Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tuesday, 2/23/10 - The Vineyards at Garden Ridge

Date: 2/23/10
Restaurant: The Vineyards at Garden Ridge
Location: 27315 Farm-to-Market (FM) 3009, just north of the Natural Bridge Caverns
Executive Chef: Unsung heroes.

So, turns out we were treading trodden trails with our selection this week. In all my research for these 52 restaurants, it didn't occur to me that I was retracing my steps from oh about six years ago. Shortly after moving here from Oklahoma, I searched for "The Most Bomantic Restaurant in San Antonio" for a special occasion with my honey. My buzzwords for the 52 were the most authentic, the most celebrated, the most foodie-catering...and the most bomantic. So it was inevitable that there would be overlap one day. Sure enough, as we pulled into the parking lot last night, Tavis turned to me and said, "I think we've been here before."

Well, it was a warm welcome back!

It's a straight shot north of San Antonio; just go north on Nacogdoches above 1604, follow the signs toward the Natural Bridge Caverns, and head straight past them. Just barely bordering on San Antonio, it feels like a different world entirely. Maybe Europe. Maybe Tuscany.

Okay, maybe Tuscany in the off-season.

Aww, it's still scenic! And our dinner coincided with the 5 minutes of fat flaky snow we got in San Antonio, so we had a lovely winter meal by the windows.

We arrived just at 5pm and had the place to ourselves for the first half of our meal, a very pleasant experience. Also, for once we had perfect lighting for food photography! Our waiter was friendly, the room was attractive for what it is--most often, the reception room for wedding parties.

You can almost hear YMCA playing now. I kid, I kid.

I have to say, I was surprised at the brevity of their menu AND wine list, considering it's, well, The Vineyards. However, I got a glass of Seven Sisters blend white which was nice and fruity as a California wine ought to be, and we both found tasty items on the menu. I suspect that the small selection of menu items and the low price of said items are closely related. Cheap classy meal, what what!

Crab-stuffed mushrooms. Big flavor in small packages! I am not ashamed to say that we gobbled them up and used the bread to mop every drop of this spicy, zesty sauce off the plate. And then gnawed on the plate.

My starter, a bowl of poblano corn chowder. This was exactly what I needed on a winter's day. There was heat but I daresay less than in the mushroom caps; instead it was just sweet, smoky and perfect with our basket of fresh-baked rolls.

One of the rolls in question before I took it back and made a soup spoon out of it.

(If I may nitpick just for a moment? Okay, I give myself permission. There were just a couple small touches that I was surprised were missing. The tablecloths weren't ironed at all. I had no soup spoon either tableside or presented to me with my soup. And our waiter didn't know where the Seven Sisters wine was from when I asked. However, all superficial faults--still much preferred to the trip to Bohanan's which was all show and no substance.)

To continue.

My entree, which I ordered off the menu as recommended by our waiter. Chilean sea bass in a sauce somewhat reminiscent of the crab-stuffed mushrooms. While a little nervous about eating "chef's special" fish that was smothered in sauce, aka recipe for "old fish in new clothes," it was delicious and fresh and full of just the right amount of fish-to-sauce flavor. Alongside is a bundle of seasonal veggies including asparagus and broccoli rabe with a humdrum rice pilaf. Also, two tasty parmesan-crusted shrimp.

Tavis: "Omg these vegetables taste so good!"
Me: "They're cooked in enough butter, they BETTER taste good!"
Tavis: *guilty look he learned from Roland*

Tavis's chicken florentine, stuffed with pancetta and spinach and deliciousness. Crispy outside, juicy outside, with fresh pasta in a very-well-prepared alfredo sauce.

Check that out. Isn't it gorgeous? Clear foreground/background differentiation. Perfect play of colors, terrific lighting. Oh, and the food ain't bad either.

Dessert: vanilla creme brulee with strawberries. Okay, as beautiful as this is and as fun as it was to shatter the sugar like stained glass in my mom's basement...I've made better and I've eaten better. Could've used more vanilla infusion for sure and I really prefer a thinner layer of sugar crust. But it sure is pretty. And I sure did eat it anyway.

