Las Leyendas: English chef takes Texas food to new heights

Finding Las Leyendas is half the fun — or could be. Perched atop Rio Plaza, a complex that once housed Planet Hollywood and currently accommodates a newly relocated Johnny Rockets in addition to Rita’s on the River, Las L sets itself up to be a kind of crown jewel, aloof above the River, yet tantalizingly close nonetheless.

Still, you have to make it through the parking lot, which, on its best days, could use some landscaping work to make the arrival a little more gracious. Then you need to find the elevator.

Yet once we reached the roof, the jewels began to sparkle. Seated in the larger of the two elaborately stenciled dining rooms, I was initially disappointed, preferring, I thought, the more intimate scale of the smaller space with its two-sided exposure and views. But our table, facing the River Walk and an impressive skyline, turned out to be anything but a compromise.

The first action of our accommodating waiter, one of many well-trained servers, was to recite the credentials of English-born chef Jonathan Parker, and impressive they are, beginning in this country with several years at the Manhattan Ocean Club. Parker left the Big Apple for the Big Enchilada to open Pesca at the Watermark Hotel amp; Spa, further exploiting his seafood expertise. But at Las Leyendas, Parker demonstrates that he has taken Texas totally to heart — along with the meat culture that implies. Though not without tweaking.

Texas wild boar spareribs are the base of one appetizer, but they are not slathered with a BBQ sauce reeking of smoke, no sir; they are glazed instead with a sauce that hints of lemongrass and star anise, and they are fall-from-the-bone superb. The bedding of mustard greens (they could just as easily have been collards) larded with andouille sausage nearly made Virginia-girl Dining Companion (clad this time in a turquoise leather jacket with rhinestone clasps and contemporary jewelry from Chamade) weep with nostalgia, and we both found the Asian soup spoon filled with bright orange (and bracingly spicy) sriracha sauce to be an appropriately palate-perking accessory.

After which, it’s no wonder that the chicken-fried quail, as delicate and flaky as the coating was, were less appealing — though only marginally. For all of its sophistication, the accompanying sauce did appear to be an especially classy cream gravy — but wait: There were batons of apple masquerading as french fries to be taken into account as well, all of which suggests that the quail should be consumed first, then the ribs. An enchilada stuffed with jack cheese, crayfish, scallops and shrimp may be another appetizer option on the frequently changing menu.

A bottle of Spanish vino tinto — selected not for its menu compatibility but rather for its allure of the unknown — had been opened by this time, and it turned out to be an amiable companion to the last of the ribs. The 2000 Masia Esplanes Montsant Capafones-Osso was not a household name but proved its licorice-laced black plum and pepper mettle with an entrée of roasted veal loin as well.

Managing to be both delicate and luxurious at once, the veal was moist and spectacular (“best I’ve ever had,” proclaimed DC); the morel-laced jus (just a few more mushrooms would have pleased this Washington state boy who grew up gathering them) was an appropriately sotto-voce sidekick; and a silken celery root purée added an earthy foundation. Some curls of deep-fried parsnip, sweet and nutty, were amusing accents, too. Sautéed bok choy studded with a confetti of carrot, celery root and turnip accompanied both the veal and the catch of the day to perfection.

True, we had been tempted by both the grilled lamb chops finished with a cocoa-cinnamon oil drizzle and the roast duck breast with a mojo salsa, but Chef Parker’s seafood simply had to be experienced one more time, and the pan-seared Maine striped bass did not disappoint. Thick, flaky, and just assertive enough to hold its own with the bold red wine, the fish was a paragon of piscatorial pulchritude (sorry, couldn’t help myself), and its subtly chipotle-laced shrimp sauce (it could easily have been based on lobster shell as well) was lush and lovely.

Dessert may seem an unnecessary frivolity after such an impressive meal, but we assure you it’s not: Never has modest rice pudding been elevated to such heights. It’s a very creamy rice pudding for starters, but it’s capped with a crisp, sugary brûlée for textural contrast, and then a drizzle of ginger-inflected huckleberry sauce is added for both color and a flash of tart-sweet fruit. Mom never made it so good, despite access to wild huckleberries.

Mom never even tried the “Carenero” chocolate fondant (the name comes from the particular Venezuelan cacao pod used by Chocolates El Rey), an impressively dense and serious slab served with a dazzling apricot confit and a lacing of Grand Marnier and star anise syrup. You might now be assuming that fondant trumped pudding, but not so; as sophisticated and complex as the chocolate was, rudimentary rice held its own nicely.

It would seem churlish to chide the complimentary churros that arrived next — just so we could taste them — but I have to admit that I actually prefer the fried rendition of this extruded treat, available throughout Mexico, to the virtuous, twice-baked version with a subtle dulce de leche sauce offered by Las Leyendas. Yes, fried, sugar- and cinnamon-coated and served with a steaming mug of Mexican chocolate, itself laced with cinnamon.

Not all tweaking takes, but that shouldn’t stop creative chefs such as Parker from trying. He has already proved that his forte is far more than fish, and he’s well on his way to turning Las Leyendas into one of the city’s premier fine-dining destinations. Emphasis on destination, remember.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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