Even by San Antonio standards, the conversion of the old Maggie’s on San Pedro into Barbaresco Tuscan Grill and Enoteca appeared to be taking forever. “We decided to delay the opening until the economy seemed to be improving,” said Michel Adib, who moved here to manage the San Antonio sucursal of the Guadalajara-based restaurant. We suspect that the elaborate architectural detailing — Lincoln Logs meet abacus on the exterior, woodworker gone wild on the interior — may have been at least one factor. In any event, the result of all this effort will please some and baffle others. One dining companion appreciated the openness, but to this observer, convention-hotel lobby sprang to mind.
There’s certainly no intimacy in the bar, but it’s pleasant enough for the time it takes to have a glass of Rosso di Montalcino Camigliano and an order of Taggiasca fried olives. The pour seemed short (it’s a precisely calibrated 5 oz., I’m told), but at $9 it’s hard to complain too much these days. The olives, served atop lettuce in a tall martini glass, would have held up to a couple of glasses of wine. Had there been more Tuscan wines of interest, I would have investigated them.
The Tuscan grill and enoteca theme falls short on both the wine and food fronts, unfortunately. The Campagna meatballs in a simple but effective tomato sauce were good but seriously shy on the advertised buffalo-mozzarella center. Opinions were split down the middle on the perfectly seared sea scallops with crisp prosciutto and an orange sauce enlivened with pungent black peppercorns. Too sweet, claimed some; good try, countered others, yours truly included.
At the suggestion of our waiter, we ordered a wild-mushroom and red-wine risotto for the table that did come close to Tuscan in its earthy simplicity. Risotto is often hard to pull off successfully in a restaurant setting, but under the direction of Erik Abrams, formerly of Metropolitain in the Quarry, the kitchen pulls this one off. Less successful was an order of house-made ravioli stuffed with veal, spinach, and ricotta. The pasta looked pretty enough, but was chewy around the edges and unmemorable in taste.
Softly bubbly prosecco tops the wine list, and the Carpene Malvolit would have been a perfect partner for many of Barbaresco’s starters had it been served cooler. Some chilling also improved the Pago Florentino Tempranillo (Spanish, not Tuscan, despite the reference to Florence.) Don’t be afraid to ask for an ice bucket, even for reds — just don’t let either reds or whites languish there too long.
And don’t be fooled by Tuscan macaroni; its only claim to distinction is the long shape of the tubular pasta. Closer to the thematic mark is the New York steak Fiorentino, simply served with rosemary and olive oil — though nobody in my conservative group could be tempted to order it. “Fourteen ounces is too large,” claimed one participant. A Capri lobster tail and six-ounce filet was ordered instead. But both were better than we expected. The lobster maintained a fighting texture, and the unadorned filet was expertly rendered.
A little more creativity, however, is required for dishes such as the wild striped bass with tomatoes, black olives, lemon zest, and balsamic reduction. Big size and big flavor characterized the flaky fish, but we all agreed that the veal chop’s fontina filling seemed to be MIA; as good as the peppery chop was, it lacked that creamy counterpoint. With the lamb chop, served a perfect medium rare, it was the exterior that was missing a beat. Described as being prepared with a “fresh herb focaccia crust,” the coating was all but undetectable. Grilled asparagus scored well as a side; bland mashed potatoes with butter suggested that the variation with fontina and sage might be worth the extra tariff.
Given chef Abrams’s tenure at pastry-centric Metropolitain, we might expect sophisticated desserts to play a starring role at Barbaresco — despite their absence from many Tuscan menus. But no; there is a cheesecake and a house-made chocolate-hazelnut cake with Nutella, but after a large meal, the panna-cotta trio and the vanilla-pecan spongecake involtino seemed most appealing. Handsome as the trio is in presentation (strawberry, caramel, and espresso are the flavors), the salient impression is of sweetness. The involtino, looking for all the world like some kind of dishwashing accessory, had been rolled around a nutty vanilla cream and paired beautifully with a good French-press coffee.
Day or night, there is one experience at Barbaresco you shouldn’t deny yourself: the bathrooms. I refer specifically to the “blade” hand dryers created by the dour Mr. Dyson of vacuum-cleaner fame. I want one; that’s all I’m saying.