences.

Right now, it is the place to see and be seen in the neighborhood, and on the night we visited, most everyone seemed to know someone else. Patrons mingled among the tables, chatting and generally relieved to be out of the heat.

When it’s time to settle down for dinner, you’ll be greeted with a multi-course prix fixe for $45, plus an additional $7 if you want dishes such as the lobster appetizer or the beef, which is for two and is, therefore, an additional $14. Our server told us that the lineup changes regularly, which sounded right considering the number of seasonal items offered.

Black tea-smoked duck

Our evening started with an amuse bouche of a warm pear soup with just the right amount of saffron and ginger to accent the flavor of the fruit without overpowering it. That approach would play out for much of the rest of the evening, such as in the appetizer dish of strips of tender black tea-smoked duck breast over breaded udon noodles and seasoned with a splash of salty soy vinaigrette; a sprig of fresh chervil with its delicate licorice flavor crowned the dish. My friend said her porcini ravioli, served with a Roquefort sauce, a touch of truffle and pomegranate seeds on top, were the best she had ever tasted in San Antonio; I found them to be quite good, but not good enough to compare with what I had recently in Italy, a fault I lay more on the porcini than the pasta.

The idea behind the Fredericksburg tomato salad was inspired. Instead of settling for the expected Caprese salad by pairing tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, Rea served a sublime quenelle of goat cheese sorbet that was cool, tangy and refreshing. The tiniest drizzle of sherry vinegar added a welcome sweet-sour component, and miniature croutons provided a little crunch. The only problem with both of our portions was that the tomatoes were practically flavorless and almost lacking entirely in acidity.

The interior of Laurent’s Modern Cuisine.

For our main course, we could have tried redfish, veal tenderloin or rabbit two ways, but we opted for the Cote de Boeuf for two, a 20-ounce rib steak that was carved tableside by our host for the evening, Rea’s partner, Michael Burkle. The steak was medium rare to order, so tender it could be cut with a spoon (something Burkle demonstrated without being too showy) and loaded with earthy meat juices.

On the side were a fine dish of sautéed spinach, a surprisingly ordinary truffled mac and cheese (if mac and cheese with truffle oil can ever be considered ordinary) and a black lentil dish redolent with spice.

For dessert, we chose the pleasant if slightly timid lime parfait, which was frozen and welcome on a hot Saturday night. The buttery peach tarte tatin with salted caramel ice cream on the side was more impressive, as, once again, the ingredients all served to showcase the fresh peaches.

The peach tarte tatin

Laurent’s is new, and we hope that the wine list evolves into something as engaging as the menu. As is, it is limited and not terribly interesting. A glass of Burgess Merlot, a last-minute choice after nixing the other options, was OK. It did have more acidity than the tomatoes, which is not saying a lot.

White dishware in various intriguing shapes appears to have been leftover from the two previous restaurants that inhabited the space, and it adds a playful touch to the presentation.

Laurent’s is very much a work in progress. But if our meal is any indication, it should be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Photos by John Griffin and Bonnie Walker

Laurent’s Modern Cuisine
4230 McCullough Ave.
(210) 822-6644
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday
Brunch: Sunday


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