All over the country acclaimed chefs are shuttering temples of haute cuisine — or, at the very least, spinning off more casual kin in a kind of bet-hedging maneuver. The reason? Rising costs, a shrinking fine-dining demographic, the hot-today, old-hat-tomorrow Instagram and Twitter culture …
Andrew Weissman, no stranger to high-end culinary concepts, steadfastly denies that Signature, his spare-no-expense new restaurant on the flanks of La Cantera’s golf greens (the building itself a former golf “academy”), is a fine-dining establishment. There are no tablecloths on the gleaming, recycled-wood tabletops, he asserts; the prices are below those of most such restaurants (tellingly true when compared to high-end steakhouses); and, it should be noted that the sommelier (maybe we should just call him the wine guy) may be suited but he is also tieless. Oh, and there’s a burger, albeit Wagyu, on the menu.
We think Weissman may protest too much, but if one additional definition of fine dining is a willingness on the part of diners to sit at a table for three hours as we did, then let’s examine what happened. Expectations were naturally high, and they were only amplified by the king’s ransom in antique copper pots that served as a kind of proscenium into the open kitchen.
We start with the five-piece house-made charcuterie selection. Presented on an antique wooden paddle, it’s a marvel of composition and a textbook example of varying tastes and textures from salty to sweet and plush to rustic. The baguette is one of the best in town, the poached pear pairs beautifully with the familiar foie gras torchon … and if the paté de campagne seemed a tad under-seasoned, some exquisite pickled black trumpet mushrooms more than made up for it.
Another appealing-sounding starter, the five-spice quail cooked under a brick, arrived next but couldn’t quite compete. Yes, the quartered and flattened critter was exactly as advertised but little more — though the accompanying crunchy/citrusy salad was a well-calibrated companion. A hard-fried quail egg added visual interest but no meaningful taste component ...
Signature’s Caesar salad is plated in the kitchen, not showily tossed tableside — perhaps another conscious move away from old-line fine. But it’s no less excellent for all that. Some might object to the enthusiastic application of Spanish anchovies, but not me; my only request would be for just a little more of the crunchy parmesan tuile. The salad was followed by a grapefruit sorbet palate-cleanser in, ahem, classic, fine-dining tradition.
It’s probably demeaning on the face of it to think of any wine steward as a caddy equivalent, but bear with me — and the inevitable golfing analogy: if the caddy’s the guy who helps pick the clubs that make the shots, then why not? And in our case, though I proposed a wine (a delicate cabernet franc-based Chinon from France’s Loire Valley), Adam Spencer, perhaps familiar to some from The Sandbar, didn’t stop at confirming; his subsequent by-the-glass suggestions, including a lusty Numanthia Termes Toro, helped to make the meal and to bridge between such disparate plates as seafood gnocchi and rack of lamb.
The bowl of gnocchi was the only merely-at-par dish in an evening otherwise at full-on Master’s level. (In this, Weissman is aided by, among others, Laurent Rea, recently of The Fig Tree.) Yes, the broth was beautiful and the butter-poached lobster and clams impeccable, but the gnocchi themselves were less than levitating, and, for this diner, the bits of merguez sausage too small and crisp to contribute meaningfully. But the two cylinders of rosy flesh that dominated the plate of deboned rack of lamb with roasted tomato, onion, and mousseline potatoes, made for a minor master course in cookery. Assertively herb-coated (rosemary at the fore) and relentlessly rare, the racks reminded me why, when done properly, lamb is one of the world’s best excuses to be an omnivore.
Now, at the two and a half hour point, dessert: the sweet spot. We had cast admiring glances in the direction of Paris-Brest pastry and the artisanal cheese plate, but when push came to shove, only had room for a tarte au citron embellished by piped “combs” of torched meringue. It was perfect, as was the plate of mignardises (a beautiful macaron and more) that capped the evening — again in fine-dining fashion.
So where, overlooking the aberration that is gold-foil-decorated risotto, does this leave us in the fine dining debate? Weissman says that diner expectations may make him cave on the tablecloth question. But if he’s still not willing to call Signature fully-fine, then neither is it semi-fine. So, in good Texas fashion, let’s just call it mighty-fine and leave it at that.