There’s gotta be a commandment somewhere — something like “Thou shalt not adorn thyself in prideful pink raiments.” True, Liberty Bar has never been a slave to trends or convention, choosing to go its own offbeat way in an equally quirky setting. But it looks like the cautious, even reverential, interior makeover is meant to make amends for the boiled-shrimp color that cloaks the old convent that houses the new Liberty.
The all-white dining level certainly shows off its handsome wood floors and provides a pristine backdrop for some very impressive rugs (which, theoretically, soften the acoustics). The sandy-beige upstairs bar, on the other hand, is merely bland — though this is the space that most evokes the old establishment. The colorfully off-kilter interior of the Liberty of legend was never to be recreated, of course. But mirrors, funky furniture, dramatic lighting, magic, sex appeal … that’s what’s lacking here. C’mon, we all know what went on inside those allegedly monastic enclaves.
True to cloistered form, however, one eats and drinks well. We had elected to sit upstairs at an undressed table opposite the bar, and the evening began with an old favorite: goat cheese with a sauce of piloncillo and chile morita. Maybe it was the setting, but the sauce, and there was always lots of it, seemed unusually sweet. “Almost a dessert,” observed out-of-town companion. I liked it regardless, and, with a sigh of relief, observed that the bread had made the move intact.
Something old, something new … an appetizer I had never had before was the smoked salmon and queso chilango with “smoke” tuna and white anchovies. The presentation, on limpish lettuce, is almost laughingly of that era when America was losing its culinary innocence, but the individual parts — even the somewhat gray tuna — are fine indeed. Do not make the mistake of imagining that the balls of cream cheese chilango-style (“chilango” is Mexican slang for someone from the D.F.) are benign. The silvery-briny anchovies may be another surprise.
Liberty’s wine list has never been what you would call Catholic, and it’s equally at home in this ex-Catholic setting as it was in the old. We elected to consecrate a bottle of Pfeffingen 2007 Pfalz Dry Riesling ($36) to the appetizers, the entrées to come — and to ourselves, and it proved worth the price. As for the main plates, there were sins and there were epiphanies.
The brace of grilled quail was perhaps the best I’ve ever had. With skin crisp and lightly charred and flesh moist and flavorful, the partially boned birds hardly needed the pipian-like mole verde served alongside. Yes, the normally addictive grilled potato slices were flaccid and unappealing, but I prefer to think of that as the slip of a single night.
But the grilled sweetbreads lacked the quail’s conviction. Flavor, such as sweetbreads ever have, wasn’t missing, but the choirboy texture lacked verve; we would have appreciated the crisp exterior and creamy interior that might have been achieved with quicker, hotter cooking. The grilled squash and tomato were irresistibly good, though, and Brother Torres’s chunky green salsa is sensational. With the quail, too, for that matter.
Mexican convents were always renowned for their desserts, and while I think of Liberty’s geranium cream as English, the fragrance of the leaves of rose geranium that permeates the cream conjures up incense and ceremony. This is a unique and beautiful dessert, and the blackberry sauce that plays a supporting role does so wonderfully. Buttermilk pie, on the other hand, suggests county fairs and freshly scrubbed faces, and it has long been a Liberty belle. This night, alas, it lacked buttermilk tang and seemed almost oily. The sin of pride is mine in this instance, as our waiter, uniformed as they are now in white shirt and khaki pants, had recommended the lemon-chess pie.
I returned another day for a glass of wine in the lingering light of a late afternoon, and though I still find the bar strangely lacking in the Beauty and Charm that have long been Liberty hallmarks, I’m also willing to wait for time to work its magic. My glass of d’Arenberg’s Hermit Crab, an Aussie blend of viognier and marsanne, smacked of citrus zest and spice and went beautifully with the latest issue of the Current pulled from the stack at the door. I’ll return to do that again — with or without the irreverent rag. •
Liberty Bar at the Convent
1111 S. Alamo
The Skinny: While the beautifully restored convent lacks the charm of the battered old Liberty (as yet), the eclectic Mexico-inspired food has made the move unharmed
Don’t Miss: The smoked-fish appetizer plate, grilled quail in mole verde, and the geranium cream with blackberry sauce
Hours Open: 7 days
Prices: Entrees: $8-$18