Kick me under the table if you’ve heard this before, but the best fish is frequently not at places billing themselves as seafood restaurants, and this is as true in San Antonio as anywhere. If I’m feeling fishy, it’s Le Rêve, Las Canarias or Boudro’s I often think of.
Lately, however, things have changed. The aptly named Pesca on the River in the new Watermark Hotel & Spa has given the seafood lover in you another option — and it’s not just a choice between fried or grilled with lemon butter. Chef Jonathan Parker, formerly of the Manhattan Ocean Club, literally brings in fresh seafood and shellfish daily, and he brings it from such faraway ports as Greece; if you’ve never had branzini, you’re in for a treat.
Pesca’s River Walk setting suggests that oysters on the half-shell would be a good start, and with a selection that changes according to the seasons, you’ll seldom have to repeat the same mollusk twice. On this visit, with Dining Companion clad in Miami Chic (the fish may be fancy, but the environment is not the black-strapless one we continue to look for), we began with two oysters and a brace of clams from the raw bar. The sharp and briny-metallic Sun Point oysters fulfilled their promise, and the tiny littleneck clams whispered seashore more effectively than any shell ever put up to your ear. DC and I both recommend the vinegary mignonette with all of the above.
There’s one more reason Pesca isn’t a black-strapless kinda place: We were both disappointed, after having made reservations for two, to be shown to a table set for four. (The reservation, as usual, was not made in my name.) Even considering the amazingly high no-show rate at local restaurants (sometimes as much as 40 percent of reservations, I’m told), I’d prefer not having to sit through the inevitable table-clearing exercise. The deal that needs to be made with restaurants is this: I’ll take you seriously if you’ll do the same for me. The suggestion to turn down the music (a fascinating and eclectic track, by the way) was taken seriously, and all was smooth sailing from that point on.
An improving wine list will make up for many slights, real or imagined, however, and recently married manager Sonny Gorushanovich contends he’ll have nearly 100 wines by the glass by September — an especially good idea if you happen to be going from briny oysters to meaty tuna — or from baked oysters in morel cream to pan-seared lamb cutlets in a carrot orange sauce. (Sonny and Jonathan have also added a few more non-seafood entrées recently, a reflection of the fact that we don’t really take the seafood-restaurant experience entirely at its face.)
With the exception of a couple of salads, most of the appetizers do have at least a nodding acquaintance with the sea, and we can’t recommend too enthusiastically the cool asparagus soup with jumbo lump crab and fresh basil. Pale green and anything but pallid in flavor, the creamy soup is enlivened by just a touch of cayenne, and the lush crabmeat is an altogether appealing island in the middle of it all.
DC wasn’t disarmed by the salad of haricots verts with grilled portobello, oven-dried tomatoes, a truffle oil dressing and Parmesan, but I demur — except that I’d do more important shavings of cheese and up the tomato count: those babies are beautiful. Both appetizers worked with our chosen wine, a 2001 Lusco Albariño from Spain’s Rias Baixas, despite the notorious resistance of asparagus to wine pairings.
The Albariño turned out to be “the [flexible] pinot noir of the white wine world” in DC’s words; it went with almost everything but a fascinating side dish of steamed (yes, warm) cucumbers with anise seed oil and lemon — and even here it was a close call. Sides are all a la carte, and this one is worth investigating. The spinach with garlic-onion soffrito is another stunner.
To be truly blown overboard, however, set sail directly for one of the daily fish specials. Both branzini and dorade royale were among the possibilities, and having previously had and appreciated the branzini, dorade (variously defined as a member of the bream, sea bass or dolphinfish families) got the nod: we were not disappointed. Roasted as per chef Parker’s suggestion, it was crisply skinned yet perfectly flaky and almost sweet. A sprinkle of sea salt was the only accent it needed, and the sesame-accented house slaw was a perfect partner.
From the regular menu, seared rare tuna with a coriander-fennel seed crust came capped with an extravagant net of deep-fried fennel fronds and bedded on a fennel-saffron purée. An almost fruity sweetness — either from the caramelized seed crust or the purée — was a little problematic, but the fish itself was impeccable. We did both agree that there was perhaps just a little too much going on here, especially in contrast to the Platonically pure dorade, but the quibble is a minor one.
The first impulse at dessert time, especially after a meal that was almost buoyant, was to continue with something equally light, and here the blood peach soup with a mascarpone parfait and a spearmint syrup seemed the inevitable answer. As it was — the tartness of the French red peaches offset by a garnish of their sweet Texas counterparts and the creamy mascarpone adding just the appropriate amount of luxe.
But as all the desserts are by sister-establishment La Mansion’s new executive pastry chef, Mickey McPhail, we were ultimately seduced into trying the extravagant coffee-toffee sundae with caramelized mango and the intense, bittersweet chocolate tarte with a toasted hazelnut crown as well. Oh well; sometimes you simply have to give up and let the sea wash over you. And while you’re at it, you might as well indulge in a little aged tawny port. It’s served in a slender flute that emphasizes the wine’s exquisite color and keeps you from thinking of it as yet another excess. If you’re suggestible.
ON THE RIVER
212 W. Crockett
major cards/accessible/dressy casual
Author: Ron Bechtol