Even sticklers for contextualism will have to agree that dismantling the old Sullivan Carriage House and moving it stone-by-stone from its original location on Broadway to the San Antonio Botanical Center was a good idea. Here, it has a new and useful life as the gateway to the Center’s gardens. It looks so good in its new home, in fact, that it’s easy to forget the whole story: There’s no visual record of its original location and the process of rebuilding to clue visitors into the reincarnation. Just think about it when you’re there; that’s all I ask.
And then direct your attention to the Carriage House Bistro; the vestiges of the original horse stalls now serve as dining booths. Under the guidance of the RK Group, the original tearoom concept has undergone a makeover, too. The kitchen is showing culinary ambition along with a modest but well-selected list of wines in half-bottle format, and the service is friendly and first-rate.
Which is not to imply that everything’s perfect. We missed the pistachio in the pistachio-goat- cheese appetizer, for example. The presentation was exceptional, however. We liked the deconstructed sundried-tomato pesto; and there were just enough crisp crostini to match the quantity of cheese. The Bistro Salad was also a model of balance. Balsamic vinaigrette can be overbearing, but the kitchen applied it sparingly. And thin slices of crisply fried vegetables played nicely with a wedge of seared tomato and the nest of varied, mixed greens.
I’ve never been a big fan of throwing fruit onto savory plates — with some exceptions, of course — but the fruit was almost the star alongside our chicken-salad sandwich. It all read well on the menu: “pulled chicken, dried fruit, capers, smoked Gouda, on sourdough.” But despite a good cast of characters, it simply didn’t sing. When a slice of smoked Gouda provides most of the flavor, there’s something amiss.
Lack of personality was not a problem with the CHB Reuben, however. The chef marinates the sauerkraut for this classic in Guinness Stout, and though you might not immediately sense beer, you do know that something has happened beyond the ordinary. The two-tone bread, baked for, but not by, the restaurant, was an appropriate bracket to the kraut, pastrami, and baby swiss, and I sheepishly admit that I even liked the spicy potato chips.
Almost equally irresistible was the red-wine demi pot roast that shares entrée honors with fish and chips, a pulled-pork enchilada, seared salmon, and a vegetarian pasta. Chunky, meaty, hearty, and sophisticated all at once, this is the pot roast mom wished she could have made. The mashed potatoes, rarely the stuff of rhapsody, were also right on target, and a perfect foil for any residual demi-glace that might have escaped earlier attention. The accompanying veg of the day, broccolini with oven-dried tomatoes, offered a crunchy-bright contrast to the meat’s earthy goodness. Yes, that good.
Dessert, too, is made for, not by, the house, but the vision of a passing wedge of red-velvet cake, its frosting garishly air-brushed, banished any fleeting thoughts of virtue. Upon closer inspection, the icing did look like something straight out of an H-E-B pastry case on my side of town, and it didn’t have much redeeming flavor. The chocolate cake underneath was adequate but not memorable. But a piece of plum tart, on the other hand (if you’re going to sin, might as well do it big-time), proved itself a paragon of pastry pulchritude. I liked it a lot, in other words.
In addition to lunch Monday through Friday, the Carriage House also serves Saturday and Sunday brunch with some of the same weekday players on offer. Augmenting this list are more typically brunchy plates that sound just inventive enough. (Brunch is rarely a place to get excessively creative.) The Coffee Cake Style Mile High Pancake with pistachio fig syrup has a certain ring to it, and I like the idea of the Bistro Benedict served on a potato latke.
Watch this space, seems to be the appropriate conclusion — and there’s the additional attraction of both the botanical center and a Thursday farmers’ market from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. •