Why not, we thought: Let’s make a mini-vacation of it. We agreed to meet for a drink downtown at Zinc Champagne and Wine Bar, then to wander through La Villita to our final destination, the new Luca Ristorante Enoteca at the Fairmount Hotel. I suppose I could have spent more time contemplating the details of this scenario, but Dining Companion more than made up for any sartorial slights on my part. She arrived with a new ‘do and a short dress that conjured immediate thoughts of the famous Marilyn Monroe image. Where was a street grate when you really needed one? Under the circumstances, Campari and soda, ruby red with a slash of lemon-wedge yellow, seemed the perfect choice. It was light, refreshing and played perfectly against white dress and streaked blonde hair. Alamo Kiwanis Club volunteers were hawking tickets to Fiesta Noche del Rio at the Arneson River Theater as we made our way through the 200-year old settlement; given a little more time, we might have made that a part of the package as well.
A simple snack at Zinc would have tided us over. But food beckoned. It had apparently called to others as well, for Luca was lively at 7 p.m. on a Friday. They were 95 percent locals, confirmed owner/manager Dan Ward afterwards. Apparently, the notion of a downtown vacation wasn’t new with us. We were seated at a window table, backs to the handsomely redone and opened-up space that most recently housed Sage, but front row center on the passing parade that is Alamo Street. A guy with a bagpipe walked by. (I’m not making this up.) A horse-drawn carriage, wreathed in tacky but somehow appropriate plastic flowers, pulled up to the corner, its occupants oblivious to all but each other. And this was just the beginning; the antipasti were going to have a lot of competition. They tried their best. Of the calamari fritti, it’s probably fair to say they’re among the best in town. Dipped in semolina, they’re crunchy and reasonably tender, and the addition of fried basil and charred radicchio is a visual plus. DC actually preferred the occasional semolina-dusted and fried pepperoncini to the squid and found the limoncello aioli perilously close to tartar sauce. I have to agree on that one, and wish the roasted tomato basil sauce had more pizzazz, but the serving is more than generous (share it), and the overall impression a good one.
First impressions of the peppered buffalo carpaccio were more than good; the paper-thin rounds of passionately pink meat are topped by an arugula salad strewn with bits of Gorgonzola and accented with caper berries, and the plate is handsome indeed. (Oops; there goes a reclining biker.) Yet it needed something. A little Maldon or sel gris would have done nicely.
Everything’s there; it just needs to be brought into focus.
Luca’s menu doesn’t necessarily treat pastas as a primo piatto; with Americans it’s usually pasta or main plate but not both. But we were on vacation, and splitting a plate of pasta as a primo seemed just the thing to do as a pair of on-line skaters cruised by our window in the wake of parents pushing a baby stroller. The braised short rib ravioli being a favorite from a previous visit (and the linguini putanesca coming across as a little too lusty on another), we opted for the Yukon Gold gnocchi spangled with fresh snap peas, roasted peppers and sweet corn. (A friend from nearby King William pulled up on her orange motor scooter; it was beginning to seem just like Rome. All we needed were a few cats. And, of course, some romantic ruins. The decaying structures in HemisFair Park would have to do, alas.) The gnocchi, not always that easy to pull off, were Platonically pillowy, it must be said, but the lemon scallion sauce was too acidic. Butter, cheese (there was parmigiano), cream — any and all of the above would work, even with lemon accents.
The interior lights dimmed at about this time, making our view to the exterior even better. Passers-by could still look in, though, and for some reason most tended to smile if you made eye contact. A runner loped along on the opposite side of the street as a continuous stream of families and folks passed our vantage point — coming from where and with what destination in mind we could only guess.
Glasses of flowery Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghini aided in the illusion of being elsewhere, and it was with a sense of coming back to earth that we greeted the arrival of the entrées, just as a pedicab crossed our collective field of vision. If the exterior distraction had sometimes been welcome before, it would not be now; the entrée plates held our full and focused attention. And they deserved it. Grilled striped sea bass served atop sautéed spinach accented with bits of pancetta and slices of apple was a visual tour de force and a taste triumph. It was delicate enough to work with the remains of the white wine, yet adequately substantial in the face of the Deloach Russian River Pinot Noir. (DC only humors me with white wines; in truth, she can’t wait to get to the reds.)
A glass of Italian primitivo was, even by her score, a little much with the fish, but it was perfectly calibrated to Luca’s braised pork loin crusted with smoked paprika (really Spanish, but this was turning out to be a global vacation) and served with “Sicilian Style” potatoes (capers were a part of that equation), quickly grilled asparagus and a sage Madeira sauce. OK, for me the sauce was a little sweet — just a touch — but most folks would likely disagree. And by any definition, the dish was a success. We finished both just as a parade of antique VWs made its way north toward Alamo Plaza. For dessert, we decided to take a turn toward Provence and have both the orange lavender crème brûlée and the chocolate honey lavender tart. This was not a mistake. (A cavalcade of kids on low-slung street bikes was now heading south on the sidewalk.) Both the orange and lavender were appropriately delicate in the perfectly crusty brûlée, and the flavors of the tart were right on target; the accessory blackberries, marinated in whiskey, were sensational.
We exited to a full moon (I’m not making this up either) and the kind of balmy air that does indeed evoke Provence. Fiesta Noche del Rio was still going strong as we retraced our steps past the Arneson — just another ordinary night in summer San Antonio.
405 S. Alamo St. (210) 888-7030
Dinner, M-Th, 4-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 4-11 p.m.; Sun, 3-10 p.m.
Also open for lunch M-Sat, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; breakfast M-Sat, and brunch Sun.
Author: Ron Bechtol
Photographer: Janet Rogers