Is Bistro9 the restaurant chef Damien Watel has been working toward his entire professional life?
Discounting his short-lived restaurant ventures in Stone Oak, Bistro9 would seem to be the logical culmination of a culinary career that began with Chez Vatel Bistro — Watel’s Olmos Park dining institution — in 1999.
“There was a small market for French [when I arrived], and it’s literally dying off now. It’s a new ballgame, and I realize I’m a dinosaur,” Watel said, following the original bistro’s closure in 2017. A new generation of diners, he added, requires more “imagination, a more casual and inclusive approach to French dining, one that allows people to show up in shorts and enjoy a modern app like fried shrimp or classic foie gras at the bar.”
I haven’t yet seen anybody in shorts approach the bar at Bistro9, the smartly renovated space that was formerly L’Etoile, but that may change as summer heats up. There’s no fried shrimp, but there is a little foie gras in pâté form. Working alongside chef Lisa Astorga-Watel, his wife, Watel’s menu doesn’t duplicate the one found at the old bistro, but it pays a respectful homage. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
For those feeling nostalgic, Bistro9 has the prix fixe menu — at $38, one of the city’s best deals in fine dining — with three courses: onion soup, Bibb salad or escargots to start; steak frites, roasted chicken breast or sautéed flounder as the centerpiece; and crème brulée or chocolate mousse as a finale. Add a glass of wine, and you’re outta there for $50 before tax and tip. My steak was cooked a perfect medium rare — though served a little cool and with a back-to-the-’80s green peppercorn sauce — along with a more-than-serviceable Latour Bourgogne and fries that McDonald’s would kill to copy.
Instead of an appetizer, a cocktail from the new bar menu proved a better match. You needn’t know the backstory for the 26th’s Tea — an arcane reference to President Teddy Roosevelt — to appreciate the quality of the cocktail. The iced-tea lookalike is made with bourbon, mezcal, fernet and lemon — all coming together to deliver more of a kick than any tea — and a kick was needed to accompany the escargots that the kitchen has down pat. Served piping hot with crackly crumbs on top, the garlicky sextet of snails perfectly captures the essence of a classic French bistro, no wild invention required.
Bistro9’s kitchen knows its way around simple vegetable preparation too. But, here, a little more imagination would be welcome. Though the vegetable selection may vary each night, it doesn’t appear to change between entrées, and I’m just not convinced what pairs well with Dover sole meuniére works with pork loin scallopini or with truffled mushroom and pasta. I have no problem recommending the principal proteins, however. There’s nobody in town who does fish better than Watel, and it’s an art to turn a single slice of pork into a plate both rewarding and unchallenging. Sometimes you just want familiar flavors well done.
It doesn’t take imagination to offer liver and onions as a special at a small restaurant, but it does take a certain understanding to pull it off. A friend who hadn’t had the dish in years was thrilled at the chefs’ execution, aided and abetted by a tangled confit of red onions served with the familiar country pâté. Big spenders might elect to go for the pricier Perfect Storm medley of lobster, king crab, oysters and shrimp at $75. But if we’ve learned anything from Watel, it’s that sticking to simple tends to pay off.
Elegance is also found in the simplicity of the well-torched crème brûlée on the prix fixe menu, which I much preferred to the apple tart, a case of creativity run rampant. This was an under-cooked orb of apple served on a crumble-like “crust” topped with ice cream. A cage of spun sugar cradled fresh fruit and caramel drizzles. It looked good for a hot minute before collapsing under its own inventiveness. This is not to diss the creativity but to suggest that, for now, you order the time-tested and always ethereal ile flottante instead.
6106 Broadway, (210) 245-8156, Bistr09.com
Escargots, country pâté, salmon and leek tarte, steak frites, Dover sole, pork loin scallopini, crème brulée, ile flottante
Bistro9 is a classic French bistro created by chefs Damien Watel and Lisa Astorga-Watel that offers expertly prepared classics, from liver and onions (when available) to lobster risotto, bouillabaisse, Dover sole and steak frites. Crème brulée and ile flottante are among the desserts.
So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.