Restaurants in American museums have made the transition from cafeteria-line operations to bastions of culinary art and high design. New York’s Museum of Modern Art alone has three venues, one of which, The Modern, received two stars from the New York Times. With the Valentine’s Day soft opening of Café des Artistes, San Antonio can at last claim at least one. And the setting, overlooking the Museum Reach of the river at the rear of the San Antonio Museum of Art, is second to none in SA.
Especially if you can appreciate the irony of the high-art institution’s view across the river to a tumble-down trailer house flanked by a Quonset hut and a tin shed. “All it needs is a clothesline and some flapping underwear,” quipped Damien Watel, for whom I’ve designed restaurants (although not this one). Watel, of Bistro Vatel and Ciao in Olmos Park and Stone Oak, is the culinary consultant for the café owned by his mother, Lucile Behey, and partially supplied out of her Bistro Bakery. Think of it as hyper-real art.
Concentrating on the menu helps, too; it’s simple but appealing, and a well-priced tuna Niçoise — with no shortage of quickly seared tuna — was, along with a glass of rosé, the perfect follow-up to a viewing of Culinary Delights, an enchanting photo show by chef turned photographer David Halliday, which closed last week. A seafood vol au vent is a reminder of Watel’s recently sold La Frite; there are sandwiches on the order of smoked salmon and avocado; and a quiche provençale can be had for a modest $6. So far, Watel is being circumspect about including any of his own artistic efforts at the new café. Perhaps the art of tabbouleh shrimp salad and grilled basil chicken will be enough. — Ron Bechtol