In the last few years, San Antonio has seen an exponential rise in the number of quality restaurant offerings, several of them from native son Andrew Weissman. The award-winning chef, restaurateur, and culinary mentor, also a devoted husband, and father to three children under the age of six — will soon be adding two new venues to his portfolio and the growing list of choices for San Antonio's culinary set. His long-awaited outdoor informal spot, The Luxury, located next to San Antonio
Museum of Art at the corner of Jones and Ave. B, has finally made it past the last stumbling blocks (both personal and bureaucratic) to secure the necessary permits, inspections, and other details that have been holding up the venture for over two years.
In November, Weissman purchased the building owned and operated by Boehler's — formerly occupied by the Liberty Bar — to open Minnie's Tavern, where the menu will focus on the classics of French brasserie cooking, with fine beer and wine on tap.
We're discussing these two new ventures (with a third in the works) over an excellent cappuccino, after the lunch rush has cleared at his successful Osteria Il Sogno at the Pearl. He's just checked the status of things at his seafood restaurant, The Sandbar, taken a quick phone call from his wife, and checked his e-mail one last time before focusing his attention entirely on the conversation at hand. Highly energetic and competitive by nature, Weissman says, "I used to be interested in all the accolades and awards. Now I'm much more interested in spending time with my wife and kids."
To balance the near-manic energy level it takes to keep tabs on his kitchens and business operations, Weissman is an avid fitness fanatic and yoga practitioner. He states in a friendly but unequivocal tone that, "All my staff knows to not call me with anything work related on Sundays," because that's his family day, and his goal in the coming year or two is to find at least one more day each week to spend with his wife, Maureen, and their young children. That's a tall order for any parent in today's hectic world, much less for a man neck-deep in the notoriously stressful, fickle, and all-consuming restaurant business.
Why, then, would he open not one, but two (and maybe three) new restaurants? Recognizing the inherent contradiction, he smiles and shakes his head, as if to say in jovial self-defense, "Yeah, I know it's crazy, but it's all part of a bigger, long-term plan…" Yet the same intensity and focus that allows him to keep the egos, processes, and details of running the fast-paced chaos of a high-end restaurant kitchen under control and focused on the end-product seems to keep his personal life running with the same passion, commitment, and clarity of purpose. To understand his logic, he says, you have go back to the beginning.
His local "empire" started with the legendary Le Rêve, an establishment featuring such exquisite food, fine service, and Weissman's personal attention to every detail that people were flying in from all over the country just to have dinner. Opened in 1998, Le Rêve was generally considered the best French haute-cuisine restaurant in town, probably the state, and among the best in the nation, receiving mention in Gourmet and the New York Times. Expensive and exclusive — it could take weeks to get a table — dinner at Le Rêve was an event. Weissman limited the number of tables to accommodate the level of concentration needed to prepare the kind of meals he was serving, and the exclusivity bolstered the mystique. Weissman was (and still is) notoriously exacting in his expectations of suppliers, his staff, and even his clientele: dinner could take hours by the time each course was meticulously prepared, exquisitely plated, and properly served, and Weissman's passion for the subtleties of French culinary tradition was such that he frequently came out to visit with customers about the finer details of the dishes he was preparing for them. For those in tune with the aesthetic, it was a gratifying meeting of minds. For those unfamiliar with it, it was a revelation.
Meanwhile, he opened the Sandbar Fish House & Market, another relatively small, up-scale venue in the same building as Le Rêve, occupying the tandem street level spaces at the Exchange Building on E. Pecan. A little less exclusive, the Sandbar specialized in high-quality seafood: multiple varieties of in-season oysters, fabulous seafood bisques and chowders, and a focus on the freshest ingredients possible. Combining his pantries, Weissman could maintain his high culinary standards for both casual dining and for exclusive, long, lingering evening meals. The plan worked for close to 11 years: Le Rêve was unparalleled, and the Sandbar was a successful consolation for those who couldn't afford or get with the heightened aesthetic principles of French haute-cuisine. "I didn't close Le Rêve for financial reasons," says Weissman. Both restaurants were doing well. He and Maureen, who ran the front-end operations, were doing what they loved, and doing it together. It did, however, require all of their collective time and energy.
