There was a harmonic convergence of sorts at Bite, Lisa Astorga-Watel's new Southtown restaurant recently: the reviewers from the Express-News, Texas Monthly, and the Current all appeared within minutes of one another — and for a time we were the only ones there. If panic ensued, it wasn't apparent; service was unflustered, plates came out of the kitchen at a proper pace, and the world did not come to an end.
Speaking for myself only (we do have to quit meeting this way, however), the food suggested beginnings, not endings. Swimming against the super-size tide, most plates are small, though you can still choose to think of the octopus carpaccio as an appetizer. (I wasn't taking notes when I tried it early on, but I do recall liking it.) In the menu's polyglot fashion, boquerones (Spanish white anchovies marinated in vinegar then packed in olive oil) are called "Boqueron's Basquaise" and the pearlescent fillets are served with an un-molded ratatouille, emphasis eggplant, and several slices of grilled bread.
There may be a wine on the abbreviated list that works with this (a reserve list of high-powered Californians has just been added), perhaps the Gruet Brut Rosé. But whatever its virtues — and there are many, the vermentino-based Bibi Graetz Casametta Toscana Bianco is not it. (While I'm thinking of it, a restaurant emphasizing small plates really needs to have more wines by the glass.) Vodka, I thought, and a small shot with a twist of lemon worked beautifully, as the featured fish are not salty but neither are they dainty. Their combination with the underplayed eggplant works well, and there was, for a welcome change, almost enough bread.
Lobster spring rolls are said to be one of the menu's most popular items, and the crisp cylinders are indeed packed with buttery meat. They're good, but in trying to be different, a sentiment frequently expressed, tradition may have been unnecessarily abandoned. A good Asian dipping sauce would be welcome, as would some mint or cilantro to freshen things up a bit. Lamb chop Provençale suggests olives, tomato, thyme, or even a tapenade … but Bite strives to be different here, too. The deboned chop sports only a vestigial handle of bone. There are, perhaps, herbes de Provence in the unanticipated breading. But otherwise nothing suggests the south of France but the accompanying roasted tomato (very good) and the potato gratin (even better).
Expectations and reality collided one more time in the well-stuffed, phyllo-topped seafood casserole called cazuela marina on the specials chalkboard. No complaints whatsoever about the piping hot presentation in a small, cast-iron skillet; the salmon, shrimp, mussels and more were impeccable and bountiful … and then I came across some rogue green beans. Picky, picky, I know — and I wouldn't have batted an eye over artichoke hearts — but beans didn't belong. Now that that's off my chest, I could also use a flakier cap, but otherwise, bravo. Sometimes seafood really does want to be (almost) alone.
Bite's interior, with its horseshoe-shaped marble counter, glossy orange accent wall, and aubergine swivel chairs, has a retro-modern look that's only reinforced by Astorga-Watel's husband Damien's riffs on pop-art paintings — at least past experience suggests they're his. And as she has now shed her chef coat for a chic sheath, the loungey look is further emphasized. Accordingly, some cocktail specials such as the Prickly Pink with Absolut Mandarin, grapefruit, grenadine, Sprite, and more have appeared. If these are too fussy for you (and they are for me), then waiter/bartender/sometime-chef Conner (no relation) Bechtol makes a perfectly proper dry Tanqueray martini to toast the start of something big. In something small.
And remember: "Southtown is so cool!"
1012 S. Presa 78210
Best Bets Anchovies with ratatouille, lobster spring rolls, seafood dishes and martinis
Hours 5-10 Wed.-Thurs, 5-Midnight Fri-Sat.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.