Frederick Costa has been a fixture of San Antonio cuisine ever since he helped open L’Etoile with his then-partners Armand Abadia and Thierry Burkle. Costa eventually took his show solo to Frederick’s near Dijon Plaza, where a Cadillac crowd came to appreciate his unique blend of French and Asian cuisine. And for a long time, this might have been enough. The food was good — sometimes even great. But it was static.
No wonder, then, that Frederick apparently yearned to open a more casual place for a less conservative clientele — one where creativity might more often come into play. Of course, the place had to be a bistro. But a funny thing happened on the way from Broadway to NW Military: the spinoff became, in many ways, more chic than the original.
Those who remember Eclipse from its short-lived stay in the space now taken over, and expanded, by Costa will find little but the open kitchen to recall that earlier enterprise. Acres of wood paneling, dimly discreet lighting, a sit-down bar … the transformation has been nearly total. And, yes, it eclipses both Eclipse and Frederick’s original location. So does the food — sort of.
Yes, there is a brick oven, a remnant, if I remember correctly, of Eclipse. So obviously there’s pizza to be had. There’s a lobster model for class and a shredded duck version for bistro creds, but I didn’t try them; if I want pizza, I’ll go to Dough or its complete, carry-out opposite. No, what I wanted here was to see what Frederick meant by bistro. One thing he doesn’t mean is a lot of Asian influence, though there is a spring roll and a fish of the day in tamarind broth.
There is also a hybrid appetizer consisting of crisply fried calamari served over Chinese noodles with a garlic-chili sauce, and it is killer. I know; I can’t believe I’m saying this either, overexposed calamari being such a frequent object of derision on these pages. But the substantial slices of calamari steak, crunchily coated and fried to absolute perfection, were spectacularly good and almost worked with a glass of Don Olegario albariño.
More classically bistro-esque is Frederick’s house-made country paté. Served with classic cornichons, some skimpy slices of toasted baguette, and a somewhat superfluous salad, what it needs is simply a pot of good mustard. The crab cakes, another potentially tiresome appetizer, however, need nothing more; they also inject new life into a tired genre. A spring-mix accompaniment works better here than with the paté, and the spicy remoulade is just spunky enough.
Duck confit, an all-but-unknown quantity in San Antonio a decade ago, is now nearly a staple item in any restaurant with international aspirations. The green peppercorn sauce it is served with at Frederick’s Bistro takes the plate back to the ’70s, however, and I’m ambivalent about the combination; somehow it seems to be trying too hard. Still, I happily finished the serving of two meaty legs, wishing all the while that the accompanying potatoes rissollés (cubed, not sliced) had come with more garlic and that I’d ordered a punchier wine than the Pierre Amadieu Côtes du Rhône. Picky, picky, picky.
No complaints whatsoever about the superb potato gratin that came with an order of four impeccably cooked and subtly curry-flavored lamb chops one evening; the combination was unpretentious and utterly apt for a bistro theme. The wine worked better, too. This evening, I was picking up the gauntlet tossed by the writers of the Wall Street Journal’s wine column and ordering the lowest-priced red on the wine list. (Dare to be cheap was their way to combat economic woes.) To be uncharacteristically honest, at $27 this wine was more expensive by $1 than the cheapest red, but I felt it was close enough — and it was from a region I wanted to explore: Spain’s Somontano, a plateau at the foot of the Pyrenees. The wine, a 2005 Betsué de Otto Betsué Finca Rableros (a 50-50 cab tempranillo blend), was both softly appealing and seductively spicy. (I later found it retail for $15, suggesting Frederick isn’t marking up his low-end wines as much as is usually the case at restaurants.)
Roasted Cornish hen au jus with fries and sautéed mushrooms (also the cheapest entrée) would normally not get my attention, but as bistro fare was foremost, it seemed appropriate — and it tasted that way, too. There appeared to be more parts than might have been expected from a modest hen, and all of them were juicy, succulent, and savory. Great fries. I might even have done away with the mushroom and tomato sauce in order to emphasize the jus, but it got eaten regardless. Most of us really don’t believe that less is more, but I’m putting it out there all the same.
Service at the bistro is generally quite good, though there were some baffling moments on my first visit when the waitress and I simply weren’t communicating. Too, if you don’t want your wine poured each time a waiter happens by your table, contrive to hide it — easier if you’re in a booth, of course. But you are encouraged by the setting and the service to linger, and we did so with a split order of crème brûlée, another menu item unknown a decade or two ago and now on everyone’s list and lips. Frederick’s was a little texturally loose for my taste, but its mango flavor was fine, the sugar crust quintessentially crunchy, and the raspberry and mint garnishes both pretty and supportive of the main flavors.
I’ll now spare you my stock lecture on the overuse of “bistro” (along with the one on “grill/grille”); Frederick generally gets it right, though I do have one request: Can you come up with a nice lamb shoulder or perhaps duck in green olives (maybe they were black, I don’t remember for sure) a la Chez Allard in Paris? Now there’s a bistro…
14439 NW Military Dr.
Frederick’s Bistro all but outshines the original restaurant with perfect bistro fare served in a paneled parlor with dramatic lighting, seated bar, and quasi-open kitchen
Perfect paté, sublime crab cakes, beguiling Cornish hen (with great fries), and luscious lamb chops
11am-2:30pm & 5:30-10pm daily