Regarding the success of Le Rêve, Weissman says they had "created a monster." To maintain that level of excellence — and to justify the expense of the fine dining experience — required more than a full-time commitment. With two restaurants and the birth of their first child, Weissman was torn between his obsessive attention to culinary detail and commitment to his family. The Weissman's served their last meal at Le Rêve in October of 2009. Ultimately, it came down to practicality: "If you're paying, essentially, $200-$300 for a meal based on my skills and reputation, I need to be the one in the kitchen preparing the food. It just became unsustainable."
So Le Rêve closed, the Sandbar was going strong, and the Weissmans had a growing family. Meanwhile, Chef Weissman developed Big'z Burger Joint and Sip Espresso & Coffee Bar — two venues that prove good food need not be expensive or complicated. Says Weissman, "I'm in love with concepts that fill a hole in the market," and along came an invitation to open something at the Pearl. Weissman knows a good thing when he sees it and, like his more recent move to acquire the historic Boehler's building, some opportunities you just can't pass up. Originally conceived as more of a traditional Italian coffee bar, the concept for Il Sogno ultimately developed into an upscale homage to the osterie and trattorie of Italy, serving classic Italian fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Weissman says that when he closed Le Rêve, the idea was to open a place that would be a little more low-key and higher volume.
"French food was always such an education," he said. "People are more familiar and comfortable with Italian food somehow; almost everybody has some experience or connection with it."
With the immediate success of Il Sogno, Weissman moved Sandbar to the Pearl, where he could more readily keep tabs on both places.
The success of all his restaurants, from Le Rêve to Sip and Big'z, attests to one of Weissman's key strengths: a love of good food, no matter how humble or exalted. In Weissman's view, there are two schools of food philosophy, a sort of continuum between the more traditional, "tried and true" school based on the tenets of any given cuisine, and the more extreme school of invention, like elaborate fusion cuisines, or molecular gastronomy, where the emphasis is on experimentation and abstract philosophy. Weissman is decidedly in the more traditional camp, though he's by no means bound by it. All his menus show traces of nouvelle experimentation, but he's just as likely to launch into food reveries from his wife's native Costa Rica, or Mexico where he initially pursued a career in journalism, or the glory of bitter greens in rural Europe, or an exquisite pickle at a local Indian restaurant. Like most great chefs, Weissman is a huge fan of world cuisine and gets as excited about street food as he does about the finest truffles or sophisticated cooking procedures. Unlike most, he's willing to stretch his talents — and personal energy — over a range of venues.
The Luxury will illustrate his passion for inventive simplicity. The idea was to take an undeveloped corner lot and create a low-key outdoor gathering place catering to families, cyclists, and pedestrians along the new River Walk extension. Featuring inexpensive, healthy, fresh fare — a suite of international sandwiches, and salads — in a funky, enviro-friendly package, the playground and landscaping make use of cedar mulch from a family ranch; native plants create shade and a barrier to the street, and use reclaimed water from a common-sense water-catchment system. The sustainability motif is underscored by the use of re-purposed cargo containers for the necessary structures: a sort of riff on the food-truck craze, but more simply, a way to utilize existing materials in a novel and productive way.
This simple concept-driven lunch venue has taken longer to get off the ground than many of Weissman's more formal restaurants. Despite the City's moves to embrace the notion of sustainable practices, part of the hold-up has been the process of fitting the practicalities and rhetoric of sustainability to the existing codes, and stretching them outside the made-to-order box of conventional design and usage. Although he hesitates to publicly announce an opening date after several false-starts, and admitting much of the delay was his own doing, Weissman is double-staffed at the Sandbar with his crew for The Luxury, and states emphatically, "Believe me, I want it to open more than anyone!" Hopefully, the fact that he's cleared some of the practical and conceptual barriers for repurposed, sustainable development will make it a little easier for others to follow suit.
All in all, Weissman is proud of what he's accomplished, what the chefs and staff under him have accomplished, and that San Antonio seems to be coming of age as a fine dining town —adding to its reputation for top-notch Tex-Mex.
