Straining for the High Notes

Filet Mignon and Tres Leches cake from La Scala. Photo by Antonia Padilla.
La Scala
2177 NW Military Hwy
11am-10pm Sun-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri & Sat
Evening entrées:
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Some restaurants simply soldier along without the benefit (or the curse) of critical attention. Word of mouth, habit, familiarity (and fear of the unfamiliar) are all factors; setting frequently triumphs over substance … and occasionally the food is actually good, just not spectacular or innovative. La Scala is such a restaurant; it has thrived in its Castle Hills setting since 1986, and I have ignored it for many of those years. It was time to take a new look.

On the surface, not much seemed to have changed. Evening lighting is low, mirrors and etched glass abound, and the pink and burgundy color scheme, accented by important greenery, seems only to have been burnished by time. A formally clad waitstaff reinforces the posh appearance, and if the service offered by the pleated-shirt servers isn’t noticeably sophisticated, neither is it condescending — perfect for the mostly middle-age-plus clientele. We did have to ask for the wine list, suggesting that wine is not knee-jerk among patrons. And the list itself, especially deficient in wines by the glass, reinforces that assumption; the selection is not designed to appeal to the wine adventurer — though we did manage to find a perfectly acceptable King Estate Oregon Pinot Gris, and some big-name bottles are displayed on a sideboard.

Nor is the menu a document of discovery. “Fine European Dining” is its claim, and the appetizer list abounds with the likes of snails, onion soup, and prosciutto with melon — nothing to indicate that this is the 21st century. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach — assuming the execution is exemplary. Straying only slightly from classic Continental cuisine we ordered mussels marinara and blue-crab fingers and settled back to sip the well-chilled wine.

If you’re now expecting several shoes to drop at once, you’d be wrong; the mussels might have been just a tad chewy, but the thick and sturdy sauce was a resplendent one, with hints of fennel seed bolstering big, bold flavors; the crab fingers lacked any of the watery texture their inevitable freezing often confers and the delicate lemon-butter sauce complemented them perfectly. The house rolls, neither impressive nor to be ignored, found their highest calling as sauce-soppers after the crustaceans themselves had been consumed.

La Scala tilts most toward Italy in its pantheon of European plates, so pasta now seemed both logical and desirable. Saving creamy sauces for later, we picked a primavera, and the kitchen obligingly split it for us. “There’s almost a full portion on each of those plates,” noted our waiter, and indeed there was more than enough to tide us over to the primi piatti. Yes, we would have preferred a grating of parmesan tableside as was offered on subsequent plates, but the chef apparently wants to make sure his vegetable cornucopia is well and truly integrated with both fettuccine and formaggio, so he incorporates the cheese in the kitchen. And the vegetables — a colorful cast of characters that included hearts of palm — were impressive indeed; the whole only needed a little salt to make it come more truly alive.

If I were to stop here, everyone would be happy: the regulars who have reminded me that this is their favorite place, the chef, the owners, the diners who don’t care to be assaulted with entrées served in bowls with broths … everybody, that is, but the reader of this review intent on trying a comfortable, new place. As so often happens, kitchens can rise to the occasion with appetizers, but entrées, the presumed pinnacle of the experience, fall flat — sometimes, but not always, to be redeemed by dessert.

Flatness wasn’t the issue with the chicken adorned with mushrooms and artichoke hearts; it was sharpness. A thin, acidic sauce all but rendered inedible the bland chicken, the artichoke hearts tasted tinny, and only the mushrooms survived the assault. We pushed this one aside.

Quite the opposite was true of the veal scaloppini in a (very) creamy mustard sauce. The pale sauce, accented only by fried scallion (and a few shreds of green top), blanketed the plate, there was little of the anticipated bite of mustard to be found, and overwhelming richness was the order of the day.

Sides of linguini came with both entrées, and, with the addition of a little freshly grated parmesan plus a brief bath in the scaloppini sauce, they saved the day. Vegetable sides would have helped, too, but they aren’t available. A salad had been suggested by our waiter, and we should have taken the hint. In fact, as we saw a diner doing at an adjacent table, confining dinner to an appetizer, such as the mussels, and a salad, say the warm spinach with mushrooms, might be the best hint of all.

The dessert cart at La Scala contains many of the usual suspects: cheesecake, flan, apple crisp … and a chocolate torte with something for everybody: white chocolate, dark chocolate, a chocolate ganache, tiny chocolate chips, and more. The torte, not made in-house, wasn’t as opulent as it sounds, but it did provide partial redemption. More complete salvation had to wait for lunch.

And Sunday lunch was, in many senses, as different as night and day. The crowd of a certain age and affluence seemed substantially the same, and a contented buzz, much of it in Spanish, rose from its coiffed and coated midst. Servers were somewhat less formally attired, but service itself was snappy without feeling rushed.

Under relaxed Sunday circumstances, a filet mignon with béarnaise sauce seemed just the ticket. Unlike dinner, a tossed salad lightly dressed in a fragrant vinaigrette preceded the entrée, a flavorful and colorful sautéed vegetable medley adorned the plate, and the starch of choice turned out to be chunky potatoes sautéed into an almost creamy tenderness. The main event this time was perfectly executed, with the béarnaise exhibiting just the proper touch of tarragon. And if the strawberry-sauce-streaked tres-leches cake is made for them, not by them, it is nevertheless a paragon of the popular postre, stopping just short of melting with milkiness. Add “Go at lunch” to the above hint. Everybody happy now?

Didn’t think so.


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