|Best of '06||FOOD – part 2|
Best New Restaurant
555 Bitters (at Artisans Alley), 496-0555
|Chef and restaurateur Jason Dady opened Bin 555, his second venture, with his brother, Jake, in Artisans Alley on Bitters. Pictured here, a dish of grilled Texas Bob White Quail with pancetta, baby arugula, and sherry vinaigrette.|
But we have risen to the challenge by bestowing the laurels on Bin 555, Jason Dady’s sophomore effort behind Artisan’s Alley on Bitters. For first-timers, the process of finding the place, hidden away behind Alley’s cluster of shops, may actually stimulate the appetite (or arouse one’s ire). If not, the tapas-style menu of small plates — “freddo,” “cotto,” and “wood oven” — should get the glands going. Dady is particularly proud of his Italian wood oven, and the pizzas that emerge from it do him proud in return. The grilled asparagus topped with a fried, organic egg, the seared diver sea scallop with an orange-fennel nage, and the lamb merguez should also be tried. True, the pulled-pork-shoulder “pupusa” failed to please, but the wood-oven-fired mussels were spectacular. “Grande Piastra,” or big plate(s), are hard-pressed to deliver bigger flavor than their smaller siblings. That said, Dady’s Bin 555 fare may be simpler than what is offered at The Lodge, his first food foray, but it’s here that his signature flavors come through most tellingly in dishes such as the grilled Tuscan-style ribeye.
We herewith put in a plea for more wines by the glass, but otherwise find the selection up to the task of tapas pairing. The 55 wines for $55 list is a cute touch, too, but no matter how attractive the deals, $55 is still substantial, and I found equally good buys for less. Note that small plates and single glasses of wine can add up quickly, however, turning what seems like a modest meal into a major expenditure. You are warned but not discouraged.
3123 Broadway Street, 828-2322
|The subtle orange flavor and spongy texture of W.D. Deli’s orange creamsicle cake, above, is lovely, but its cream-cheese frosting could make a stale lump of bread taste like Marie Antoinette’s dessert.|
One of my all-time favorite cakes is one I never would have anticipated falling in love with. Isn’t that the way with love? I find myself daydreaming about it, too, which if you think about it, is kind of sweet. The cake for which I long is none other than the Orange Creamsicle Cake at W.D. Deli, 3123 Broadway.
I never was a fan of the Popsicle Company’s original Creamsicle. It just seemed odd to pair the icy hardness of a Popsicle with the soft ice cream center. Besides, it was fruity and I prefer chocolate.
But, one bite of Creamsicle Cake had this die-hard chocaholic crying, “More!” Imagine this: a light, fluffy, subtly flavored orange cake that is sponge-like in texture and surrounded in generously applied white frosting. Not that icky frosting we all hated as kids, but that smooth, cream-cheesy frosting that can have even the most prudish of us seductively licking our forks in an attempt to savor every morsel.
For a mere couple of bucks, you can enjoy the ultimate lunchtime finale: a huge slab of this heaven-sent cake. And if the idea of devouring just one slice seems cruel and unusual punishment, then please sit down for this: If you plan ahead, you can order an entire cake to take home.
Best restaurant over 20 years old
Best wine guys
Phillipe Placé of Las Canarias
112 College St., 518-1063
Mike Domenicali, jr. of Saglimbeni Fine Wines
638 West Rhapsody, 349-5149
|Best Wine Guy Phillipe Placé, pictured here in Las Canarias’ bar, says his mother started him on an early path, allowing him a pinky dipped in Champagne as a babe.|
Domenicali’s first job in the business was at the late and lamented Fine Spirits on Austin Highway, the independent outlet that also served as a forum for guru Don White. Domenicali admits he had only seriously started drinking wine a couple years earlier, in his mid-20s, and that his real inspiration for choosing booze as a career was Bond. James Bond.
After Fine Spirits closed, Domenicali moved to SeaZar’s on North New Braunfels and eventually took over the store — preparation for his current position at Saglimbeni Fine Wines, where he is liquor manager, buyer, wine consultant, newsletter author, and webmaster. “People don’t see him coming,” says owner Joe Saglimbeni, “but he really knows his stuff.”
