You don’t have to dig too deeply into Oro’s menu to find something good to eat
Located in the Emily Morgan Hotel, Oro has one of the city’s most handsome dining rooms. With dark wood floors, high-backed booths, chairs upholstered in fabric the color of smoked salmon, and subtle lighting that includes custom-made fabric cones and votive candles, the sophisticated space has never had, until now, a chef worthy of its caliber. Shane Bruns, late of fancy Colorado resorts, has been tweaking the menu and wine list since December 2004, and it’s a shame we haven’t been paying attention.
|Oro’s handsome dining room becomes even more charming after a 50-cent martini, available with lunch Tuesdays and Fridays. Don’t be fooled by the price: Two of these could send you back to the office on a pink elephant. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)|
All that glitters is not gold at Oro, but neither is it pyrite.
Bruns’ menu changes with the seasons, and his earthy soups are perfect this time of year; they help us pretend we have a winter. Nevertheless, the roasted-butternut-squash bisque, as subtle and well-wrought as it was, needed more roasting of the main ingredient to pull out its inherently nutty flavor. The mascarpone Jackson Pollocked across the soup’s surface did its job, but I remain neutral about plopping a frisée salad with walnuts into the center of it, even if the walnuts complemented the squash.
A strikingly modern bowl of mac ’n’ cheese was umami to the max: mascarpone and manchego with slivered mushrooms that added a forest-floor quality and truffle oil, just enough to add flavor without overwhelming the dish, which was deliciously decadent.
Still thinking blustery times in cooler climes, we selected another seasonal starter, a salad of warm root vegetables and quince. Wow. The “slow-roasted” carrot and parsnip and the cubed quince were perfect with wilted greens, a pomegranate vinaigrette, and just enough reduced balsamic to add an occasional flash of sweet-tart intensity. Rush right out and order this salad before the menu changes with spring.
Well, perhaps you shouldn’t really rush. Jason may be knowledgeable and efficient, but he’s currently the only evening waiter in this underappreciated dining room, and there’s only so much one guy can do. We had much of his attention, however, and our appreciation of the food, the service, and the handsome serving pieces did not go unnoticed. We were particularly fond of the full-bodied wild-salmon roulade wrapped around fresh basil leaves. I’d use a knee-jerk pesto for a little more texture and flavor, but the fish was cooked perfectly medium rare and was perched atop a lemon risotto cake, a far more sprightly and interesting complement than a simple side of rice. There are times, though, when you have to know when to stop. A salad of mâche and fava beans was spectacular in its truffle-accented vinaigrette but for the beans, which hadn’t been skinned — admittedly a tedious but necessary task — and were thus tough. And the moat of heirloom-tomato brodo around the fish was so intense I’d have preferred it as a shooter on the side; as it was, the flavor was simply too big for the fish. I will, however, take sins of commission any day.
Oro at the Emily Morgan Hotel
705 E. Houston
Breakfast: 6:30-10:30am daily
Lunch: 11am-2pm daily
Dinner: 5-11pm Tue-Thu,
4-11pm Fri & Sat
Full Dinner at bar: 5-11pm Sun & Mon
Brunch: 10:30am-2pm Sat & Sun
We expected intense flavors from the graham-crusted venison and an agarita demi, but they failed to materialize. The New Zealand venison (get a rope) was far too polite and almost pasty-textured for my palate, and the feisty agarita, a local berry that resists harvesting (thus adding immeasurably to its appeal), didn’t come through. The topknot of deep-fried shoe-string carrots was tasty, amusing, and crunchy, however, and the gorgonzola-slathered fingerling potatoes were simply spectacular.
With this meal, a relentlessly French Chinon, tart and light-bodied yet deeply imbued with olive and leather accents, was an intellectually appropriate companion. Intellectuality is rarely required at dessert time, and Chef Brun’s Black Forest bread pudding showed only a smidgen in its variations on a homey theme. Chocolate, black cherries, bourbon hard sauce, and whipped cream — what’s not to like? The plate was polished.
There’s no need for pretension at lunch in San Antonio, either, and Oro’s menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches is just right. Of course, these are not just any sandwiches: There’s a smoked-salmon club, a blackened tuna focaccia with a limoncello-caper aioli, and a veggie sandwich that features grilled portobello and eggplant, which I sampled (alas, not on a Tuesday or Friday, when 50-cent Grey Goose martinis are offered. Could this signal the return of the tee-martooni lunch?). Fortunately, no added incentive was necessary to appreciate the savory sandwich, augmented with roasted red peppers, peppery arugula, and a schmeer of hummus (it could have used more). In theory, there were also sprouts, but they were omitted from my sandwich. A tomato, basil, and lump-crab soup, wonderfully complex in its own right, provided an appealing side.
A tapas menu posted on the back-lit alabaster bar makes the notion of an after-work rendezvous appealing as well, with an ahi tuna “martini” and truffled fries among the temptations. In a further attempt to attract crowds, early-bird diners receive a 20 percent discount on all menu items from 6-7:30 p.m. One hopes this continues, but also that Bruns will one day pull in diners — and more than the captive hotel guests — by virtue of his food alone. We will continue to monitor Oro, starting with Tuesdays and Fridays, of course. •
The gold standard
After Oro, Ella may never go back to kibble
You brought Rover with you on vacation. He was quiet and well-behaved on the flight over, but now he’s dehydrated and woozy, too exhausted to explore the River Walk. What to do? If you’re staying at the Emily Morgan Hotel, you can order him a snack from the pet menu. No joke: Developed by Oro chef Shane Bruin with the help of a licensed veterinarian, the pet menu offers thinly disguised people food: fish, chicken, beef, or vegetables prepared with vegetable oil, no salt or spices, and served withFiji water.
My dog Ella will eat anything (including the tender morsel our neighbor’s dog just left on the lawn), so I’m not going to say she has a sensitive palate. But she does have a fragile belly. We all suffered the night Ella swallowed a desiccated fish found along the banks of the San Antonio River — an extreme case, but even a single radicchio leaf can cause a minor digestive revolt, so we stick to kibble. Yet, I find the idea of a pet menu well-nigh irresistible.
On a recent visit, I passed on the vegetarian offering, which promises to hydrate pets and speed recovery from jet lag, and ordered instead the Barking Tenderloin of Beef, served with eggs and brown rice. It came in a doggy bag, of course.
At home, I served Ella the Barking Tenderloin, sans parsley garnish, in her dog bowl. She attacked it with gusto for a couple of bites and then sat back on her haunches, licking her chops and watching me from the corner of her eye, as if to say, Is this a trap?
“Good dog!” I said, with only a little trepidation — ill-founded it seems, since Ella digested the food just as easily as dog chow. And if she sighs and looks down her muzzle at kibble for a while, well, vacation does that to all of us. •