Texans know that San Antonio is the place in Texas where we go to play. However, while it has a firm hold on the family market, what with Sea World, Six Flags and the River Walk, Texans with gourmet pretensions have traditionally gone out of state to regional favorites like Santa Fe or New Orleans, or further afield to San Francisco or New York.
Could I, I challenged myself, construct a gourmet tour of San Antonio that while not, for example, having the same ethnic weighting as in the Creole and Cajun influences in New Orleans, or the same Sonoran desert sensibilities as Santa Fe, nonetheless stand up to those heavyweights in its own unique way? Turns out, it was a piece of cake.
I am defining ‘gourmet’ broadly as an ideal reflecting the finest in food and drink. So it may not be a meal, but rather a visit to a winery, market, brewery or distillery, for example. I am also assuming access to a car, so that you take advantage of San Antonio’s location at the foot of the Texas Hill Country.
The biggest part of this suggested weekend tour are the omissions. I omit the old favorites like Biga on The Banks and celebrity chef John Besh’s Luke. Also, from the more esoteric end of the spectrum the bizarre Van’s Pan Asian dive where the (fairly pedestrian) entrées are accompanied by a wine list that includes Ridge Montibello. Also, on one of our research trips we were impressed with Ácenar, an edgy Mexican restaurant (order from the House Specialties section of the menu).
There is also one of the best steakhouses in Texas, Bohanan’s. Innovator and perfectionist chef/owner Mark Bohanan graduated number one in his class at the Culinary Institute of America after having first earned a business degree at Texas A&M University. But that didn’t make him too proud to strip the floors himself when he purchased the decaying building that eventually became his opulent steakhouse. Not content to rest on his laurels, in 2011 he hired a whole team from New York cocktail bar Milk and Honey to consult on his cocktail menu. He moved them to San Antonio and some of them stayed (on one of the visits preparing this article, one of the bartenders looked at me with a gaze of awe on his face and told me “I have a garden here”).
Bohanan played a role in stoking the centrifugal expansion in the city’s cocktail scene. There are too many good cocktail bars to document here, and the city hosts an annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference.
We also omitted the distillers popping up around town and closeby in the Hill Country. Cinco vodka is well-established and Rebecca Creek Distillery is a newcomer. They are both in the city limits. The latter makes both Enchanted Rock Vodka and Rebecca Creek Whiskey.
All of these are recommended, but it is a very personal choice, and you will winnow the field down your way. We will make our tour a long weekend, beginning on Friday afternoon and finishing late Monday afternoon. Here is mine…
2pm Friday: We took U.S. 281 down from north Texas (such a contrast from the sterility of I-35). Now I accelerate west out of Johnson City on U.S. 290. This is the closest thing that Texas has to Napa Valley’s Hwy. 29 and people have actually taken to calling it the Texas Wine Trail. There are over a dozen wineries along the stretch between Johnson City and Fredricksberg. The best, as a visitor attraction and in making high-quality wine from Texas grapes, are Pedernales Cellars, Inwood Estate Vineyards and 4.0 Cellars, We have been to all of them so this time we seek out Lewis Wines, a three year old startup. No sign at the gate (yet), just a barrel. Following instructions to “turn left right after the propane tanks” we turn in and drive down a lane to the corrugated winery building. The spectacular tasting room hewn from Hill Country stone is still in the concept stage. After sampling over a dozen wines with winemaker Duncan McNabb, including barrel samples, I come away not only impressed with their winemaking, but also thinking that maybe the flagship Portuguese grape variety Touriga Nacionale, has a promising future in Texas.
6pm Friday: Easy journey from Johnson City down to San Antonio – except for the last five miles. Friday night traffic is intense! We pull up to the gatehouse at The Westin La Cantera Hill Country Resort. After checking our reservation the gate attendant waves us through and we climb a bending road, past a golf course and woodland, to the main resort building for check-in. The elevation rises all the while, yielding a spectacular southern vista down to San Antonio.