Returnability: moderately high. We had a really wonderful time. The drive was actually a plus, because it was a drive OUTSIDE of San Antonio so we got the feeling of escaping the city and having a vacation, which was nice. If the weather had been less inexplicably-wintry, the Vineyards would make a great end to a date beginning at the Natural Bridge Caverns. I would hope they change up their menu seasonally to compensate for the lack of options; however, for what they have and how little they charge for it, this is definitely a great experience for your dollar if you and your own honey are looking for a night out. And then another one six years later.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tuesday, 2/9/10 - Bohanan's

Date: 2/9/10
Restaurant: Bohanan's
Location: 4535 Fredericksburg, in a strip mall across from the Crossroads mall
Hours: ?
Executive Chef: Mark Bohanan, who we saw in his muttonchopped, toqued-up glory visiting with some Bigwigs sitting adjacent to our table

Yes, I had two blogworthy meals on the same day. One cost $9.15, the other, $240. However, in a classic twist worthy of a Greek tragedy (please allow me my moment of melodramatic hyperbole)...the buffet was better.

MAAAAAAAAAAAARK! *falls to knees in futile expression of rage*


Bohanan's was one of, if not THE restaurant of the 52 that I had looked forward to the most from the onset. "Their steaks are 2 cuts above USDA Prime!" I heard in astonished, gleeful whispers. "The best steak in Texas!" Well, I can't fault their product and I can't fault their entrepreneurial spirit for being the only restaurant in Texas--perhaps the US--that serves Akaushi beef, the counterpart to Kobe, that sinfully marbled piece of buttery goodness we experienced in Japan. And yet, the evening added up to disappointment.

I'm sure you want to hear why. Let's squirt some lemon juice in my wound, shall we?

The entrance to Bohanan's. Downstairs is their bar, which reeked of Good Old Boys club. Cigars and brandy and polished wood fixtures. I wasn't sure I was allowed in. Fortunately, in the back we took an elevator up to the restaurant.

The decor. Pretty dated, to my surprise. Tavis summarized it best: "it feels like we could turn the corner and there would be a dance floor." Yep, it felt like a reception hall. Not the most desirable impression.

Speaking of the Tavis in question...hi Tavis!

We both started off with a drink; I their "red pearl" pomegranate and raspberry martini, and Tavis a glass of Yamazaki whisky. Not to sound like a complete lush, but I heartily enjoyed both of our drinks. His whisky was beautiful, with warm nose notes of honey, oak, apples and it melted across the tongue just right. I know absolutely nothing about whisky, scotch, bourbon, etc but I do know I liked this. Tavis said it reminded him of the bourbon balls his mom makes for the holidays, so I guess he liked it too.

Our waiter came by at this point to pitch the evening's specials as well as present our steak options. Yes, they brought the steaks over for our review. He gave good pitch (which we heard repeated verbatim at least 3 times as more tables filled in around us) and we changed our initial menu plans to fit his recommendations, because why not?

Our bouches were amused by this spread of cream cheese and candied japalenos. How very Texas.

Appetizer #1: their "signature" appetizer, French grilled oysters. French grilled just means that it's seared quickly. These are Galveston oysters breaded with spices and grilled....and they could have been anything. There was no briny flavor, no sign that there was an oyster present except for the squishy slide down the throat. They could've breaded my napkin and it would have tasted the same. We didn't even finish them. How was this their signature appetizer?

Appetizer #2, a jumbo prawn split and grilled with anchovy butter. Tavis enjoyed it; I was ambivalent. At least the flavor of the meat came through on this one.

At this point I abandoned my inclination to be considerate of the other customers and started using the flash on my camera.

Ahhhh! Jumbo alien prawn is much scarier with flash!

Caprese salad, one of the night's specials. I believe these were Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil drizzled in balsamic vinegar. Once again, I just wasn't wowed. The vinegar was overpowering, the tomatoes were certainly not in peak condition and lacked the flavor that makes heirloom tomatoes worth the price hike, and again I didn't bother finishing the dish. (Though I did eat all the mozzarella. I am Megan, after all.)

