Mediterranean paradise

Southtown’s Oloroso excels at house-made charcuterie, seasonal cuisine

Release Date: 2008-11-05

What a relief: a new restaurant opening somewhere other than Loop 1604. Opening in cheeky Southtown, furthermore. In a former beauty salon, no less. And with little fanfare. 

But then Oloroso has some cheek of its own. The restaurant wasn’t yet open in spring, but they published a spring menu online nonetheless. As a teaser, we can only assume. And tease it did with the likes of asparagus soup garnished with roasted asparagus and morels, and a roasted tomato tart with grilled spring vegetables and a shot of tomato consommé. Summer paired seared foie gras with grilled plums, and olive-oil-poached sea bass with roasted baby squashes and an olive tapenade. And as it’s now fall, welcome a salad of roasted beets and watercress and duck breast with braised swiss chard and roasted wild mushrooms.  

Welcome most of all to chef and co-proprietor Josh Cross, a veteran of Biga’s kitchen locally and numerous fancy names and addresses in Manhattan. Mario Batalli’s Esca, for example, plus Restaurant Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong. Fancy names don’t necessarily lead to fabulous cuisine, of course, but the exposure can’t hurt. It certainly led to Cross’s near-fanatical devotion to making everything on the menu himself — including the entire contents of a charcuterie plate that boasts pancetta, both conventional and duck prosciutto, lomo and Spanish-style chorizo. (I assume he doesn’t make the whole-grain mustard that accompanies the plate, but I forgot to ask.) After all this, the making of a mere duck confit is practically inconsequential. 

But not to be dismissed, not by a long shot. At once crisp and meltingly tender from cooking in rendered fat, the sublime duck is the ultimate in umami, and it’s served atop contrastingly bright and bitter frisée accessorized with fingerling potatoes, leek, and truffle vinaigrette. I know what you’re thinking: truffle oil — but no. Cross uses bits of (canned) Italian truffle, which ought to be at least somewhat more real (and again, umami) than the often-overdone oil. Sadly, the chewy bits don’t taste like anything, making (I can’t believe I’m saying this) a judicious hit of the often-synthetic thing possibly a better choice. To further gild the lily, the salad is served with a poached egg, another good idea gone slightly awry due to over-poaching. Focus on the fowl, and you’ll be fine. 

Chefs such as Cross have spoiled us all in recent times with elaborate presentations on exotic china, so it comes as a surprise when a salad of earthy, roasted beets with watercress is presented in a simple bowl as though it were a toss-off side. Both the red and golden variety are used, the watercress makes for a classic opposites-attract pairing, and the chef’s Rioja vinaigrette is spot-on as a delicate duenna.  

A Rioja Sierra Cantabria Crianza 2004 was what we chose to drink with the meal on the assumption that it would be light enough to work with salmon and sturdy enough to stand up to steak. Coho salmon is (or was) just at the end of its season, and it’s never as oily or deeply flavored as, say, a King or Sockeye — all of which to say that it was an exquisite piece of fish, just not especially wild-tasting. (I will almost always decline to order farm-raised salmon, so I probably have unreasonable expectations of the real thing.) Underpinnings of broccoli rabe, niçoise olives, roasted tomatoes, and fennel more than kept up their end of the bargain — to the extent that a pleasant romesco sauce (traditionally tomato, hazelnuts and/or almonds, garlic, vinegar, and a touch of chile) seemed almost incidental. Beautiful plate nonetheless. 

Lamb rack with roasted parsnips, celery root, cauliflower, and wild mushrooms seems to say fall in spades — as does the roasted duck breast with more wild mushrooms. Fungi figured in the seasonal soup of the day as well. We didn’t order it, despite the enthusiastic recommendation of friends seated at an adjacent table, but, suspicious sort that I am, I couldn’t resist asking our charming waitress exactly which wild mushrooms were in play here. (For the record, I don’t count crimini or porcini mushrooms as wild.) Admitting she didn’t know, she later returned with a list of five, including chanterelles and oyster mushrooms. Good enough. More than good enough service, too. 

No mushrooms were harmed in the preparation of the hanger steak, a lean and currently fashionable cut that is said to “hang” from the cow beneath the diaphragm. Loved the steak, in fact; it had great flavor and was cooked “to perfection,” as menus are all-too-wont to say. I’m a sucker for sautéed kale, and the dark Tuscan variety is especially seductive — right up there with the roasted cippolini onions that shared plate space. Roasted garlic should play into all of this nicely, but that component seemed low-key, as did advertised pickled horseradish.  

There have been some quibbles to this point, largely because the bar has been set so high by both expectations and the chef himself. And there will be one more: the clafoutis. According to Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume one, clafoutis “is about as simple a dessert to make as you can hope to imagine: a pancake batter poured over fruit in a fireproof dish, then baked in the oven.” Cherries, usually with the pits left in for more flavor, are a classic component. Chef Cross used brandied plums, which are fine as a seasonal alternative. My problem was with the attitude, the texture, the … hard to say, really; it just wasn’t the unpretentious product I had come to love over the years. The accompanying honey and pine-nut ice cream was also a little off the mark. Honey, maybe; nuts, no.  

But I have nothing but shameless praise and admiration for the cheese plate. It had been highly recommended to me by a local wine rep who called it “the best thing outside of France” he’d ever had. And he was right. Maybe even better than France, given that Spain and other countries come in for equal treatment. Turns out Cross was in charge of cheese during his stint at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, another big-name establishment. Accordingly, he has his sources, and there are many examples on the sumptuous plate you will never have had — at least not in San Antonio. Their names and pedigrees will be recited to you, of course, and if you remember more than two or three my hat is off to you. Taking notes probably won’t be of much use, since most aren’t readily available locally. And they will change seasonally, just as the rest of the menu. 

The only solution is to return frequently. Though the restaurant’s cheery interior is perfectly pleasant, this is the time of year you might want to sit outside with a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese and/or charcuterie and just let the world walk by. That way you’ll get the best of non-Loop San Antonio as you sample some of the best of worldly wise cuisine. Yes, it’s food that deserves the “cuisine” label. Maybe even with a capital “C”.

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