7:30pm Friday: Francesca’s at Sunset is the flagship restaurant at Westin La Cantera. It sits atop a canyon that is mapped out with part of the resort golf course. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide guests with panoramic views to the other side – which would be a dramatic Hill Country vista but for ongoing construction on luxury homes on the opposite summit. In about a year this will be complete and likely the kind of people who purchase these expansive properties want trees as much as La Cantera’s view does, so problem solved. Even with this temporary aberration, the sun setting in the distance is a spectacular way to enjoy dinner.
Executive Chef Dirk Troop trained at the Culinary Institute of America and gained professional experience in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica. Executive Sous Chef Vincent Carvalho was born and worked in the Basque region in Europe before moving to Miami and, from there, La Cantera. They are convinced that even an account as large as La Cantera can source locally, and have worked with farmers, ranchers and fishermen off the Gulf coast to craft menus that exhibit locality informed by global culinary experience.
A chef’s tasting menu is the best way to appreciate the most popular dishes. Suitably for a Hill Country visit, we start with quail with an orange zest and microgreen garnish, swiss chard and Grand Marnier orange sauce all atop a smear of spinach purée. Perhaps the most intriguing object on the plate is a red tear-shaped orb. That is a sweet Peruvian pepper and is apparently a chef’s favorite right now.
In pork belly confit a slab of succulent pork belly rests on a slice of eggplant, all undershored by a green tomato beurre blanc and garnished with fresh mixed greens and those sweet Peruvian peppers. The eggplant is was a clever idea, providing a tartness that contrasts with the sweetness of the oozing pork fat.
Among red meats is sliced venison loin on a tomato mushroom ragout with a side of asparagus, all topped with tomato jam. The components feature earthy, sweet and tart notes in just the right amounts to evoke the palate.
A watermelon and pear shooter (with a touch of jalapeño to add bite) is an intermezzo before the next course of chili-dusted filet mignon served on a bed of mashed potatoes. The plate is ringed with a red wine pecan demi, with broccolini on the side, and is topped with a gulf shrimp sprinkled with a horseradish tomato sauce. Clearly, chef’s personal take on surf and turf.
A fine compliment to Troop and Carvalho’s food is the extensive wine list which has what I can safely say is the largest selection of Texas wines at any restaurant that I have been to in Texas — 27 different wines by my count. Resort sommelier Steven Krueger has chosen the producers carefully and clearly knows his Texas wine industry.
By the time you settle in to your dessert of pear compote and pear sorbet with rosemary jam the sun has slipped beneath the skyline and it is time to retire for the evening.
9:00am Saturday: We drive towards downtown from the Westin La Cantera to the Southtown Farmers and Ranchers Market. This is the newest of San Antonio’s farmers markets but it appears to be already putting down roots in the community. Its strength is its leadership, having been founded by David Lent and Heather Hunter, the founders of San Antonio’s most successful farmers market (the Sunday The Quarry Farmers and Ranchers Market, which we will visit tomorrow). It is situated in a residential area where there is, perhaps surprisingly, no grocery store. The location that Lent and Hunter chose is intrinsically interesting, being located right next to the San Antonio River, with ample parking and access from the River Walk which goes north to downtown. The area is called the Blue Star Arts Complex and incorporates the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, the Blue Star Brewing Company (a craft brewer) and some restaurants and shops. Busy Probandt Street bounds the area on one side, and the river bounds it on the other. Looking from the market across the river, one can see some of the finer older homes in town. The area is only two-thirds of a mile from the downtown (we walked to it from downtown on one of our visits) but there are lots of tall trees and grassy spaces giving this area an established character of its own.
We started with a morning coffee at Halcyon where the colossal cappuccino was one of the best cups I had all weekend. By chance, we arrived just after the doors opened and walked straight to the counter. When we left, after finishing our coffee, there was a line out the door.
Vendors include a butcher making hamburger patties with grass-fed beef. A cheesemaker, a pioneer in the take home meal market for Indian food, an organic tamale maker, a chocolate maker, a café specializing in crêpes, a butcher of soy free, non GMO chickens and their eggs and a fresh produce vendor.
