It’s the fourth Wednesday of the month and therefore time for another installment of Travels with Frenchie, the monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explores the hinterland in search of dining adventure. As always, the culinary vice squad consisted of: Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, celebrated local sommelier), Carlos the Bike Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, a man who eats only obscure fruits and grilled meats), and me (a former vegan and known taco-truck stalker).
Recently, Frenchie heard through the grapevine that Damien Watel had sold his popular Italian eatery, Ciao Lavanderia, to CIA Hyde Park-trained chef David Walker and his wife, California-educated winemaker Marie. With a month under the new owners’ belt we went to see what had changed and what remained the same at this Olmos Park mainstay.
We began with a tomato bruschetta. The bread was crisp but not dry. Fresh tomatoes, garlic, a little olive oil, and bright basil — it was a great simple beginning. The next round arrived quickly: polenta with goat cheese, mixed greens, and a rich mushroom sauce. I very much enjoyed the combination of these flavors, but individually some of the parts were not as good as the overall dish. The polenta and mushrooms, for instance, tasted slightly overcooked, but this was a quibble.
While we were still working on the polenta, the Pizza Ciao ($18) arrived. Underneath a bed of arugula sat a fried egg and prosciutto drizzled with truffle oil. We were all shocked to see Carlos bypass the meat and dive fork first into the field of arugula. This pizza felt like a salad and is a good choice for summer, although the crust didn’t inspire us.
While we waited for our entrées, Frenchie looked over the wine list a little more closely and noticed that in honor of the World Cup, Ciao has organized some flights to correspond to the nations participating in the soccer tournament. For the most part the wine list is affordable and plays to the obvious favorites.
And then our main course arrived: a shrimp risotto ($18), spicy sausage penne ($17), and pasta Bolognese ($15). Carlos went traditional with the Bolognese because he wanted something meaty and filling, but not a fan of cheese, he ordered the dish without it. He felt the Bolognese was lacking in some spice, but I wonder if holding the cheese was the issue. Overall, he was still satisfied.
I ordered the penne with spicy sausage and crimini mushrooms. The sausage was indeed spicy and I liked the rich flavor of the rest of the pasta dish, but the sausage didn’t find any synergy with the rest of the plate. Frenchie very much enjoyed his shrimp risotto with spinach. The shrimp was good quality, the flavors were very pleasing, and the risotto was cooked just right. Of the entrees we tried, this was the clear winner.
Reflecting on our overall experience I noticed some correlations, which made me search for the cause. While we enjoyed many items at the new Ciao Lavanderia, I think the restaurant is still in transition. We also wondered whether a subtle rise in prices affected our judgment — the original Ciao Lavanderia established a reputation for serving quality Italian food at an affordable price. But Frenchie reminded me that Watel had raised the prices over the years.
As diners are downsizing and/or returning to some version of comfort food, I imagine it must be a challenge for the talented duo at the new Ciao Lavanderia to begin in this confusing landscape. Moving into an established restaurant and cooking someone else’s recipes must feel like signing a record deal only to play cover songs every night. But in San Antonio, most people want cover songs these days. I’m confident that the best is yet to come with the new Ciao as they find their own groove while at the same time working to please their established customer base.
Frenchie: The flight of wines inspired by the different nations in the World Cup was a clever, fun twist.
Carlos: For the price I thought my dish would be small, but I was happy to see a big, healthy portion.
Me: The lighter options were healthy and fresh. With the summer heat, I think this is the way to go. •
226 E. Olmos