Monday, February 13, 2012

A New Gem in the City's Crown

Bella On the River
106 River Walk
(by the Sniper Tree Gate, between St. Mary's Street and the Diversion Channel)

The final concert in the San Antonio Symphony's serial performance of all the Beethoven symphonies brought me one final excuse (for the foreseeable future, at least) to enjoy a night out downtown, and my friend Rick and I chose to spend it at Bella. It occupies the space long held by Dolores Del Rio, a strange little Italian place that managed to attract enough of a following to last years longer than its excessive crowding, so-so food, and odd floor show (belly dancing) would seem to justify. Unlike most Riverwalk restaurants, it has no presence on a city street, only the River entrance; and since it's sited a short distance away from the livelier parts of the Riverwalk, many people are unaware of its existence. Bella deserves, though, to become better known.

Last city inspection: December 2011
8 demerits (pretty good)
With its secluded location and limestone walls inside and out, it could hardly help but be charming. The interior is largely unchanged from what I remember of Dolores Del Rio, but the few changes I noted were all for the better. A couple of tables have been removed, making it at least possible for the waiters to pass by without their elbows knocking the back of your head; and the lighting is a little better. Otherwise, it maintains the discreet ambience of a romantic upscale speakeasy. A bar, with seating for five, tucked in the back corner of the dining room adds to that mystique, as does the almost-too-loquacious jazz pianist (who uses a space-saving electric keyboard; a real piano would never fit in this place). 

There sometimes seems to be no middle ground for the service staff at fine restaurants. At some, there seems to have been a decision made that stuffy formality is called for, in the grand manner of a beau-monde restaurant on the hunt for a third Michelin star; at others, the pretended familiarity of the staff is so swaddling that diners can hardly have a conversation that the waiter takes no part in. Our waiter at Bella, though, found such middle ground as exists. He was prompt, helpful, informative, casual, efficient and effective, even if he looked and dressed more like the owner's brother in law. (Which, I suppose, he may be, but as to that I neither know nor care.) 

If you're interested in a romantic dinner-date venue, you should consider this place, but I would recommend that you request a table in the back of the room, against the limestone wall, when you make your reservation. We were seated, as it happens, right next to the performer's keyboard. This was fine with us, as we were just two friends enjoying our fourth (and possibly last, now that the concert series is ended) Guys' Night Out, and the attention the performer attracted didn't make us feel exposed to the public gaze. Besides, we enjoyed chatting with the man between songs.

On being seated we were handed prix-fixé menus for Valentine's Day. At $75 per person, my first thought was that we had wandered into a restaurant far more ... um ... let's say "posh" ... than I had been expecting. But many of the items on that special menu were also on the regular menu, and if you consider the prices of the individual items acceptable, then $75 is not entirely out of line. It does include champagne and dessert, along with choices for appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and side dish. My own take on it (and remember, I'm cheap, which is why I'm generally happy living in San Antonio) was that all the prices seemed to be just a little above what I would expect to pay.

Once we started getting our food, though, my opinion on the prices at Bella had to be amended, and by the end of the meal I had reached the point of thinking that the prices charged are about right: not a bargain, even among downtown restaurants of a similar class, but definitely not excessive.

Our starters were the house salad and the spinach salad. The former was an attractive bowl of fresh mixed greens with feta cheese, lightly tossed with a delicious raspberry vinaigrette dressing, and topped with a sprinkle of candied walnuts. The dressing and walnuts together gave the salad a fine sweet edge, and the combination of textures made the salad's taste as delightful as its appearance. The slightly larger spinach salad included mushrooms and Italian-style bacon, along with chopped egg and red onion. It was dressed with a bacon vinaigrette, and my companion and I had a difficult time deciding which salad was better. Both were accompanied by a small sliced baguette loaf and rosemary-infused olive oil with roasted garlic, which made a better accompaniment to the spinach salad than to the sweeter house salad.

Our main courses were a paella and a chicken piccata. The paella was accented by herbed chicken chunks and diced chorizo, which made an excellent counterpoint to the roasted vegetables in the dish, but caused the saffron rice to lose its bright colour, coming to more of a chorizo brown than a saffron yellow. The taste was unaffected, and only the appearance suffered, slightly. (A seafood version of the dish is also available.) The chicken piccata was accompanied by shrimp, artichoke hearts and mushrooms, and the traditional lemon and butter sauce was finely done, seasoned with parsley and capers. It was served with a choice of sides; in our case, the choice was for roasted potatoes, which were done more perfectly to the proper turn than we have had recently at other fine restaurants in town.

The serving sizes were generous, and if I had not had a concert to sit through after dinner, I would have had enough food for the next day's lunch; but I knew I wouldn't be able to sit through two and a half hours of classical music with a go-box in my lap, fighting off the underfed tenants of the surrounding seats. So I forced myself to eat the whole thing.

A worthwhile sacrifice.
Bella ... On the River on Urbanspoon

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