The market just joined Facebook in May but already seems to be drawing a regular crowd. Lively Blue Star Brewing Company provides a pub-style eatery, brewery tours and tastings. We can’t linger as we have to drive 23 miles to Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard, an Olive farm which holds its once weekly guided tour at 11am on Saturday’s. Southtown’s location south of downtown makes it a cinch to jump on I-37 and arrive at the orchard with minutes to spare.
11:00am Saturday: Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard has a gift shop that sells not just estate grown olive oil and cosmetics made from olive oil but whole potted olive trees to plant at home. The tour takes us through the olive groves on foot during which owner and founder Saundra Copeland Winokur describes the multiple varieties of olives among the 11,000 trees and tells which varieties do best in Texas. Her 15 years of experience comes through very clearly in her talk. Did you know that it takes 80-100LB of olives to make one gallon of olive oil? That’s a bathtub full!
We could stay for lunch at Sandy Oaks and it looks inviting. However we must leave and drive back, north of downtown San Antonio, to the most exciting new restaurant, residential and entertainment development in the city. The old 1883 Pearl Brewery, shut down in 2001, is being redeveloped from the ground up with what they claim is already the largest farmers market in the city, nine restaurants, the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio campus, twelve retailers, 500 residents on the property (owners and renters) and 2,500 within walking distance. The pièce de résistance is the old brewery building itself. This magnificent Victorian structure is being totally gutted ready for a 2014 re-opening as a boutique hotel to be managed by Kimpton.
1pm Saturday: At Pearl we have a lunch appointment at Arcade Midtown Kitchen which is not just an eye-catching web site (although it is that). The food is New American in direction but with Latin influences. The lunch menu is designed for people on the go and priced around $10 with soups, salads, a lobster taco and a range of flatbreads. The dinner menu is where the kitchen stretches itself, venturing into Latin seasoned proteins accompanied by vegetable preparations more substantial and involved than just cooked from raw. Think of grilled ribeye with jalapeño-lime, roasted cauliflower and ‘Pee Wee’ potato, grilled tomato and smoked jalapeño butter ($27) or ancho chile salmon with mango mojo yukon potato shrimp hash, Spanish chorizo and chimichurri ($21).
This place has a classiness to the food and modern upscale decor built around mainly dark wood and polished metal. The cocktail menu is a major theme and the bar it is popular with a young, professional crowd.
6pm Saturday: The evening dinner is at Saveurs 209 and could not be staged more differently than lunch. Instead of the hip location, we head down to the lower end of Broadway, four stout blocks and farther in character from the hustle bustle of the popular River Walk. Instead of a high six-to-seven-figure budget for decor, the walls are painted an austere and serious white. Instead of culinary eclecticism, there is disciplined French technique.
And so there should be. The chef, Caitline Nykiels, went to culinary school in Paris and then worked in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in France. Her father, Sylvain, got his degree in hospitality management but found himself unable to get a job in that field in France. He became a limousine driver and one of his clients, a wealthy American who hired him for extended periods when in France, suggested he start his own limo company. That eventually led to him moving to the United States and falling in love with San Antonio. He and his wife opened Saveurs 209 last year with their daughter as chef.
The dishes are unlike anywhere else in town. Call them modern French, informed by classical French technique. For example, a starter of daïkon radish ravioli with crab and reduced grapefruit juice ($13) is a sensuous combination of brininess in the crab meat and vegetable in the raviole. Two of them served side-by-side on a black eggshell finished plate are even visually evocative.
Calamarata pasta, tomato concassé and parmesan crumble ($12) is another surreal blend of flavors, all assembled in an attractive package.
Among the very French dessert list, the strawberry and vanilla mille feuille, strawberry sorbet ($10) was a satisfying choice as was the homemade ice cream.
Check out the wine list here, which features some interesting and unusual French selections, or let Sylvain tell you about his love of burgundies.
The small and unpretentious Saveurs 209 was perhaps the most charming restaurant we found in San Antonio recently. Possibly an unpretentious successor to Le Rêve. Its integrity of ingredients, culinary concept and preparation of the cuisine make it worthy of success.