At Saglimbeni, one of the city’s few remaining independent wine and spirits stores, Domenicali keeps his wine chops in shape by reading trade publications (he eschews Wine Spectator for Decanter and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate). Meeting and tasting with winery owners gives him that “been-there” feeling, and frequent brown-bag tastings with “a bunch of guys in the industry” keep them all honest. Bagging the wine prevents pre-conceived prejudices, says Domenicali, and though the results can often be humbling, “it’s a great learning experience.”
When asked for recommendations at the store, he will usually start with a price limit, but he doesn’t shy from suggesting less-expensive wines if he feels they fit the profile established by a few more questions such as country preferences and, simply, “What do you like to drink?”
“Wine is as much of a mood as a food thing, so drink what you feel,” Domenicali says. “There are no rights and wrongs.”
|Best Wine Guy Mike Domenicali Jr., standing amongst the vast selection of wines at Joe Saglimbeni Fine Wines and Spirits, says choosing a wine is as much about a mood as it is pairing with foods, “So drink what you feel.”|
If “shaken, not stirred” was Domenicali’s inspiration, a pinkie dipped into Champagne and offered to an infant Philippe Placé might well have started him down the primrose path. “Wine is in my blood, literally,” says French-born Placé. In addition to surreptitious sips of Champagne, he recalls that a muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, drunk on fishing trips with his dad, was “my first real wine. Now it’s pretty much a passion.”
BEST OF 2006
Placé’s interest in wine emerged in earnest at age 15, when he began attending a culinary high school in France. A stint at London’s prestigious Claridge Hotel, where he served the Queen Mum and Lady Di, followed, along with hotel positions in Paris. But in 1990, he took advantage of a French connection to secure a job at a five-star hotel in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. It was there that Placé met his Texas-born, soon-to-be wife, and shortly thereafter, he found himself at the wheel of a very large moving truck on the way to the Lone Star State.
The job as restaurant director of La Mansion del Rio was a happy accident — he had his sights set on Austin — but his continuing professional development has not been left to fate. “Coming here was a re-birth,” he says. “I had to rethink all my preferences for Bordeauxs and Burgundies, and then, learning so much about every Grand Cru that you forget about pleasure.” As a result, he is now especially fond of Oregon pinots and big malbecs from Argentina. But for simple pleasure, he usually reverts to the Loire Valley wines of his youth. “You can’t fall in love with a wine without having the story,” says Placé. “A Sancerre tastes different to me having been there.”
In his inimitable accent, Placé does try to convey some of that story to the generally well-traveled hotel and Las Canarias guests, who he says are “a more open book here than in France, and more ready to accept suggestions,” from a wine list with nearly 400 entries. For armchair travelers, Placé suggests joining, or forming, a wine club to facilitate frequent tastings. “I frankly enjoy the somewhat light-headed feeling of tasting wine in a familiar setting,” he admits, because “people tend to open up to their impressions.” One gets the impression that M. Placé has opened up to Texas as well.
Volare Gourmet Pizza & Pasta
5054 Broadway, 828-3354
There is nothing more comforting and indulgent than a piping-hot slice of the cheesy bubbly. For many Americans, the convenience of weeknight delivery makes crowd-pleasing pizza a dinnertime staple. But there are some pizzas far too delicious to share, some cravings too strong to suffer a long wait for the delivery guy. For me, that pizza is Volare’s.
Keep your eyes open for this tiny, quaint joint on Broadway. Adjacent to the Broadway 50/50, Volare’s isn’t much more than a simple pizza-making box. With only a few cramped tables indoors — and the ovens spewing heat — your best bet is to spend the evening al fresco at a picnic table on the patio. Pick up a bottle of wine to enjoy during the bake time. The friendly staff will cork it without charge and provide glasses.
While watching your made-to-order crust spin through the air, choose from the long list of gourmet ingredients, including grilled eggplant, gorgonzola cheese, genoa salami, pesto sauce, and smoked oysters. A long list of fresh veggies, including spinach, zucchini, and broccoli, makes Volare the most vegetarian and vegan-friendly pizzeria in town.
