Above: A furtively photographed bottle of 2004 Potel Les Epinotes, well-priced and served with grand style by Fabien Jacob, sommelier of Le Rêve in San Antonio.
A good friend of ours (a reputable wine writer and wine blogger of note) remarked to me the other day that “there is nothing good to eat in New York.” She exaggerated for effect, of course, and I think her bleak assessment was partly affected by the gray, drab late winter months, when the snow-lined shop windows of yesteryear’s Christmas have been usurped by the sludgy grime of Manhattan’s slow unthawing. However hypertrophic, her lament made me think about how the island of New York is a culinary utopia (in the etymologic sense of the word), a “non place,” a locus where restaurateurs attempt to recreate the food of other places: on the same block of E. 27th St., you can eat at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke (a southern BBQ joint) or Nicola Marzovilla’s I Trulli (featuring the cuisine of his native Apulia); around the corner myriad Indian restaurants dot Lexington in the high 20s and the “falafel nazi” (how’s that for an oxymoron?), Kalustyan, resides between 27th and 28th. I love all of these restaurants and recommend them highly but when you visit them, they take you somewhere else, beyond the island of New York.
Above: The “foie gras club” at Le Rêve. My low-light photography doesn’t do justice to this brioche-layered sandwich of foie gras, tomato confit, and mango. (I didn’t want the flash to encroach on the intimate mood of the low-lit room.)
One of the things that has struck me about living in the South is how people here are connected to local culinary tradition and ingredients, whether the gulf oysters I enjoyed the other night in New Orleans or the mudbugs of an impromptu crawfish boil last Sunday (not to mention home-smoked ribs on one of my first trips out here).
Above: “Hydroponic lettuces” at Le Rêve, garnished with candied Texas pecans. I’d never tasted a great pecan until I first came to Texas. Hydroponic lettuces? Not the sticky icky kind.
On Saturday night, Tracie B and I had dinner at Le Rêve in San Antonio, a restaurant called by many the “best in Texas,” a perennial winner of top accolades. Whenever a venue is so hyped, my inclination is to disbelieve (and, truth be told, how many times do Michelin stars disappoint?). But Le Rêve lived up to its name with every oneiric mise-en-place: a truly world-class dining experience, four-star service, a superb and well-manicured if small wine list with great pricing (wine directors, please take note), and genuinely inspired haute cuisine that didn’t need to lean on the crutch of affectation to transcend its place and time.
Chef and owner Andrew Weissman’s cooking is muscular but not angular, refined but not precious, honest but never apologetic. My main course was Texas-raised venison, blood rare loin and a rack of ribs so tender that no steak knife was required to slice the lean, flavorful meat. (Dulcis in fundo: I also loved Andrew’s signature raw honeycomb served with the cheese course.)
Andrew clearly belongs to the Admiral’s club of aggressive, extreme, highly competitive American chefs but the fact that he presides over a world-class cuisine in an unlikely locale seems to give him an unbridled freedom of verve and choice in his ingredients and creativity. It’s not because he’s off the beaten track. It’s because he beats his own drum and embraces the frontier spirit of a place where only a handful are so ambitious.
Above: Tracie B and I stayed the night and visited the Alamo the next day. I’ll remember the Alamo and I’ll remember Le Rêve.
San Antonio is the culinary destination that has impressed me the most since my arrival in Texas — more so than Houston and Dallas — and you might be surprised by what I’ve found there… stay tuned…