9am Sunday: We visit the mother of all San Antonio markets, the Quarry Farmers and Ranchers Market. It takes place in a parking lot of the Quarry Market south of La Cantera and north of downtown. It is a reference point for anyone thinking of setting up a farmers market in their town. First, it is producers only. Second, vendors who don’t live up to the rigorous disclosure standards are summarily ousted (it has happened). Third, the organizers look for long-term relationships. Finally, the mission statement is put down in writing and publicized on the web site. Founders Heather Hunter and David Lent created the market because they couldn’t find the kind of market that they liked to shop at. They are there every Sunday and totally approachable (Heather will likely be selling her Cowgirl Granola). That overworked word curated is appropriate when applied to the choice of vendors here. One thing I would like to see is a relaxation of the ‘no alcohol’ policy under which the market has to operate. This stops any tastings of local wines and spirits (something permitted at Pearl saturday market).
2 pm Sunday: No tour of San Antonio is complete without a walk around the River Walk. Each year, the area just off the River Walk seems to get more and more fully rented. Fewer empty shopfronts. More residential development as well. Maybe, finally, San Antonio is being discovered for the value and gem that it is.
6pm Sunday: Early dinner at Ostra, the seafood restaurant at the Mokara Hotel and Spa right on the River Walk. This hotel has won countless awards and its flagship restaurant, Ostra, is at ground level, which lets you take a seat on the patio, just yards from the river. We choose a table just inside, but looking out. The cuisine is prepared and served in an opulent and stylish manner. We start with ahi tuna tacos draped with wasabi sauce dressed with micro greens, seaweed and lime slices.
Next was tuna tartar. Made from ahi tuna, cucumber, avocado, tomato, ponzu sauce on a miniature wonton shell and topped with wasabi crème fraîche.
An imaginative interpretation of crab Louie uses a Belgian endive as the container for juicy blue crab, radish, asparagus, pickled serrano and classic louie sauce.
Likewise, the ceviche is a house interpretation of a classic based around local seafood. There is a Texas redfish core mixed with aji pepper sauce, lime and cilantro, all served ‘tostada style’, i.e. on top of a (locally made) corn tortilla.
Chef John Brand knows the flavors that hit the hot buttons and gives his dishes arresting visual design. Ostra is a seafood restaurant that stands second to none and demands a visit from the serious gourmet traveller.
08:30am Monday: The day of our departure, and there is only one way to do breakfast. Vietnamese in the (at that time) unopened Tuk Tuk Tap Room, three blocks from Pearl, which bills itself as ‘Asian Street Fare & Craft Beer’. This unlikely combination comes to you from the deranged minds of David Gilbert and Steve Newman. Gilbert worked at the Michelin-starred Vermeer in Amsterdam, the Ritz-Carlton chain, was nominated for a James Beard award and worked for Stephan Pyles as executive chef at Sustenio at The Eilan in San Antonio (as well as writing a book). Craft beer expert ‘Beard’ Steve Newman is responsible for the more than 50 beers on tap at Tuk Tuk after a long career in which he basically introduced San Antonio to craft beer.
Gilbert spent several months travelling through and working in Asia and that was where he learned to really cook the food. Oddly, the asian food-craft beer combination really works and I suspect it will be copied by others. Tuk Tuk is now open and certainly worth a visit.
09:30am Monday: Coffee. Courtesy of Brown Coffee Company. The modest coffee bar one block down from Tuk Tuk in the ground floor of a partly-leased new apartment complex almost drags the coffee purist in from the street. The provenance of every bean is documented and the preparation is meticulous. If you take your coffee seriously, this place is worth a stop.
10:00am Monday. Bakery Lorraine, just round the corner from Brown Coffee Company, is not just a bakery, it is a bakery founded by emigrées of Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s bistro. The items on the limited bakery menu are all stellar quality but Bakery Lorraine is best known for its macaroons (they are also a regular at the Quarry Market on Sundays).
Are we out of gourmet things to do? No, just out of time. The omissions referred to on the first page are an indication how far San Antonio has come as a gourmet destination. One just can’t take it all in over one extended weekend. One must return.
Disclaimer: Accommodations and some restaurant meals paid for by the providers.