It can’t be easy playing the part of the prodigal son. Local boy Jesse Perez, who cut his professional culinary teeth under Southwestern guru Mark Miller at Francesca’s at Sunset in the Westin La Cantera, must be feeling just a little of the pressure of a return home from distant lands — minus the squandering of inheritance part.
His, however, is the classic trajectory. After several successful years at Francesca’s, he left San Antonio to pursue opportunities in Atlanta, then Los Angeles — tossing in a little experience in Oaxaca along the way. Now he’s back with a bang, having opened his first restaurant as owner/chef, Arcade Midtown Kitchen at Pearl. It took a while to get service up to speed, and the initiation of lunch service became a much-delayed event, but now we can bring out the trumpets and palm leaves. We’ll leave the butchering of fatted calves to the chef himself.
Such is the onus of heightened expectations that not all was rams horns and rose petals: the P&B (pork and beef) meatballs with white bean hummus and the pulled pork with pork belly could have used: a) more assertive seasoning and b) a little something new in the arena of that other ubiquitous PB (pork belly). An order of grilled eggplant parmesan, though all the flavors were intense and thoroughly self-assured, was flawed by tough, underdone eggplant.
And then the P.E.I. mussels with chorizo arrived. Cue the veiled dancing girls, the platters of dates dripping with honey. Though the mussels were tiny where voluptuous might have been welcome, the dish was a mind-blower. Ask for extra grilled bread when ordering, as the orange habanero broth is exquisite and begs to be sopped. A large, bendy straw wouldn’t even be out of order if you use it discreetly. “I’ve had orders for the sauce alone,” says Perez.
All of the above can easily be had at Arcade’s indoor-outdoor bar, created by bar manager Christopher Ware and bolstered by his congenial staff. The cocktail menu has all the trendy trappings of the current cocktail craze. These are thoughtfully executed drinks, both classic and creative, that, along with Ware’s barrel-aged blends (try the Vieux Carré if it’s still available), are designed both to stand alone and to work with the menu.
The Vieux Carré, whose main ingredients are rye, Cognac and sweet vermouth, might easily pair with any of Arcade’s steaks — the $26 house-aged ribeye, for example. But we chose instead to put it up against a scallop and a chicken dish — and it worked with both. Perhaps the well-calibrated char of the George’s Bank diver scallops did the trick with that dish. Or maybe it was the bacon that tuned in and out of its salsa. It’s unlikely to have been the more-polite-than-expected green chile grits, however.
Expectations were entirely confounded with the arrival of the chicken “2X’s”. Though chicken two-ways was implied by the menu, its description seemed to emphasize tinga, the classic Puebla preparation with chiles, and calabacitas, often stewed with chicken. What we got instead was an exceptionally tender, moist, and amazingly flavorful “airline” chicken breast, its wing drumette attached. A mild, stew-like chicken tinga served as a foundation, whereas the mellow-yellow squash subbing for calabacitas was fowl-free. Sometimes the diner just has to roll with it.
Atlanta must have influenced Perez’s nostalgic red velvet cake with bourbon vanilla anglaise, but as good as it was, the roasted banana stack with crushed peanuts and salted caramel was even better, a masterpiece of lush flavors and contrasting textures. You will have already brought on the feasting wine — in our case a lovely Belle Glos pinot noir blanc. Now it’s time for a celebratory shot of Fidencio pechuga mezcal.
Arcade Midtown Kitchen 303 Pearl Pkwy
(210) 369-9664, arcadesatx.com
Hours 5:30-10:30pm Tue-Sat (check for new lunch and brunch hours)
Best Bets Most “snacks” such as P.E.I. mussels, roasted banana stack dessert
The Skinny Southern, Southwestern, and Latin-influenced food, supported by super cocktails, in a cool, soft-industrial setting.