Wednesday, September 3, 2008

29 Brix still means wine

Troy Fullmer’s northern exposure works best with grapes

Posted on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2008-09-03

Troy Fullmer, owner of 20Nine Restaurant & Wine Bar, wanted something a little different for his second enterprise in San Antonio — something that didn’t shout wine bar quite so loudly. He got it — despite a name that will mean nothing to most extra-loop dwellers. (29 refers to the highway that runs through Napa Valley; brix is a term used in evaluating the sugar content of grapes.)

So downplayed is the wine in the décor that it hardly makes a blip; so secondary is it in the minds of the staff that I wasn’t even offered a wine list at lunch one day. But the waning of wine doesn’t necessarily mean the waxing of food; the brief menu is all but bereft of dishes that would make me go out of my way to do dinner at Brix. If a recent visit is characteristic, it’s still all about the wine, upfront or not.

The cheese tours that head the evening menu can be useful to anyone wanting to indulge in the wine flights, called Road Trips, that are available at Brix as they are at 20nine in the Quarry. (I have always found the Road Trips both instructive and fun, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be the same here.) We skipped straight to the appetizers, however, in a complicated ballet that was choreographed to carve as wide a swath as possible through the one-page document. Duck breast “fajitas” were thus dismissed in favor of ordering the duck breast as an entrée. Ahi tuna nachos gave us a little taste of seafood, as did the lemon-and-chive crab cakes. Roasted eggplant hummus sounded like a good bridge between the two and an additional excuse to start with individual glasses of white wine before honing in on a big bottle of California red.

The nachos were presented on a won-tonish chip that unfortunately had been fried in an oil way past its prime. The cubed tuna with a sweet chili-garlic sauce was fine in its own right, but not generous enough to compensate for losing its foundation. The salted and
herbed flatbread that accompanied the hummus outshone the dip, but two out of three of us did like the crab cakes. More than a hint of the achiote aioli might have been welcome, but the basic product was honest and especially good with one of our chosen whites, the Rutherford Ranch Napa Chardonnay.

Maybe it was because I happened to be facing the open kitchen, but my impression was that this is too small a restaurant to have such a bright focus at one end; kitchen noise was also a factor, with every clang of a pot part of the background noise. The kitchen did manage to turn out a very impressive prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin despite being in the spotlight — or maybe because of it. The taste was spot-on, the sliced loin supremely tender and juicy. I would 86 either the smoked cheddar or the applewood smoked bacon, however; enough with the smoke already.

If you don’t know what an airline chicken breast is, let me clear up any misconceptions: It’s not the plastic poulet often served (when anything is served) aboard your favorite flight; the term actually refers to the attached wing. Knowing this didn’t convince me to order it however; duck is always so much more flavorful. And the Brix breast was no exception. A perfect medium rare, it was tender and not at all tricked with. Just a hint of acidic cherry sauce moistened the breast and the chunky sweet-potato “hash” it was bedded on. The 2005 Napanook Cabernet Sauvignon, one of many huge California cabs on the very focused list, was perfect with the duck — and not at all shabby with the pork. (For that matter, I would have liked it with the beautifully well-seasoned — though a little overcooked — sirloin burger with smoked cheddar, bacon, and arugula of that earlier, wineless lunch.) We knew it wouldn’t work with the walnut-crusted rainbow trout fillets.

Not to worry; the trout wasn’t working, either. I suppose I was counting on the walnut crust to make this dish interesting. It didn’t. Though the fish was well cooked, it simply didn’t taste like much, leaving the very good basmati rice and snow peas to carry the day, along with an apple-serrano vinaigrette. Fish fanciers will find an option in Atlantic salmon with grilled artichokes and an orange-dill sauce.

So, dessert. And chocolate. We had saved some of the Napanook to test with chocolate, scoffer that I am when it comes to this pairing. A chunk-studded bread pudding tempted us briefly, but the flourless chocolate cake seemed the only serious choice. And serious it was — so serious that the staff felt we needed to at least taste Rosenblum Cellars’ Desirée “port”. So they brought some. Its syrupy, big vanilla flavors worked beautifully with the lush dessert — a pairing of titans. (Have the ice cream and strawberry coulis on the side.) Wine may not be the primary focus at Brix, but it came in handy every step of the way.

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