Sander Edmundson has served his time on the San Antonio restaurant scene. His first big break came after graduation from culinary school in Scottsdale when he became Executive Chef at Polo’s at the Fairmount, that crucible of contemporary cuisine launched to initial acclaim by Bruce Auden. But Polo’s was never quite the same after Auden’s exit, and Edmundson moved on to the kitchens of the Gunther Hotel in what proved to be an honorable yet ill-starred attempt to breath some life into the operation. It was doubtless with a sense of relief — and an urge to do his own thing for a change — that he, in 1999, took over Bistro Time on Fredricksburg Road from Belgian chef Frans Hendriks.
But BT came with its own baggage, including some well-loved recipes and difficulty attracting evening diners. “Lunch was always crowded,” said Edmundson, appearing after a recent dinner at his new location on Loop 1604, “but evenings were tough.” The crowd is a little younger here, too, he revealed, and as he has installed a wood-burning oven, he can shed some of the old menu’s Continental trappings and, one assumes, exercise some pent-up creativity. “We now make everything we serve right here,” he announced with a certain sense of pride — though it was clear from his attire that he hadn’t actually made any of our dinner.
But the line cooks at Bistro Thyme, as the restaurant has been re-baptized, were largely up to the task of executing appetizers — including the much-loved crab cake that was one reminder of bistro times past. Practically pancake-sized, the crusty cake had been fairly casually plated. (Plate design can become obsessive to the point of absurdity, but when it’s neglected, that, too, is noticed.) It oozed with butter. And the crab was very good indeed, if a little looser than I might have liked. Good, too, was the primal product on a plate of vanilla scallops. We applauded the perfectly seared center of the plate, loved the crisp shallots — and disagreed on the potency of the vanilla/cream component. Yours truly found the vanilla just a tad overbearing; dining companion disagreed. You are the final judge in any case.
Yours truly also finds the new name, derived from an inherited one that was perplexing at best, to now inspire even more head-scratching. A cleaner break from the past has been announced with the pleasantly colored new interior. (It’s
better by day than at night, however.) But a
candied-walnut and gorgonzola salad is something that could come out of any of a number of local kitchens these days, including BT’s old one, and it accordingly required special attention to stand out in the crowd. We split this one, and it’s entirely possible that the presentation is different on a full order, but ours was not a thing of beauty. This is not an entirely aesthetic quibble. Though the sherry vinaigrette was fine, its muddy red color pervaded everything, cloaking even the gorgonzola and blunting its contrasting sharpness. It will seem picky — and perhaps it is — but the simple solution for better visual and flavor distinctiveness is to sprinkle the cheese on top after the greens have been tossed.
The left-hand side of BT’s wine list is more gently priced than the right, and it offers numerous wines by the glass — just not ones we were dying to order. For the appetizers we settled on a forgettable pinot blanc and a somewhat odd sauvignon blanc from Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle. For the entrées, we were on the prowl for big reds and found at least one in the J. Lohr Syrah; it easily trumped a Clos du Bois Cabernet and generally stood up to the challenge of a lamb shank braised in “Moroccan spices.”
The quotation marks are not an affectation in this case; we were perplexed by said spicing. Yes, a back note of cinnamon was detected, but the rest — tarragon, mint marigold? — remained an enigma. Nothing wrong with a little mystery, of course, but in this case the taste abandoned the diner. The brace of tender shanks wasn’t especially well-served by an accompaniment of goat- cheese polenta, either; it seemed more pasty than tasty.
Let’s get the accompaniments out of the way first for the oak-grilled ribeye: There was no detectable cheddar in the mashed potatoes and little discernible booze in the steak’s bourbon-
butter toping. Neither of these is a deal breaker, but details do add up. Plating was again uninspired. But the steak itself was beyond reproach. It had been judiciously trimmed, was impeccably prepared and just plain tasted good. That’s what we were after all along.
Like the interior by day, the lunch menu is lighter, more lively than the dinner document. Yes, you can have escargots in a pastry shell, but I wouldn’t. I feel more generous toward the mid-day meatloaf, which is not at all like your
mother’s. Unless she used expensive mushrooms and dried cherries and spiked her gravy with … was that sherry? True, we each might prefer mom’s sturdier version, but let’s give BT credit for coming up with a variation on the classic theme that isn’t altogether too tricky. (And for whatever reason — perhaps that Sander was actually there in chef’s garb — the mashed potatoes beneath this mother lode were much better than those underpinning the evening’s lamb.) The oxtail soup that preceded the meatloaf eschewed invention altogether: rustic but with a regal richness, it was the essence of home cooking.
Sander’s Asian slaw, on the other hand, is pure invention. It appears at lunch with added shrimp (a little salty but very fresh) or chicken, though it might perfectly well stand alone. We asked for more of the ginger vinaigrette and detected few peanuts, but otherwise this crunchy mix of Nappa cabbage with various other veggies and shiitake mushrooms sautéed in sesame oil was spot on. A uniformly crunchy texture, amplified by crisp wonton shards, is part of the salad’s appeal.
Texture counts for much of the seductive allure of the house-made sorbets. We had one featuring blackberry, and it put silk and velvet to shame. A cashew-studded brownie with a lush chocolate sauce was another winner at dessert time. Dryness is often the bane of brownies’ existence, and these banished any bane with an assurance sometimes lacking in the more grownup dishes. But a good brownie bodes well, don’t you agree? Coming to grips with a bigger kitchen and larger staff takes time, and though BT no longer has time in its name, it may have it on its side.•