125 East Houston Street
(downtown, in the Embassy Suites Hotel)
On opening the door from the street, my mood changed. I'm told it was visible in my expression. And no wonder: the cacaphonous wall of noise in this new-ish upscale downtown eatery was like a cream pie in the face of an unsuspecting extra during the filming of a 1930s short feature. It wasn't just loud, it was disorientingly loud. There was music of some sort playing, something with a thudding beat and not much else. There were two televisions playing over the bar, on different channels, and it would seem no "mute" buttons on the controls. There was the rattle and thrum of the bartenders doing their job, and of what seemed like a horde of waiters moving around the room, of plates and glasses being raised and lowered, of utensils clicking with surprising clarity. And there was the sound of patrons in a half-full room, with nothing to deaden the sound.
From our table in the center of that room, we could heard people at every table talking. They all spoke loudly, to be heard above the general din, and so added to it. I did a little experiment: I sat back in my chair, as though relaxed (which I certainly was not) and said, in a normal tone of voice, "If I talk like this, can you hear me?" My friend leaned forward and said (I think) "I can see your lips move and I can hear sounds coming from you, but I can't make out what you're saying. What did you say?"
The rest of our meal was spent leaning in, trying and failing to communicate, until we gave up, and just ate.
The waiter came with bread wrapped in a restaurant towel — Lüke's uses these standard rags for napkins and bread wrappings and, I suppose, for busing tables — and poured water for us both. He had a trainee attending him, and I concluded, from watching the two of them move around the room for nearly an hour, that it made him uncomfortable; though the other waiters seemed generally tense as well. Poor things, they have to put up with this unpleasant noise through an entire shift, while the rest of us are free to leave. (And don't think I didn't consider doing that.)
The bread was excellent, a warm sourdough, and I took heart from that as a favourable omen.
The space itself is attractive enough: in the rear, a stairway leads up to additional dining space, perhaps devoid of the clamor one must endure at ground level. A large, elegant bar stretches across old-fashioned black and white tile, like in a 1920s drug store or my 1930s bathrooms at home; hardwood floors in the dining room, laid out in a herringbone pattern; light-coloured walls with minimalist decoration; attractive accoutrements, like brass- or copper-accented light fixtures; small, heavily lacquered hardwood table-tops on wrought iron bases redolent of New Orleans; floor-to-ceiling partitions intermittently separating the bar and dining room (ironically, channeling the sound rather than blocking it); and glass walls looking out to the patio dining area, which overlooks the River Walk and IBC's attractive plaza area. I suspect that, had the weather been conducive to dining out there, I would have felt much better about the whole experience. But not, I think, all that much better.
I ordered a drink, hoping to put me in a more receptive mood, or at least dull the throbbing that was already infecting my spirit. Bourbon and coke, tall. I suspect, though, that the waiter had not heard me clearly, though I did say it twice, with emphasis on the "tall" part; because I had to send the drink back with specific instructions to "have them put this in a bigger glass and add some more Coke to it." The drink did little to improve my outlook on the world, and when I later saw the charge for a well drink, that didn't help either. (So they use Jim Beam for their house bourbon? Big deal. It's a waste of good sippin' whiskey to mix it with Coke anyway; they should invest in a bottle of the no-name stuff for customers like me, who drink it with flavourings and just want it cheap.)
I ordered the dish that had brought me here after a viewing of Lüke's on-line menu: the pressed cochon de lait po-boy. I'm usually reliably a sucker for all things New Orleanian. It was served with a ramekin of cherry mustard, and French fries in a paper-lined cup. My friend ordered the Lüke Burger, which featured Swiss cheese, bacon, and carmelized onions; it, too, came with fries. We traded halves of our sandwiches.
The French fries appear to be hand-cut, medium-thin, and fried in small batches. I believe that last part to be so because, where my friend's fries were hot and crispy (though some were badly over-cooked), mine were cold and limp. I mentioned this to the waiter, who was not moved to whisk them away with an apology and replace them with a smile; but only to suggest that maybe my batch of fries had "sat around for a while." Gee, ya think?
|Last city inspection: September 2011|
The burger was better, though at $16 I thought it very badly overpriced, I don't care whose name is on the bacon. There was plenty of beef, a patty four inches across and more than an inch thick, and it was thoroughly cooked to medium, yet still juicy enough to soak through the bottom of the bun. It was thus to confirm yet again the well-known sink-sandwich theorem.* The cheese was the same Emmenthaler Swiss that adorned the po-boy, and was as creamy as in that other incarnation; the name-brand bacon was tasty, too, cut thick enough to satisfy yet thin enough to cook properly. It was crispy without being brittle.
For condiments, both sandwiches were offered with a side plate containing miniature bottles of Dijon mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. This silly little affectation managed to be pretentious and mundane at the same time. And I suspect that, more often than not, guests take these ludicrous little containers home as souvenirs of their visit to San Antonio. If I hadn't had a concert to sit through after dinner, I probably would have done that myself. (I may have to try the entrepreneur-chef's place in New Orleans, just to see if that other unique city is being unintentionally trivialized in the same way.)
Back when Lüke opened, a PR firm arranged a preview party for local food bloggers. I see that several of them attended, and were pleased with what they found. I didn't go, though I wanted to at the time, for the same reason I reluctantly skipped the reception offered here following the first concert of the Beethoven Festival a couple of weeks ago: because I knew that a free meal would sway me in a way that I would regret (being entirely too full of myself, and needing the fanciful sense of moral superiority that comes from having too-rigid principles too much of the time). Now I feel unexpectedly vindicated, in a pop-psychology way, in that decision.
I don't know if I'll ever be able to get myself back to Lüke. There are a few other things on the menu that I wouldn't mind trying, and the dessert menu has many of my favourites on it. (I almost jumped at the King cake, in this Carnival season, but luckily remembered that King cake is only fun when you have a circle of friends who understand the tradition, and play along with it. Otherwise, it's dry coffee cake with colourful sugar icing on top.) Maybe, when the weather warms up, I'll come back, if only for dessert. Because I know this much: if ever I do go back, it will only be when I can sit outside on the River Walk balcony.
* The quality of a sandwich is directly proportional to its messiness, and the best sandwiches must be eaten over a sink.