It seems that many who choose the chef’s knife have wanderlust in their blood. After an early life of travel with his military parents, Jason Garcia seems perfectly happy to keep spreading his roots in San Antonio since he returned in 1992 to the city of his birth. Spending time across Europe, he found he had begun to speak better Dutch and German than Spanish, becoming possessed by the need to “catch up with la cultura.” But there was another culture waiting for him in SA, and it was gastronomic. Garcia cooked at Biga at the Banks under Bruce Auden for several years, starting in 2003, and found it an intense place to learn the culinary craft. “Cooks on the line would test each other,” he said. “One would come up and say, ‘Close your eyes.’ Then you would try to tell what he was holding by its smell.” Auden, he said, was a great teacher. “We were encouraged to try our own dishes. He would taste them, and say, ‘Try some of this in it.’”
Later, Garcia worked at Weissman’s Le Rêve, which Gourmet magazine designated number six in the nation in 2006. After Rêve closed, he moved with Weissman to his new concept, Il Sogno at the Pearl. Leading Ocho’s kitchen since it opened in May, 2011, Garcia might seem a bit overtrained to deliver the laid-back New Cuban cuisine. The kitchen was originally thought of as just a back-up for the fashionable drinks at the lounge, something to take care of room service interests for the Havana Hotel in which it sits. But the food is catching attention as Garcia fine-tunes the dishes on the drinks and food menu originally crafted by well-known Texas chefs Larry McGuire and Lou Lambert.
On a recent afternoon I tried the shrimp and crab campachena with twice-baked saltines slathered savory with butter. The campachena is reminiscent of ceviche, but the fish is lightly steamed instead of marinated in lime juice. The portion was generous and the sour tomato-based sauce mixed nicely with the rather robust saltines. Before I was halfway through I knew that all was more than well, not too polished, but suave. — Scott Andrews