City soul

The view of downtown from the Terrace of Las Leyendas accompanies the restaurant's gastronomic creations. Herb-roasted rack of lamb with mint jelly or jalapeño jelly and garlic-whipped mashed potatoes; smoked beef empanadas in a roasted red pepper and tomato salsa; chocolate dream cake with chocolate ganache top and chocolate cookie crust decorated with a lace cookie. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Las Leyendas serves up a truly urban experience

For a city of more than a million people, San Antonio has remarkably few truly urban places. The River Walk, for all its vaunted variety, is almost bucolic for much of its length. Alamo Plaza has the Alamo and the gracious Menger, but the stately squares of Europe are not recalled. Main Plaza, for all the appeal of the newly restored cathedral, is in serious need of a face lift. Which makes all the more precious those spaces that seem like serious city. The courtyard of La Mansion del Rio facing the Nix is one such space.

Another, amazingly enough, is the rooftop terrace of Presidio Plaza (recently renamed - not that you'd know it - Rio Plaza) that is the home of Las Leyendas - not that you'd know that, either. In business for several months, Las Leyendas just recently held its formal opening, so it's little wonder the world hasn't beaten a path to its door. But with its unique configuration of glass on two sides of a narrow dining room, the restaurant has spectacular views of the aforementioned Nix and the Tower Life Building, two of the city's most important architectural artifacts. You feel as though you're in a real downtown. (For its part, the room echoes of baronial Spain, with studded leather chairs and faux frescoes.) Not to be outdone, the kitchen makes you feel as though you're having a real dining experience as well.

Fifty people a night would be land-office business at Las Leyendas; I'm not sure I'd want to be there under those conditions. There were six diners on my visit, and it was just perfect, not economically viable, but perfect. This has to do in part with the staff: a chef, sous chef, pastry chef, one waiter/sommelier ("ol' Blue Eyes" from Oro, in fact), and a maitre d'. The prix fixe menu ($55) changes weekly and offers two appetizers, a choice of four entrées, and two desserts. There being no set corkage policy (though that could change) we brought one bottle of wine at no cost and ordered a couple of glasses of appetizer wines as a quid pro quo.

Then the appetizers. The shrimp and basil "cigars" (essentially won ton wrappers encasing shrimp and a basil pesto) served over a sriracha-spiked, house-made cabbage slaw smacking of kim chee, and the smoked beef empanadas in a siren-sultry roasted red pepper and tomato salsa were amazingly appealing. Maybe it was the semolina added to the empanada crust that gave it extra oomph, but in any case it melted in the mouth.

The next course, a hand-tossed Caesar with Parmesan crisps and pasilla croutons, pleased at least one-third of the entire evening's audience. Yes, the "hand tossing" of the salad with pre-made dressing was a little phony when compared to genuine, tableside Caesar, but the result was worthy regardless.

The four entrée choices consisted of a filet mignon in a tomato-poblano sauce, medallions of Axis venison with a sun-dried cherry demi-glace, pan-seared sea bass with tequila-lime sauce, and applewood-smoked duck in an adobo marinade. Our only disappointment of the evening was the venison - and not for its preparation (though my sense of a medallion is more that of a slice of tenderloin than a pounded-out round, equally legitimate as a term.) Whatever the form, it's the taste that counts, and both the demi-glace and the venison could have been more intense, especially with our very-cherry Gigondas.

Las Leyendas
245 E. Commerce
5-11pm Thu-Sun
Prix fixe: $55
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible
The Broken Arrow venison, in fact, could almost have been veal for all its politesse. Such was not the case with the sea bass, normally expected to be milder than game. Yet the fish was fabulous, the sauce a light and lilting delight. True, the star-shaped jalapeño and cheddar polenta was more style than substance (it needed salt for starters), but the corn relish rocked. Just one suggestion: All this exuberance demands bigger dinner plates; everything looked a little constrained.

We were sent out one extra dessert as guinea pigs (or just plain pigs). The pastry chef was testing it for an event, and her chocolate mousse sheet cake with raspberry coulis was event-worthy. I wasn't as thrilled as I might have liked to be with the oven-roasted Texas peaches with more raspberry sauce; they needed a little more slow-cooked sweetness in my opinion - but they did match marvelously with the last vestiges of a by-the-glass riesling. Standing on its own, the multi-layered cake with white chocolate, chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache, and even more chocolate in the form of a sauce on the plate, was a rare treat.

In good weather, take your dessert and perhaps a bottle of Veuve Clicquot (pricey, admittedly, but such is the stuff of urban experience) to the terrace for the ultimate in sophisticated San Antonio posturing - by which I don't mean the gesture's hollow, but rather that it might take some time to get used to in River City.


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