“Usually we’re bitching about something at this point in a meal.”
“Yes, I know; there must be something … The butter, that’s it: it’s too cold!”
“But it’s really good butter,” she countered, all the while attempting to apply some to a house-made roll.
The Fig Tree has long been associated with terms such as “stuffy” and “expense-account only,” and there have certainly been times when both and more were appropriate. But manager Moe Lazri and his dynamic kitchen duo, Byron Bergeron and Chris Spencer, have turned around the Titanic of late. Now the place is not only one of the handsomest on the River Walk — and blessed with its best outdoor seating — but it has also shed its unaffordable image.
It’s still possible to spend in the $40 realm for entrées, and the justifiably laureled wine list can make the uncommitted shudder, but the venerable restaurant has recently inaugurated a Tuesday and Wednesday three-course prix fixe dinner for a modest (in fine-dining circles) $39, with wines paired to courses for an additional $10. This puts it into first-date (or spark-up-a-relationship) range.
The menu, which offers two choices for each course, changes weekly and allows the chefs to play with seasonal produce; at the same time, it gives them a little respite from the stodgier Beef Wellington side of the menu. The week prior to our visit offered the likes of five-spice ahi tuna on a glass noodle salad, Akaushi boneless short rib with harissa aioli and charred onions, and chocolate dacquoise with baked meringues, chocolate mousse, and sea salt caramel. Ours sounded a touch less exotic (Why is it that the thing you can’t have is precisely the thing you want?), but proved to be more than satisfying in every way, beginning with a Duo of Duck and Soft Shell Crab Almondine.
First, the seared duck foie gras: it was absolutely exquisite, a term I am reluctant to use but am willing to take a risk on this one time. Crusty on the exterior and creamy within, it was only amplified by a drizzle of lavender honey. The sliced, smoked duck breast, perched atop a toasted brioche, at first seemed a little precious and perhaps the merest whisper too smoky, but proved to be a more-than-amiable companion to the foie upon reflection — and with sips of a Napa Cellars pinot noir.
I do say “sips” advisedly; the paired wine servings may appear a little stingy in the restaurant’s generous glassware. But in the long run, there’s just enough to do the job, and the work of coming up with a perfect match will have been done for you. Perfectly. A Craggy Range sauvignon blanc from New Zealand was the wine offered with the — OK, here we go again — impeccable soft-shell crab, a handsome specimen to which the minimum (a little citrus, maybe a brown butter) mercifully had been done.
With barely a pause we next moved on to seared sliced rib eye with truffle oil and goat cheese. What’s so special about that, you ask? I was prepared to assume the same — and the steak, coursed through with a streak of flavorful fat, did appear thin. But it proved to be (yawn) exceptional, as was a trio of briefly seared diver scallops atop sunchoke purée with a dash of arugula pesto. A Franciscan cabernet and a St. Francis chardonnay were poured, and there was still no bitching.
No wines are served with dessert, though your accommodating server (ours was Ed) will doubtless be happy to suggest something. Coffee and/or cognac are other add-on options. But be warned that although no serving seems overly large, finishing dessert may well be a challenge. The marvelous (gotta stop raving) pear and almond tarte drizzled with caramel did get devoured, but the impeccable (this is the last time) baba au rhum was both generous in size and liberally doused with the demon spirit. We left some behind for form’s sake and ambled out into a darkening La Villita.
Fig Tree Restaurant
515 Villita, (210) 224-1976, figtreerestaurant.com
THE SKINNY: A Tuesday- and Wednesday-only prix fixe dinner changes weekly. Reservations recommended.
BEST BETS: Three courses with two choices each. Take a date and have it all.
HOURS: 6-9:30pm daily
PRICES: Prix fixe dinner $39 with wine paired to course for an additional $10.