Prickly Pear Bistro doesn't stand up to its name
The Prickly Pear has taken over the space once occupied by the irrepressible Boccone's on Blanco, and a more total transformation could hardly be imagined. In place of the in-your-face Boccone's attitude, we have a low-key and friendly family (father, son, and daughter-in-law) with South Texas ties but expat experience - including association with upscale restaurants - in Washington, D.C. In lieu of the quirky, cartoon-like murals of Italian village scenes that adorned Boccone's interior, the diner is now enveloped in neutral tones accented by indifferent art of no particular persuasion (there is a prickly pear painting in the bar, however). And instead of the offbeat Italian cuisine of days gone by, we are now offered a variety of dishes ranging from straight Mexican to Contemporary American, with a few Southwestern accents tossed in. As imperfect and annoying as Boccone's often was, it at least had an attitude; Prickly Pear hasn't yet developed one.
Some of the hesitation, at least in the kitchen, may be due to the new chef. Although he is said to have worked at Biga and Paesano's, he'd only been at the Prickly Pear about a week, and perhaps hadn't yet hit his stride. He nevertheless turned out a ceviche cocktail, served in a martini glass with a salted rim, that would stand up well against all local comers; it was impeccably fresh and had a challenging, but still tolerable, chile component. His coconut shrimp, on the other hand, looked and tasted flat, and the overly sweet orange horseradish marmalade dip did little to enliven the experience. Though it's signaled with embracing chiles, the sign of a house special, the hearts of palm salad is essentially a straight-from-the-can affair with good garnishes.
In search of a relatively light entrée, one Discriminating Dining Companion landed on the shrimp and sea scallops with fresh pasta and a chipotle-lime cream. Few and frustratingly far between, the grilled shrimp and scallops were good enough to make one want more; alas, there was much more pasta than pesca, and the chipotle-lime cream seemed to have taken a hike, leaving in its stead a neutral oiliness. Second Discerning DC was much happier when I traded my pork loin for her chile relleno. Generosity certainly characterized the chile plate - and all others, for that matter - and we all liked the charra beans. But the Mexican rice was sub-par, the poblano chile, for all its impressive bulk, was exceptionally self-effacing with a picadillo stuffing that was honest but equally unassertive. And somewhere in South Texas, the cheesy gravy that covered the lightly battered chile might be classic, but it wouldn't bring me back for seconds.
Prickly Pear's wine list being of little special interest, we decided to investigate other drink options and can report that the house margarita, despite the use of a tequila nobody has ever heard of and a tendency toward lemonade, is fresh-tasting and straightforward. (The bar has several premium tequilas available for luxury upgrades.) The Prickly Pear Martini can't be compared to much of anything else, made as it is from vodka infused with fresh pineapple and swirled with prickly pear purée. Cosmo-colored and sweet-tart, it's not my cup of caution, but I can see why it might have a following.
The Bistro's desserts should develop a following, too, if our gregarious waitress-turned-part-time-pastry-cook is allowed to continue in the kitchen. Her crème brûlée was appealingly light and sported an appropriately crackly crust (torched to order), and even her decadent-sounding white chocolate lime cheesecake managed a certain delicacy, despite an exceptionally sturdy shortbread crust. As a result, we left happy, even if our overall experience suggests we won't return until the chef has had more time in the saddle and the menu develops better focus. •
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