The star of the evening: Tavis's french onion soup. The rich flavor and luscious mouthfeel of the broth, the gooey nutty cheese, the generous amounts of caramelized onions--this was every bit of love and technique that was absent from the rest of the food.

And finally, what should have been the highlight of the evening: the porterhouse. After our waiter's spiel, we opted for the 40 ounce porterhouse which combines the strip steak and the filet. This is USDA Prime, not Akaushi (which starts at $95 for I believe an 8 ounce filet), which is nevertheless a beautiful cut and quality of meat, and we expected it to be treated with the reverence and technique that a STEAKHOUSE should demonstrate.

Instead, our meat was seared to char on the outside and lacking flavor on the inside. I could've cried. I understand that cooking preferences will vary; it was explained to us that they are striving for a "mesquite" flavor experience with the grilling. However, once again Tavis said it best: "when I grill with mesquite charcoal, you taste mesquite, NOT charcoal." This beautiful, expensive piece of meat was charcoal in my mouth.

When the night began, I was very excited to order their crepes Suzette. I wish I could crawl into one of those right now. I'd eat my way out from the inside. (Name the movie for extra credit!) However, by this point the restaurant had completely filled up, our waiter's attention was divided between his many tables, and I had lost all interest in a happily ever after. So alas, no dessert for us. We cut our losses, paid up, and went home.

Returnability: nope. This place, from decor to food, was all show and no substance. Major disappointment. The moral of the story is, I should abandon the idea that because a restaurant is prestigious and expensive, it's automatically good food. On "No Reservations," Anthony Bourdain frequently expresses his love of street food, unpretentious, hearty, and delicious. If I enjoy a $9 buffet more than a $125 steak, there is nothing wrong with that. (And, my mom will suggest, many things RIGHT with that!) Lesson learned. On to better eats next week!

Tuesday, 2/9/10 - Simi's India Cuisine

Date: 2/9/10
Restaurant: Simi's India Cuisine
Location: 4535 Fredericksburg, in a strip mall across from the Crossroads mall
Hours: 11am-?
Executive Chef: From the variety of dishes at the buffet, I'd say whoever it is must have 6 arms! (Shiva, I'm lookin at you!)

A minute of backstory: I'm taking International Cuisine this semester. My class normally prepares a menu set (appetizer, salad, entree with sides, bread, and dessert) for up to 32 people every week; so far, we have done an African and a Middle Eastern meal. This week, we took a field trip to an Indian restaurant. The explanation behind it is that the tandoor, the traditional clay oven used for making many chicken dishes as well as the ubiquitous and delicious flat bread naan, is not something we can install into our kitchen labs at school. So if we can't bring the oven to us, bring the class to the oven!

You'll notice there is a much, much greater amount of photos than text in this post. This is because, well, I loved everything I tried. The depth of flavor developed in these curries, masalas, and every other dish was just incredible. Everyone in my class agreed--at least, I'm assuming that's what they were saying, their mouths were pretty full at the time. If you've been a timid woodland creature in the past, push it aside and try Indian food. It's awesome.

Now, please enjoy some gratuitous food porn.

Did you know you could click on the pictures to make them larger? It's really handy that Simi's provided snapshot descriptions for each of their dishes, huh? And I still can't keep everything straight!

Look at that plate. A thing of beauty, that is.

After we had gorged ourselves ridiculously on a $9.15 all-you-can-eat buffet, we were invited to visit the kitchen so we could watch the tandoor oven in action! We looked on in awe as the brave cook grabbed a handful of bread dough, slathered it in ghee (clarified butter), and tossed it onto the side of this hole in the earth. A few seconds later, he wedged it back out and tadah! Naan.

How much did I eat? Naan yo business!

Returnability: very high. This was the 4th time in my life that I've eaten Indian food, and apart from a restaurant in Seoul which we can't frequent due to proximity issues, this was easily the most enjoyable. You've seen the variety; you'll have to take my word for the drool-worthy smells and tastes....unless you go and try it yourself! I'll probably see you back there.