Ch ... ch ... ch ... changes 

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From front: baby back wild boar ribs with a plum tamarind glaze; maple bread pudding with bourbon hard sauce and chantilly cream; and Ruth's oven-roasted natural chicken with new potatoes, wilted spinach, carmelized onion, haricot verts, and lemon beurre blanc.(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Anaqua Grill struggles through its adolescence but still shows great potential

In San Antonio's gastronomic infancy, which we'll define as the era in which the late, lamented (by some) La Louisiane was at the top of the food chain and Guillermo Ardid's Chez Ardid was the only haute cuisine challenger, any diversion in fine dining was welcome. Into this B.A. (Before Auden) epoch stepped the Anaqua Grill in the now-Plaza San Antonio Hotel, which has had various monikers over the years. The food and beverage director was French, but he understood the emerging New American cuisine, and accordingly the restaurant was a revelation with its house-smoked salmon, California-concept dishes, and frequent wine dinners.

That was then. In the years since, several chefs, including the inventive Mike Bomberg, have cycled through Anaqua's kitchens but the restaurant has never regained its early luster. Yet recently, a buzz has grown around Austin's Lou Lambert, who has been the hotel's new top toque since January. This is somewhat surprising, since it has also come to light that Lambert was chef to then-Guv George Bush - not necessarily a venue to encourage cutting-edge culinary creativity.

To add to the political baggage, Anaqua Grill chef Larry McGuire has also done time in the Bush Crawford White House. But, hey, give the guys a chance.

I often regret the dish not ordered, and in this case that dish was the appetizer of smoked quail and goat cheese ravioli with watercress and macadamia nut brown butter. What was I thinking when I decided to test the kitchen's Latin creds with beef salpicon? It was braised with poblano, but the shredded beef was basically bland.

In most kitchens this dish marinates in a dressing with a good shot of vinegar (or at least chiles en escabeche, which adds the same zing). Though the accompanying avocado salsa (a.k.a. guacamole) was tart and the mixed greens (not shredded as expected) intriguingly dressed, this plate was too deconstructivist for my taste. Parts came together better when wrapped in the supplied corn tortillas - incongrously presented in foil - but even that modification wasn't enough.

Anaqua Grill
in the Marriott Plaza

555 S. Alamo
229-1000
6:30am-2pm, 5-10pm
Price range: $19.25-$32.25
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible
Constructed like a set of Lincoln Logs, the piled-up wild boar baby back ribs were more successful, their long braising yielding fall-away tenderness, and the mix of tamarind, plum, cinnamon, and star anise accounting for enhanced flavor: not gamy, just good.

An intermezzo salad of chopped heirloom tomatoes with fresh buffalo mozzarella and aged balsamic would have been been better with just those three ingredients, and less of the balsamic. Some of the tomatoes looked genuinely heirloom, but any taste difference was lost in the dressing, some almost acrid basil (and perhaps other herbs), and the good, but excessive mixed greens.

Entrées to the rescue: Grilled Colorado lamb with a mint pesto, Snapper Americaine with Gulf shrimp, and brandied lobster cream and stacked enchiladas with blue crab, shrimp, and a pecan cream were all passed over in favor of a simple chicken and an even simpler steak. Ruth's Natural Chicken is roasted with lots of black pepper, and it's some of the most moist and flavorful fowl you'll ever have. Dining Companion found the bed of wilted spinach a little bitter; as often, we agreed to disagree. I found the anticipated haricot verts and caramelized onion good but a little too hidden under the spinach to count for much, and though it would be good to actually see it, the taste of the lemon beurre blanc was judged to be right on track by both parties. At last, accord.

We both agreed that the grilled ribeye with a caramelized brown sugar crust and a three-chile compound butter hit the target. Gratu-itous sweetness doesn't normally float my boat, but in combination with the spicy butter and perfectly cooked beef, the sugar crust was sensational. A broiled tomato accompanied the steak; a la carte grilled asparagus spears with Tabasco-spiked Hollandaise were winsome companions as well.

Anaqua's dessert menu features one of those obligatory, ultra-chocolate cakes, but the success of the simpler stuff led us to contemplate coconut cream pie and bread pudding. Reason prevailed with a shared pudding, and, encouraged by the exquisite hard sauce, we finished the whole thing, whipped cream topknot and all. So much for "just a taste."

After dinner, our waitperson revealed to us a taste of what's to come in the restaurant. Anaqua has always been a pleasant, if conservatively appointed, dining environment, with a view of the manicured gardens and historic structures that trumps the interior. But the entire hotel, again under new management, is about to undergo a multi-million-dollar, top-to-bottom renovation. Management is apparently waiting for work to take place before launching restaurant publicity. They should hope for a speedy contractor, since the dining room was nearly empty on a Saturday night - and we were apparently the only locals. They also should hope that Chef Lambert and crew are inspired by the enhanced setting. Perhaps it will purge any reminders of Crawford and the Governor's Mansion and unleash the creativity that is clearly there.


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