As crusts go, I’m always torn between the thin, crunchy New York-style crust at Florio’s and the thicker, whole-wheat or classic crust at Volare. However, a recent visit to Florio’s yielded a soggy pie crowned with canned mushrooms. What is this, Mr. Gatti’s?
You’ll find quality and consistency at Volare, but you’ll have to pay for it: A 14-inch pizza big enough for two or three will run about $15-17 with three toppings. A small price to pay for pizza that flies right off the pan into watering mouths.
Best locally owned coffee shop
7720 Jones-Maltsberger, 821-5051; 1170 East Commerce, 227-8847
I’m relatively sure San Antonio is the geographic, if not spiritual center of meat-lovers’ country. Fajitas sizzle on nearly every corner menu. Burgers grill in an ever-increasing number of joints. Carne guisada, a beef stew, is a regular breakfast-taco filling. Cheap cuts of meat are everywhere.
But a really good steak can be hard to find. Sure, you can buy a prime cut at the grocery store (at about $15 a pound or more) and cook it up yourself, but you know how easy it is to ruin that plan. Just one minute of inattention, one misstep at the grill, and prime becomes pleather.
I’ve learned to leave steak to the professionals, and when I want the best, I go to Ruth’s Chris at the Concord. The aged corn-fed beef here is perfectly seasoned and broiled at just the right temperature to sear in the juices. When it arrives at the table, all alone on its sizzling hot plate, no other meat exists in the universe. I am one with my steak.
When I’ve snapped out of my Homer Simpson-like trance, I realize I’ve got fantastic side dishes flanking my entrée. Sometimes I order sautéed mushrooms to top my steak — but I always order the delightfully smooth creamed spinach. Made with fresh, tender leaves and a balanced cream sauce, this dish bears no resemblance to the school-cafeteria glop you once endured. The same goes for asparagus. Here the firm stalks glisten with freshness and are accompanied by a superfluously decadent Hollandaise.
Nine different potato choices round out this ideal steak dinner. Lyonnaise, mashed, au gratin, shoestring fries, sweet-potato casserole — name your style and it’s probably here. But in the end, all that matters is the steak. The sizzling, perfectly cooked, juicy, mouth-watering steak.
Best import beer list
Las Canarias at La Mansion del Rio Hotel
112 College St., 518-1063
If I have to leave the house before noon on a Sunday, it better be for a darned good reason. One of the most compelling reasons is brunch. Not just a late breakfast or an early lunch. If I’m going out, I want a brunch that is truly part breakfast and part lunch. That usually means a buffet is the order of the day.
I’ve gone to upscale mansions in the deep South and uptown hotels deep in Manhattan. But very few out of town, and nothing in town, beats the opulent brunch at Las Canarias, the River Walk restaurant at La Mansion Hotel. “Each week, we do two carving stations, three meats in chafing dishes and between two and five fish dishes,” says Executive Chef Scott Cohen. That’s the lunch side. “Plus we go through 10 cases of eggs — that’s 30 dozen eggs per case, and 12 sides of our own house-smoked salmon.” That would be the breakfast side.
I start with at least one plate of mixed sushi, peeled shrimp, and smoked salmon. My favorite thing about the buffet, in fact, is that they never seem to run out of sushi: The nigiri tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and California Rolls are always fresh and generously replenished.
Keeping with the raw theme, I often move to on carpaccio; here it’s thinly sliced beef heaven and served with the traditional accompaniments of high-quality olive oil, shaved parmesan cheese, and fresh radicchio.
The gastronomic adventure continues with the obligatory Eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, made-to-order omelets and waffles, simply prepared vegetables, and a decadent center spread of desserts. “We go through 24 homemade cakes and 20 dozen mini desserts, petits four and mousse desserts,” says Cohen.
And the Champagne flows freely — ironically making it hard to return home on a Sunday, too.
1. Cool Café
2. Quicksands Café and Bakery
3. Asia Market & Kitchen
4. Liberty Bar
Best placeS to score free samples
Best places to meet the paleta man
Best late-night eats