San Antonio’s A-list chefs and restaurateurs seem to have an itch these days; they aren’t at all content to stay put in the places that have given them fame and (we can always hope) fortune.
Andrew Weissman dabbles in coffee and burgers; Jason Dady opens tapas-style emporia both here and in Dallas; Joe Cosniac takes Paesanos in a new direction on 1604, the Azuca guys have brought Pasion! to The Vineyard, Silo is establishing a beachhead at Blanco and 1604, and now Damien Watel, of Bistro Vatel and Ciao Lavanderia fame, has made inroads into Southtown with La Frite, a casual Belgian bistro. (He’s looking at the Stone Oak hot spot as well.)
As long as these guys can clone themselves sufficiently, I’m all for spreading out the bounty — though this is a cautionary cry against the wind. Given the apparent success of La Frite, perhaps I shouldn’t worry.
Said success is borne out only by occasional observation: All of ’09 and ’12 seem to be beating a path to this heretofore suspect sector of town. I have never set foot in the place without encountering (or at least recognizing) several of the city’s movers and shakers. I assume they aren’t responding only to the eclectic decor. Much of it, including, I assume, the creative copies of Rodriguez’s Blue Dog, comes from the hand of the owner himself. The remainder — bistro chairs, tables, awnings and even kitchen equipment — is the result of the demise of Metropolitain in the Quarry.
No, my suspicion is that it’s the just-risky-enough environment and the just-different-enough food. For this culinary thrill seeker, there might be even more thrills and chills of the edible ilk, but maybe Belgium just isn’t like that.
The menu, augmented by several daily specials, is refreshingly short and sweet chez La Frite, and it inevitably bears some resemblance to Bistro Vatel. The organization is such that it’s not always clear what is an appetizer and what an entree, and perhaps that’s just fine. The admirable smoked fish pate is clearly a starter, but mussels could go either way. Either of three ways, for that matter; they come in “normal,” tomato and curry versions.
I’ve now had all three renditions, and, frankly, it’s a toss of the coin; they’re all superb, and all begin with mounds of mussels and a base of white wine, garlic and cream. Since I made a semi-scene about sending back the curried version if the spice blend had been applied with a heavy hand, the bowl arrived with only the faintest hints of it — and these were most apparent when one sopped up the savory broth with the requisite crusty bread. Fine with me, but if your curry tolerance is high, go for it with gusto.
Namesake frites accompany the moules and other entrees, and they are worth the drive from whatever zip code. Served in a paper cone stuffed into a diminutive galvanized bucket, these fries are golden, scattered with coarse salt and chopped parsley, served with both catsup and a kind of mayonnaise-based remoulade — and they are sensational. A separate order with a bottle of earthy Belgian beer might even be justified in the middle of a far niente afternoon.
They also accompanied a plate of hanger steak (think a form of flank) with still-crunchy onions in a rich and winey sauce. The coarsely grained steak was inevitably a trifle chewy, but its flavor was fantastic, and the onions played right into the unfussy format.
Our accommodating waitress had volunteered to see if there were any bottles of red open other than those listed by the glass, and came back with a Brouilly that was a perfect match. (The wine list isn’t large, and the corkage fee is stiff, so asking what’s off the list is recommended; it got us a creamy viognier by the glass as well.)
Though Dining Companion (dressed in champagne-colored slacks and top in honor of newly highlighted hair) and I had ordered the viognier-friendly vol au vent as an appetizer, it’s another plate that could swing either way. The presentation (we had picked the seafood version) is immediately impressive: A proudly puffy pastry, cap ajar, comes generously stuffed with salmon, shrimp, whitefish and mushrooms and partnered with a sprightly tossed salad.
There’s a feeling of opulence underscored by the richness of creamy sauce and the sheer volume of the airy pastry. But for this diner, it (and the chicken version sampled earlier) needed an additional lift to truly “fly in the wind.” Blasphemous as this might be, I’m tempted to suggest just a touch (even more subtle than the curry) of cayenne, though white pepper might do the trick as well. Adding salt helped.
Forthright flavors were not a problem with a nightly special of pork loin stuffed with walnuts and served in a beer sauce we couldn’t help thinking was inspired by the classic Belgian beef and beer stew, carbonnade flamande. (Pistachio-crusted snapper and seared duck breast were other options.)
Broad noodles and still-bright steamed vegetables played perfect counterpoint to the brooding pork, which was agreeably tender. But even a dollop of dried cherry compote couldn’t dispel a certain beer-born amplification of the walnuts’ natural bitterness. Or vice-versa. This is a dish that worked better in print than in execution.
So we had champagne in compensation. There’s a baby split of Piper — in screw cap, no less — on La Frite’s list, and it’s perfect for that final glass of something bubbly with a classic fruit tarte. Take your pick; they’re all exemplary.
And if you look out the window and squint just enough, you see only the sidewalk tables and not Bar America across the street; with enough bubbles, you might even conjure Brussels.
Author: Ron Bechtol
Photographer: Janet Rogers