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You’ll Want to Take a Bite Out of Two New Restaurants


Pork belly in a white chocolate mole at The Fruteria.

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.

The Fruteria’s Seis Chiles Margarita

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.

Grilled octopus at the Fruteria.

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.

Bite at night.

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.

Veal-stuffed mushrooms at Bite.

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.

The Frutería
1401 S. Flores St.
(210) 251-3104
Lunch/dinner: Tuesday-Saturday. Brunch: Sunday
www.thefruteria.com

Bite
1012 S. Presa St.
(210) 532-2551
Lunch: Thursday-Saturday; Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday
www.biterestaurantsa.com

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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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