Sunday, January 22, 2012

Just Polite Applause, I Think

Houston Street Bistro
204 East Houston Street
(downtown, by the Majestic Theater)

Seated in a front corner of the Houston Street Bistro on a show night at the Majestic, with unobstructed views of the entire room and of the sidewalk outside, I had a chance to reflect on the excitement of downtown when the San Antonio Symphony is performing. In past years, I've often chosen this particular downtown restaurant for dinner before a concert or stage play; first, because it is one of a handful of restaurants within spittin' distance of the theater (a larger handful now than before, but still only a handful); second, because it's always been pretty good. Never great, mind you, just good. It aspires to greatness, with a varied menu chock full of interesting dishes; a menu that bows slightly toward the current faux-healthy fascination with exotic-sounding salads and seafood dishes, and describes them in perfect postmodern chef-speak; but which keeps sight of the fundamental druthers of South Texas diners, with a reasonable selection of steaks and chops, too.

To my way of thinking, the bistro's proximity to the city's Majestic Crown Jewel has been as much a curse as a blessing. When I would go there for lunch years ago, I always found the food carefully prepared and the service relaxed and efficient. But in the evening, when a normal restaurant's three-hour dinner rush is compressed into a theater-going hour and a half, little things are done too hurriedly, and service suffers. 

Sometimes it matters, as last night.

The glum and dour maître-d' (I saw him smile at one departing customer, and heard him bark brusquely at a sympathetic foursome who had arrived without a reservation) seemed on the verge of apoplexy when I had to wave him over and ask for a second menu for our table for two. From where we sat, we could watch him cast his baleful glare around the room like the Eye of Sauron, and pity the wait staff; but four of the five waiters on duty seemed to move fluidly around the room, tending their tables with grace and efficiency, and covering for each other where needed. Only one waiter — ours, as luck would have it — seemed to merit the menacing glower of the maître-d'.

He tried hard, our waiter; I'll have to give him that. But I suspect the Houston Street Bistro is not his milieu. Having at last secured a second menu and consulted it, we gave him our order, and he wrote it down, or seemed to. But a minute later he was back, asking my dining companion what wine he had ordered. Three minutes after that, he was back again, asking me what wine I had ordered. (We had both ordered the same wine.) (And later, when our entrées were served, he seemed unsure of what he had for us, or who got what.)

Within a few minutes, a different waiter brought our order of panko-crusted calamari. The presentation was respectable: a good number of morsels filling a plate, along with a steel ramekin full of thick cocktail sauce. The breading was even, mild and light, pale and unseasoned, and nearly flavourless. The squid, though, was unnecessarily tough and chewy, indicating that the frying oil hadn't been allowed to heat up as much as it should have. And the cocktail sauce was strangely bland, and thick enough to pull the breading from the squid.

We had just polished off this dish when our waiter brought another, unordered dish of calamari. As he returned it to the kitchen (destined, I hope, for the bellies of the staff, rather than the wastebasket), the maître-d' tailed him with unmistakable purpose. 

"About that calamari...."
In time, our waiter returned bearing entrées. We took the opportunity to ask, for a second time, about another basket of bread. He assured us, as he had before, that it was in the oven; an explanation we accepted until we realized that, while our chincy three-slice basket of mild sourdough was in the oven, other baskets of bread had been streaming forth from the kitchen like promises from a congressional candidate. 

The dishes we had chosen for our main courses were reasonably good. Competent is the word that describes them. The chicken gorgonzola was a large-ish skinless chicken breast on a bed of overcooked cappelini in a mushroom cream sauce. There was nothing light about the sauce; it had been applied with a slightly too heavy hand, giving the pasta the appearance of great age, when in fact (as I know from my own kitchen) it was just the effect caused by a few minutes under a hot chicken breast. It made no difference in the taste, or indeed in the quality of the dish, but it made a less pleasant presentation than might have been had. Abundant sun-dried tomatoes completed the dish, seasoned distinctly yet not overwhelmingly with tarragon, an herb that grows readily in this part of the country. 

Last city inspection: August 2011
11 demerits
The "West Side Story" — all the dishes are given these cute little theatrical names, which seemed to confuse our waiter when we used them in ordering — is a large tossed salad, offered with tuna steak or, as we ordered it, salmon. The salad greens were reasonably fresh: there was no suggestion that they'd just been picked from the back garden, but clearly they had not been long on hand. The variety of ingredients showed some inspiration had gone into the construction of the dish, and in addition to the fresh arugula and red and green lettuce, there were pitted kalamata olives, blanched green beans, boiled potatoes, hard-boiled egg and roma tomatoes. The tomatoes had only a faint flavour and a too-dense texture; the other ingredients were more pleasing. The dressing, served on the side, was a thick cream-based affair, and there was just enough of it to serve. Since I tend to be somewhat frugal in my use of salad dressing (except in comparison with my wife, who prefers no dressing at all), others may well find they want more. The salmon topping the salad was nicely grilled, with the woody flavour clearly noticeable in the meat, while at the same time the innate salmon flavour of the meat was somewhere between subdued and absent. 

The prices at this restaurant were in line with what one would expect to pay in a somewhat upscale establishment. Perhaps coincidentally, the bill here was almost exactly the same as what we ran up the previous Saturday evening at a similar-class restaurant a block away. Except, on that occasion, we left a larger tip.
Houston Street Bistro on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Add your own two cents here.