Bird of a Different Feather

Bad-boy restaurateur Joe Cosniac has a reputation among local diners for being caustic. It's less well- known that his generosity to staff betrays a heart of gold apparently beating beneath the gruff exterior - and that there's more to the man than the occasionally brusque demeanor at the door of any of his locally beloved establishments. Being an accomplished cook in his own right is one of his all-too-hidden talents. It would also come as a surprise that there are many much-loved Paesanos dishes he'd rather 86 - especially since his own regimen leans more toward, well, lean. Even monastic, I'm inclined to imagine. I'm further inclined to suspect that he opened Paesanos 1604 precisely to be able to offer new fare to a fresh crowd, and not because everybody is beating a path to the former boonies.

In any case, fresh fare is what they're getting. Chef Clark McDaniel, late of a nowclosed Cosniac venture in Fort Worth, is the high priest in this new temple of gastronomy, with an almost pagan emphasis on fire as its focal point. Save for a small core of "Classics," including the iconic Shrimp Paesano and Chicken Parmigiana, McDaniel has forged a new culinary catechism. The appetizer section can be considered the Genesis equivalent in this evolving epistle to the blank-slate set. The rock-shrimp ragu on soft polenta is worth your attention; it's a beautiful marriage of the rustic and the urbane. True, the antipasta selection, at least as recited, sounded very little more exciting than the bread/olive/spiced hummus that is automatically yours, but (unburnt) offerings such as ahi crudo with avocado, wasabi, caviar, and grapefruit oil ought to set the senses tingling, and the most inventive action may be on the specials board. We took advantage one night of the green-lip mussels in Shiner Bock with chile flakes and herb butter. Shaved garlic and a basil chiffonade gave the burnished broth a lilt, but the red-pepper flakes were absolute overkill, overwhelming the otherwise exemplary mollusks.

Fortunately, the burn was banished by a subsequent salad, that section being much more interesting than such offerings often are. The smoked salmon with shaved fennel, apples, and bagel crisps is highly recommended for a light lunch, but beets caught our eye this evening. The menu description makes it seem as though the roasted beets dominate in the combination of Texas goat cheese, candied walnuts, and aged balsamic. They don't. Don't get me wrong; the addition of a sprightly spring mix wasn't wrong. It's just that beets were what we wanted. Weird, I know.

Splitting is a desirable option at Paesanos 1604, even to the extent of indulging in splits of wine; the selection of 42 half-bottles is both good and reasonably priced. We began with a pleasantly light Merryvale Starmont chardonnay, substituted for the sauvignon blanc we had originally requested, then graduated to a Swanson Oakville merlot. The merlot was an amiable amico to our next split from the pasta section, the cavatappi (corkscrew) putanesca with more (many more) of the chef's signature rock shrimp. Also featuring the acceptable kind of black olives, this dish was just spicy enough - a flat-out winner and a perfect prelude to the actual entrées. (Mushroom ravioli with roast chicken, spinach, and marsala has also tempted me in the past.)

Need I mention that we ignored the Classics? I thought not. From the Wood Grill, we opted for pork tenderloin with a risotto cake and dried-cherry mostarda, passing over a Spurs-cut ribeye chop and grilled salmon with lemon-horseradish butter. The Moroccan-spiced lamb shank with goatcheese gnocchi I can hardly recommend more enthusiastically. Cinnamon, apricot, pine nuts, and fall-from-the-bone flesh ... just make sure you pick a really gutsy wine from the lengthy list. (There's help in the form of a female wine steward.)

Another night, the other veal shank, overnight-braised veal osso buco with saffron rice, got the nod. Carrot gave this tomato sauce a natural sweetness, and though the saffron rice wasn't overtly golden nor the taste as intriguingly metallic as the spice often is, it was a fine foil for the tender meat.

Back to the pork: The kitchen did indeed pay heed to our plea not to cremate the critter; it was mercifully moist and wonderfully flavorful - enough so to stand up to the pungent, sweet-tart sauce.

As the evening progressed, the nave of the temple emptied, but its ancillary spaces, those flanking the landscaped garden framed by massive limestone slabs, seemed to fill - likely more a function of declining temperature than of the need to commune with what nature remains on the fast-franchising loop. I had my only dessert there on a balmy evening, a perfectly appropriate key-lime pie. The list changes, but should you get that far, a brandied raspberry panna cotta and banana tiramisu may be among the delights that await. Bow to whatever direction you prefer and live it up.


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