Gwendolyn, prim and proper, has taken a vow of chastity. Not only is she determined to just say no to the blandishments of globe-trotting cads and bounders, but she’d like for us to do the same.
Restaurant Gwendolyn is the inspiration of chef Michael Sohocki, and it’s named for his grandmother. It’s perhaps fitting that this alumnus of Andrew Weissman’s kitchens is now holding forth in the old Le Rêve space downtown (now repainted in purple and yellow), but what might not have been anticipated is Sohocki’s determination for Gwendolyn to entertain only suitors, er ingredients, that come from within a 150-mile radius of San Antonio. Additionally, he has determined to cook only with pre-Industrial Revolution techniques, using as a reference point the year 1850 — “the last time that food was honest.” Hence, no Cuisinarts, no freezers … nothing with a plug. Ingredients that already travelled long distances 150 years ago — salt and pepper for example — are exempt from the ban. A little spooning on the porch swing is OK, apparently, as long as limits are respected.
The evening menu is now organized on the basis of three- or five-course tastings at $40 and $60. (The more casual lunch menu is a la carte.) Of course the five-course seemed the best test of Gwendolyn’s resolve.
Menu items are said to change daily, but don’t expect total overhaul; when something is in season, it will be exploited to its fullest. Beets are beautiful at the Pearl market now, and chioggias from Oak Hill Farm starred in the first dish, a beet salad with mint and local goat ricotta. Actually, starring might be an exaggeration; this was perhaps the most precious plate I had ever been presented locally. The three exquisite beets were the size of largish marbles, there was a tiny dab of cheese on each, and wisps of finely shredded mint from the chef’s own garden adorned the trio. True, in 1850 the average man stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 146 pounds, so his caloric needs were presumably less, but still …
More substantial, though still diminutive, was a quenelle-shaped serving of beef tartare crowned with a raw quail egg (beef from L&M, egg from Texas Quail Ranch). Dime-sized coins of toast flanked one side of the dish, with chef-grown arugula and cornichons (oops — from France) completing the picture. The tartare, given a little lilt by a white-grape verjus, was pure and beefy — perfection, in other words.
Course three arrived looking like another exercise in exquisiteness on a small scale: crawfish tagliatelli in a decorative, lidded bowl with a round of garlic toast. Silky, house-made pasta, naturally sweet crawfish (courtesy of Shayne Farrar), and chef-marinated artichoke bottoms (Oak Hill) all added up to a lush dish that actually didn’t even need the garlic toast except to fill out the plate.
A crisp, German riesling from the limited wine list was a great pair with the rich pasta, and now is as good a time as any to mention the purist’s dilemma: there are no Texas wines on the list because Sohocki hasn’t yet found any he really likes. To this we can only say “try harder”; there are some good ones out there and their inclusion would help bolster the locavore argument.
The argument is eloquently supported, however, by the best evocation of strawberry I’ve had since gathering tiny wild ones long ago in the Pacific Northwest. The Poteet sorbet, hand-cranked by pastry chef Anne Ng, is listed as an intermezzo. And yet it almost outshone anything that had come before, it was that intense and exceptional. (Let’s say now that her chocolate soufflé cake, one of two dessert choices, was pretty amazing, too; I only expected more bitter bite from the chicory sauce.)
The final course before dessert was at last one that looked like a conventionally scaled plate — and it should now be admitted that I did not leave hungry, despite portion-size protests earlier. Quail from Texas Quail Ranch, mustard greens from Eugene Martinez, and polenta (OK, likely from Italy) made for a thoroughly satisfying experience; I would only suggest a little more assertive texture and flavor in the blandly smooth, cheddar-laced cornmeal.
And now for a glass of too-cold tawny port (a problem with red wines here) and some dainty mignardises in the metaphorical parlor, daddy lurking on the landing to safeguard dewy daughter’s honor. Ah, chaste Gwendolyn, all your swains adore you — this one included, but, as your website suggests required reading (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, for example) before asking for a date, don’t be surprised if some suitors step out on you for a burger with a big carbon footprint from time to time.
152 E Pecan St., Ste. 100
THE SKINNY: Serious seasonal and local food from a small but dedicated kitchen; read Michael Pollan before you go.
BEST BETS: The deck is stacked by the above. (Sorbets rule, though.)
HOURS: 11:30am-2pm, Mon-Fri, 5:30-9pm Tue-Sat
PRICES: Prix fixe dinner $40-$60