"It's come a long way from when I first moved back here in 1997," he says. "Especially in the last three years or so — I think people are really starting to appreciate the quality of life here." He notes that the cost of living, and the cost of running a successful restaurant, is much more affordable here than in major markets like San Francisco or New York. Still, there's always the specter of sustainability.
"I'm loving it, but I'm still always concerned when restaurants open in such high volume," he says. "You have to wonder how many can continue to open and stay open." Yet despite his concerns, Weissman feels confident that the city has made a leap forward.
"I like the fact that there are now restaurant clusters," he says, referencing the increasing concentration of restaurants in and around the Pearl, which Weissman thinks keeps the competition and quality high and, ultimately, gives people a wider range of dining experiences. This, of course, is the important thing for developing a discerning palate for the city.
"I do miss French cooking, though," says Weissman, who considers French cuisine — with the exception of Middle Eastern and Asian traditions — one of the most fundamental in terms of understanding the logic of food, cooking procedures, and what Weissman refers to as "the Art of the Table." With that in mind, Minnie's Tavern will allow him to get back to some of the most fundamental and gratifying French food, without the haute-cuisine fuss. While Minnie's won't be the least expensive place in town, Weissman plans to serve traditional, exquisite, brasserie staples in the reasonable $18-$25 range, complemented by a bar serving fine wines and craft beers.
It was the iconic building, too, that prompted Weissman's decision to purchase the property and launch another venture. Like many local restaurateurs, Weissman had his eye on the property as soon as the Liberty Bar moved to Southtown. Established as a food and drink establishment in 1890 by Fritz Boehler, former brewmaster at what would become the Pearl Brewery, the building has remained in the family ever since.
"I had always told them if they ever decided to sell, I'd be interested," Weissman says, "but so were a lot of other people in town." Perhaps his San Antonio roots, his commitment to the trade, and his firmly established presence at the Pearl made it seem almost like keeping it in the family. Weissman will keep the general look and feel of the place intact, but the fact that it has been in almost continuous operation for over a century has resulted in a lot of deferred maintenance. He's putting energy into refinishing floors, taking care of basic repairs and refurbishments, and (finally!) a major overhaul of the (notoriously awful) bathrooms.
But wait, there's more: once Minnie's is up and running, Weissman plans to pull another rabbit out of his chef's toque. The small building out back will eventually open as the Rye House, a small craft whiskey bar offering high-quality charcuterie plates and a world-class cheese program. Taking advantage of the increasing number of wonderful, artisanal cheeses now available, Weissman wants to create an access point.
"I'm not talking 5-6 cheeses," Weissman says. "My fantasy is to have like 20 or 30." They won't be cheap, of course, but he's hoping to make it a hallmark of the Rye House's craft offerings. And if he can get away with it, the only light in the seating area will be candlelight, a motif that brings us full-circle to one of the hallmarks of Le Rêve's atmospheric mythos, with a slightly earthier tone.
So how does all this jive with a man trying to make more time for his private life, a man who doesn't want to miss out on his children's formative years? While his passion has always been about the food, he also has a practical streak.
"I like cooking way more than running the business," he says, "but in the next five years or so, I see myself becoming more of a restaurateur than a full-time chef." It seems unlikely that Weissman will truly stay out of the kitchen, but he does seem to be channeling more of his creativity into developing interesting concepts and mentoring a new generation of chefs and personnel that will, no doubt, contribute to the overall diversity and sustainability of the San Antonio restaurant ecology.
"I've thought about other things that might be less intensive," he says of his desire for more personal time, "but really, this is what I know. It's what I do."
Weissman's characteristic intensity, focus, and seemingly limitless energy seem to be holding, but he's also aware of how fleeting it can all be.
"My yoga instructor really helped me understand that life is just a finite number of breaths, and you have to use them wisely," he says. For all the challenges of running a successful restaurant empire, Weissman's main struggle seems to be balancing his impulse to sustain a diverse, deep, and indelibly creative mark on the local culinary scene with maintaining a secure, loving, and engaged presence for his family. If his current track record is any indication, both his restaurants and his children are in very deft hands.