Brian West, chef/owner of Café Paladar, must be doing something right. He’s expanded the contemporary café to include more dining and meeting spaces, the crowd was good and varied on a weekday night, and there’s more art lining the walls than ever. Even the corridor to the bathrooms, often a step-overthe-mop-buckets kind of scenario, feels more like a welllighted art gallery. (Check out the cast-paper pieces especially.) Success at CP seems to be driven both by enthusiasm and talent — not to mention hard work, and that’s a very reassuring thing indeed.

CP’s tapas menu seems to be evolving more slowly than the space. Dining Companion (wearing new, custom-designed gold earrings from Chamade in La Villita) and I reprieved an old favorite, the shredded beef tinga served on plantain chips, and found it as tongue-tingling as ever. Don’t let that stop you, of course; you can always pair spicy bites with sweeter ones, such as those provided by the barbecued lamb and Chihuahua cheese quesadilla. Topped with crème fraiche and pickled red onion, this is a savory package in which the lamb doesn’t stand out — nor does the duck breast carpaccio in a composition with grilled apples and cranberry-crusted goat cheese. (The apples emerge pre-eminent, in fact.)

The smoky Bloody Mary broth spiked with Absolut vodka surprisingly doesn’t dominate the fresh oysters in a shooter named for West’s wife, Mary Esther, however. At once sweet and hot, fresh and fruity, this superlative shooter probably isn’t meant as a feminist statement, but if you’d like to take it that way, feel free.A seasonal statement is made by the jalapeño-avocado bisque served with crab and corn fritters, and it was a welcome voice on a rare wintry day. Lush, creamy and spicy, the soup was lifted to a new level with the crisp crab fritters. “Good Lord, that’s good,” opined DC, who also felt the dish was more like fabulous fritters in a cream sauce than soup. Fine with me.

No less evocative was the smoking quail salad. We had expected to be surprised with this one — and we were. Who could have anticipated a mostly de-boned quail served under an upturned wine glass in the company of smoking cinnamon sticks, I ask you? It’s a spectacular presentation, and though the cinnamon is only faintly present in the final product, the micro-green salad with caramelized fig, a Port vinaigrette and goat cheese waffle chips complements the quail beautifully. The key lime sorbet intermezzo that arrived shortly after the quail was cleared even seemed to play into its range of tastes.

The scrupulous reader might now be imagining that there was a tad too much going on in the quail salad, and she would be forgiven. West makes it work, however. I’m less convinced about the need for such an operatic cast of characters in the phyllo-wrapped red snapper stuffed with Spanish ham and served with creamy braised leeks, a Rioja reduction and tomato jam; despite the appeal of each of the parts, there’s at least one too many ingredients on this plate by my reckoning. The phyllo’d fish is especially fine, and the sharp ham stuffing helped it into a red wine orbit with the further aid of the Rioja sauce (we had a beautiful Elú from St. Supery), but more than half of this plate remained unconsumed because of its over-the-top aspect.

Though it, too, was far from shy and retiring, West’s panseared duck breast with pomegranate molasses seemed more at home with its plate-mates — goat cheese scalloped sweet potatoes and crisp rounds of grilled and smoked corn. (Pomegranate molasses, at once sweet and tart, is a wonderful secret weapon. Try it as a glaze on pork, for example.) Only a few bits of sweet potato remained after we’d devoured this one.

A wine appreciation breather before tackling dessert was both appreciated and necessary. Paladar’s list is organized into categories such as “light to moderate intensity white wines” and “big and bold” reds, and the bolder reds will certainly face competition from the likes of the duck and the braised lamb shank with Spanish sherry demiglace. At a medium price point, consider the Montes Alpha Cabernet from Chile.

For reasons I don’t quite comprehend, Thursday seems to be ladies’ night out at many restaurants, and Paladar was no exception. The observation of one particularly lively table deep into dessert demolished our resolve not to order more than one between us, and thus appeared both the chile-enlivened chocolate cake and a Latininfluenced fried banana version of the classic split.

The “split” (though the banana is actually whole) is another of West’s extravaganzas, featuring chocolate cutouts, coconut-crusted and chocolate ice creams, berries and more; as good as it was, we left about half. The seriously spiked cake, on the other hand, was dispatched down to a few smears in the company of a shared glass of Fonseca Bin 27 Port. When confronted with excess, the only defense is more excess, it sometimes seems.

CAFÉ PALADAR
18322 Sonterra Place, Suite 103
(210) 798-7200
Hours: Lunch, M-F, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner, M-Th, 5-10 p.m.,
F-Sat, 5-11 p.m.; brunch,
Sun, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers