Food critic's cover blown as he enjoys foie gras avec l'abandon
| Pecan-crusted rack of lamb is well-complemented by a glass of Jaboulet Parallele 45 Rhone red. (Photos by Laura McKenzie) |
an Antonio chef Guy Collinet has been around the block a few times: The Plaza San Antonio in its early days, The St. Anthony, the Westin River Walk, and Central Market have been local ports of call. Collinet recently opened his own place on Blanco Road, and it's worlds away from the vast, corporate kitchens of his résumé. Not too big, not too small, Café Europa is the right size for a thoroughly hands-on operation - without meddling from distant boards of directors. Of course, there's the pesky public to please, and even more persnickety critics.
The restaurant space, which in previous lives carried Italian and Mexican themes, has a quasi-European café feel, bolstered in part by the large collection of painted vintage liqueur poster reproductions in the more formal half of the restaurant. (If you arrive in jeans or shorts you will probably be seated on the more casual side.) The menu maintains the café attitude with appetizers such as snails bourguignonne, cold-smoked salmon with all the expected trimmings, and foie gras. It's hard not to fall for foie gras when the real deal is available: simply seared and not fiddled with any further. Collinet confesses he's having trouble finding the foie gras (yes, it was about this time that in a foie gras-induced reverie I let my guard down and was recognized, so this meal was not reviewed in anonymity), but this duck liver was melt-in-your-mouth impeccable, the very lightly truffled risotto under it merely a complementary foundation.
| Café Europa's Airline Chicken in Puff Pastry includes the first wing joint with the breast.|
I must also confess that we picked wines only by the glass in an attempt to make perfect matches. There were several good choices, but while three of our choices were made in heaven, a fourth took a more southerly turn. With the foie gras, Hogue's apricot-and honey-scented Late-Harvest Johannisberg Riesling was celestial, a poor-man's substitute for the classic Sauternes pairing. Thrown off by the menu's description of a caper-thyme beurre blanc sauce, we ordered the Vocoret Chablis. Unfortunately, its austere mineral and lemon accents did not sing with the seared diver scallops served on a bed of superfluous oven-roasted tomato halves and accompanied by a vegetable-studded risotto. More capers (and lemon) in the very buttery sauce might have done the trick, but the dish is probably best paired with an equally buttery chardonnay. A quicker searing wouldn't hurt the scallops, either.
The French tend to grudgingly accept salad, relegating it - in American minds, at least - to a palate-cleansing afterthought, but Collinet's are substantial enough to share and serve as worthy interludes between appetizer and entrée. His Mediterranean salad almost approaches California proportions, blending baby greens, kalamata olives, raisins, and toasted pine nuts in a light balsamic vinaigrette. The whole olives are too much of a saline surprise in a bite of tender greens and I'd lose the raisins, but otherwise it all works well. Next, a light and refreshing mango granité provided additional palate purging.
| The Mediterranean salad at Café Europa is large enough to share. |
Europa's entrées continue to reinforce the continental theme with the likes of roasted duck with plums and baked sea bass served on an Old World parsnip purée. Even fowl takes a tony turn with the Airline Chicken in Puff Pastry - "airline" referring not to bad food on the fly but to the fact that the first wing joint is included with the breast. Chef Collinet packs his poulet with goat cheese, spinach, and pine nuts, keeps it moist with a lush pastry wrapper, and serves it with braised vegetables, including a surprisingly earthy baby bok choy. As chicken goes, and it usually doesn't go far with me, this is very good. Having learned the Chablis lesson, we paired it with a big vanilla and coconut Clos du Bois Russian River Valley Chardonnay to good advantage. Even better was the modest Jaboulet Parallele 45 Rhone red with the pecan-crusted rack of lamb.
Regular readers know that I'm a pushover for lamb, but almost anyone, I suspect, would fall for this presentation: The four petite chops were cooked to perfection, the pecan crust added only a slight nuttiness, and the lentil ragout bed, earthy and sweet, was sensationally symbiotic. There was no mint jelly in sight, and the advertised mint jus was so subliminal as to be nearly undetectable. Somewhere in lamb-land there's a balance between the two extremes.
| Café Europa
14415 Blanco, Ste 107
Price Range $18-30
Major credit cards
Recognition will breed a certain amount of hovering, but our pleasant, accommodating waitress performed with particular aplomb during the soufflé service: She popped its proudly puffy crust, deftly preparing it for a soupçon of crème anglaise - comme il faut. For the record, Grand Marnier is the classic soufflé, in my opinion, and Europa does that tradition proud. For that matter, Europa does tradition proud at almost every turn. Examining an earlier menu, it appears that some of the dishes are still being tweaked, so we can expect the café to settle into a comfortable middle age before too long. Just not too comfortable, please. •