Mambo Italiano

Well, it’s some kind of hot twist on tradition at Luciano at the Strand

With the unexpected death of Thomas Benninger and the subsequent closing of his restaurant, Gladys at the Strand, San Antonio lost not only a major culinary talent but a popular venue at an important crossroads. In this city of rampant rumors, many of which turn out to be all-too-true, several replacement names were bandied about, including that of our favorite basketball coach. But the space, handsome and once lively (to the point of annoyance at times), remained empty.

No meatballs, please: A whole Mediterranean sea bass cooked in foil with lemon and tomato is one way chef Jesse Perez is thwarting local convention and expectations at Luciano at the Strand.

The Centofanti clan, owners of Luciano’s Ristorante on the River and Luciano Ristorante Italiano at North Star Mall, was not even on the rumor mill’s radar screen, but they have taken Gladys, rebaptized it Luciano at the Strand, and given the girl a makeover that fleshes out the original bones with new decorative elements. A wine room has been further embellished with new racks and accoutrements. And the noise problem has been addressed with creative canvas clouds. More bling, less noisy bada bing.

Even more importantly, they recognized the importance of making sure there was still talent in the kitchen. In recruiting Mark Miller protégé Jesse Perez from Francesca’s at Sunset, they have not only kept Benninger’s promise to the community, but they have upped the ante over their own operations. The problem for some diners may be realizing that, though there is a certain family resemblance, the Strand sibling is a unique and precocious offspring.

“There will be no spaghetti with meatballs on the menu,” asserts Perez. Darn.

The surprise at this Luciano is not only that red sauce isn’t front and center but that Perez, who most of us know as a steadfastly Southwestern star, has been allowed full rein to mostly make over the menu. (His first job outside of school was at an Italian restaurant.) Though the menu is still a work in progress, a quick look at the appetizer section is sufficient to divine the direction things are taking. Yes, there’s a classic caprese salad, and a quasi-classic carpaccio with fennel-mustard-crusted beef tenderloin. But from this familiar territory the chef’s fancy takes flight with truffled, pan-seared diver scallops served over a white corn polenta (there’s little truffle, oil or otherwise, to be tasted, but the spice-dusted scallops are superb), quaglia chimichurri (the succulent quail is brined with spices such as cinnamon and allspice, giving it a jerk flavor that dominates any garlic-parsley component suggested by the chimichurri) and crudo di pesce.

Ah, il crudo. Expecting a soupier, “cocktail” presentation, we were surprised by the mound of quickly blanched squid, shrimp, and scallops that appeared on the plate. But surprise turned to sighs in short order. A subtly briny green-lentil ragout with black olives (the good kind) lent just enough flavor to the seafood to take it from simple to sublime. But if we were crazy for crudo, we went into orbit for the insalata di rucola.

It’s rare that salad exults. But Perez’s arugula with pancetta and poached quail egg is one of those creations that’s perfectly conceived and admirably executed, with each forkful yielding the full range of flavors — including roasted peppers, ricotta, and a just-lusty-enough balsamic emulsion. The kitchen obligingly split the salad for us, and it just as generously divided an order of duck ravioli drizzled with tomato-serrano cream. You can take the Southwestern chef out of his kitchen ...

The dish may be clumsily translated as “anatra barbacoa ravioli” but the confusion of tongues is altogether apt: The robust duck and tender ravioli are perfect on their own, and the scintillating sauce is of the sort you wouldn’t mind wearing. But the balance is off: In a battle, the sauce would win every time.

Luciano at the Strand
11255 Huebner Rd
Lunch: 11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri
Dinner: 5:30-10pm Mon-Thu;
5:30-midnight Fri-Sat
Price Range: $21-29
Credit cards
Handicapped accessible

Perez is used to a more extensive wine list as an adjunct to his food, but we did find a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier by the glass that was friendly with chef’s full-throttle flavors. Manager Kurt Pike, also recruited from Francesca’s (and formerly of Le Rêve), suggested a bottle of the unfamiliar Anselmi Capitel Croce as a full-bodied white accompaniment to roasted branzino and a “poussin al mattone” (yes, another linguistic mish-mash). Nutty, creamy, and flaunting floral and apple aromas and flavors, the wine was an amiable companion to Mediterranean sea bass cooked in foil with lemon and tomato, and a boned and flattened (though apparently not weighted) grilled young chicken brined in mustard and fennel seed (the dominant flavor.) The whole sea bass was nothing short of spectacular, and we would have appreciated even more of the melt-in-your-mouth lemon slices that capped the fish. (A side of baby squash was cute and crisp, but seemed an afterthought.)

Not to be outdone, the piccolo pollo was equally impressive, another triumph of the art of brining and equally artful grilling. The white truffle-pecorino risotto that served as its altar was perhaps a little too deferential, but the total package performed like Pavarotti.

After all this, an equally deferential dessert seemed appropriate. So a cheese plate was, again, split by the kitchen. We assume, of course, that they will do this for everybody (or will now be obliged to), and not just us because we had been recognized by the chef. He sat down with us at the end of the evening and offered that cheese plates weren’t yet popular (consequently, he picks the cheeses himself in limited amounts at Central Market), but that he plans to persevere. He should; the buffalo mozzarella was just the ticket and a Dutch goat cheese with coriander seed also stood out amidst the accents of caramelized pineapple, honey, and fig balsamic vinegar. He should also persevere in his transformation of the menu. “October is when I’ll start scaring people,” he proclaimed. Bring it on.

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