The meals I’ve had at Café des Artistes, the new Watel-family restaurant on the grounds of the San Antonio Museum of Art, have so far been disappointing, and I’m taking it hard. The café is a stroll from the Current offices, and its covered terrace overlooks the new Museum Reach of the River Walk. From the moment I heard that Damien was taking the space, I began dreaming of lunch meetings and late-morning croissant-and-coffee pick-me-ups.
As part of the restaurant group that includes Bistro Vatel, Ciao Lavanderia, and previously the once excellent La Frite, Café des Artistes should be the perfect fit for SAMA (storied namesake included). Good restaurants are now almost as common as gift shops at major museums, and while they don’t require the profile and hoopla of MOMA’s top-shelf restaurant, the Café Modern is one of the reasons I try to visit the Fort Worth Modern every time I’m in DFW. SAMA is one of our city’s cultural destinations; its restaurant should match or exceed its profile.
The menu at Café des Artistes seems about right: quiche, salads, crêpes, a seafood vol-au-vent, and European-style sandwiches, with prices ranging roughly from $6-$10. It suits the cozy, casual feel of the old Beretta Hops House, and executed with the care we learned to expect at the old La Frite, it would be close to a perfect fit. But the crust of the quiche I ordered one day was chewy and overdone, as was the tuna on the Nicoise salad I had for another meal. The tuna, which I was encouraged to order medium-rare, was so overcooked I swear I came away with splinters, but I’m not even sure the maltreatment ruined a great piece of fish. A high-quality canned tuna would actually have been an improvement. I ordered these dishes takeout, and I’m generally not as critical of to-go meals, but the problems I’m kvetching about weren’t caused by the 10 minutes it took me to get back to the office and dig in.
Last week I took the time to eat on that beautiful terrace — and I do mean time: more than 30 minutes between my order and delivery. The café was slammed with a sunny-day spring-break crowd, and I was stuck with a tepid cup of coffee for what seemed like ages. The fun of watching sandal-clad tourists wait for the river barge and examining the Quonset-hut compound on the opposite bank wore off long before my crêpes arrived. My mind wandered to the Egyptian mummification process.
The crêpes were the lunch special that day: ham and spinach, served with a handful of rough lettuce chiffonade and a single tomato slice ($9). The essence of this type of meal is its almost-offhand hominess, but nothing about the dish met what we’ve been led to believe are Watel’s standards. The sauce tasted of salt more than anything, the spinach had a mushy, slightly bitter edge that recalled my childhood before the American vegetable revolution. The ham and the underlying crêpe itself were OK, if not remarkable, but all I could think about were the calories involved, and I’m not on a diet. So I ditched the remainders for the juicy and candy-like grapefruit-pistachio tart ($5, familiar to Bistro Vatel fans), which wasn’t made that day but at least recalled the possibility of dining euphoria.
There are reasons to go to Café des Artistes, uneven lunches notwithstanding: They’re selling the pastries that Watel’s mother Lucile has made justly famous at Bistro Bakery, and the beer and wine license makes an afternoon on the porch discussing the latest exhibit enticing, even if you can’t get a hot cup of coffee. It’s also been nice to see familiar faces from Watel’s Olmos Park restaurants on the floor. Maybe the food will rise to match the service — the food and the art on the walls. — Elaine Wolff