Cappy Lawton has long been a pioneer of contemporary cuisine in San Antonio — perhaps the pioneer, if we really think about it. Though he’s flirted with formats as diverse as EZ’s and the old, legendary Quarter House, and has lately taken a turn south of the border at Cappy’s La Fonda, it’s at Cappy’s in Alamo Heights that the culinary crucible seems most intense. This may be an exaggeration, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the first black beans in commercial captivity in San Antonio were spotted at Cappy’s. Southwestern influences were felt early on as well. And though we don’t currently see foams of this and broths of that on the menu, the restaurant retains a feel that’s at once familiar and foreign — comfortably cutting-edge, let’s say.

A pair of appetizers illustrate the point perfectly. Mussels steamed in a little white wine with onions and a finish of cream and parsley are utterly classic. There are no look-at-me handstands here; the flavors simply and satisfyingly work, and the kitchen understands that the remaining sauce is meant to be sopped, accordingly supplying a slab of grilled bread for just that purpose. A second slab wouldn’t even be remiss. And where the mussels are abundant and Old World in their approach, the rare, peppered tuna with a wasabi sauce is elegantly Asian — both in presentation and in taste. There were perhaps five pristine slices of resolutely rare yellowfin tuna on the plate with bracketing sides of briny seaweed salad and curiously crunchy sesame noodles that seemed to be attempting a pale yin to the seaweed’s dark green yang. We devoured both appetizers with white wines by the glass from a list that seemed to encourage experimentation. The Nora Albariño, a Spanish white with both citrus and almond notes, proved to be exceedingly flexible; it’s a wine well worth seeking out as an alternative to the ubiquitous chardonnay. California came to play with a Simi sauvignon blanc that layered melon flavors atop a core of citrus. The same wines would work well with lump crab cakes and southern-fried oysters, but for truffled french fries, the MacMurray pinot noir might well be a better match.

An intermezzo of soup or salad is certainly a possibility, and at lunch the salads take on a more prominent role, with a Southwestern Cobb (a black bean relish complements spicy chicken and Mexican cheese) and a suspicious-sounding (in other hands) Polynesian model among the possibilities. We split a much simpler salad of Texas field greens (gastronomically speaking, we have grown up in Texas if this is now the norm) with goat cheese, spiced pecans and a cilantro ranch dressing that was just discreet enough, and found it the perfect bridge between appetizers and entrées.

The rustic-refined building (an ex-lumberyard, if memory serves) that houses Cappy’s is the perfect foil to the food; it’s always worth a little contemplation between courses. Heavy timbers, exposed brick and integrated lighting illuminating the art show of the moment (W.B. Thompson’s expressive scenes will be there until early January) combine to create a setting that lets diners relax while keeping them open to new possibilities — one of which, of course, is dining outside the envelope altogether on the tree-sheltered patio between Cappy’s and neighboring Cappyccino’s. Late fall is the perfect time for alfresco dining in San Antonio, and if there’s a nip in the air, let me suggest that a single malt scotch from Cappyccino’s will take it off almost immediately.

Another option is to order hearty, and do I ever have a suggestion for you: roast chicken. Yes, I know, it sounds like the last resort of the undecided, but not so as done in the Cappy’s kitchen. Slow-roasted, with a sauce featuring both domestic and exotic mushrooms, cognac and riesling, this chicken has a crackling skin that seems almost lacquered and taste to spare — for a change, there’s even enough salt. (Dining companion suggested that the predominately older crowd needed the extra punch, but I prefer to think it was a more food-based decision.) The two large pieces were more than anyone really needed to eat, but we managed to finish most of it, along with the serving of herbed spaetzle that appeared to have been boiled, then sautéed for extra flavor. OK, a chardonnay really would work here, but by this time we had graduated to reds in deference to the evening’s special: lamb chops with lobster-laced mashed potatoes.

Rosemary had been alleged in the description of the chops, and we frankly found it shy and retiring — though the crumbed crust was anything but bland. Our medium-rare request resulted in meat more medium than I like with lamb, but the flavor was fine regardless, and I have to hand it to the chef for managing to incorporate the almost-inevitable mint in a demiglace sauce — not in the form of jelly. It was actually almost subtle. As for the lobster-spangled potatoes, they were lush beyond our wildest dreams — well, maybe not quite that luxurious, but a denim-and-diamonds treat nonetheless. Yet to be honest, the smartly snappy haricots verts that provided the vegetable sidekick almost stole the show. Good produce treated with respect almost always wins. Both red wines were winners, by the way, with the ready-now Ravenswood Lodi Zinfandel edging out the still-young Frei Brothers Reserve Cabernet by a whiff and a whisper. Seafood paella, Three-Onion Crusted sea bass, the Cotulla Grill (a reminder of the pioneering Southwestern days with its chile-stuffed petit filet and poblano chicken breast) and a Heights Burger with aged cheddar and peppered bacon are among the other entrée choices — from highbrow to, er, upper-middle America, there is truly something for just about any palate and pocketbook.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers