really like it when locals come,” offered our garrulous waiter/real estate broker about midway through a very pleasant dinner on Fig Tree’s dramatic, terraced patio. “The tourists we’ll never see again, but we know you might come back.”
For the setting alone — perhaps the best on the River Walk — we might just do that Fig Tree has long had the reputation of being a fine but somewhat fusty restaurant, with lace curtains and expense-account prices being the impression du jour. But the interior of the historic house on Villita Street has been updated to include blown-glass art on the walls and new treatments at the windows. And the menu that once seemed shockingly expensive is now no more so than many upstart establishments with far less to offer.
Locals might well want to rethink this downtown doyenne of fine cuisine. Parking is not an excuse; there’s convenient valet service at the head of Villita Street just past the Hilton.
And Chef Chene might want to tighten up on just a couple of items before the return of the native(s). Our yellowfin tuna tartare, enlivened with scallions and jewel-like, wasabi-tinted tobiko, came across as impeccably fresh but lacking in verve. It needed the advertised Asian dressing that, if present, was exercising Butterfly-like restraint. A little sesame oil, perhaps?
Roasted Texas Hill Country quail comes handsomely bedded on sautéed apple slices, stuffed with paté, drizzled with a cider emulsion and, get this, enhanced with slices of truffle slipped under the skin. OK, we’re being really picky here, but both Dining Companion (in a spectacular Armani blouse of what I can only describe as pieced ribbon) and I found the loose paté a little too assertive for the delicate bird. But the package is nonetheless impressive — and perfect for a pinot noir-based wine from the awardwinning wine list.
We split a salad as an interlude between appetizers and main courses, choosing from a list that included a caprese by any other name, one of mâche with pear, warm goat cheese and argan oil (an exotic nut from North Africa), and another of field greens with marinated goat cheese and dried cranberries in an aged sherry vinaigrette.
Earthy, licorice notes informed the 2004 Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers we had poured earlier in anticipation of the entrées. A somewhat austere and restrained wine, it needed time to relax, and the spring setting of Fig Tree’s patio encouraged it to do just that.
Strains of a concert at the nearby Arneson River Theater wafted over ivycovered walls; barges, set for a floating feast, drifted by on the river; and the restaurant’s own water features dampened any straying conversation from the growing crowd of diners arrayed at various levels from river to street. In all, an almost enchanted environment.
We were equally transported by the Tournedos Rossini, a classic preparation involving more truffles in its lush Perigourdine sauce with Madeira. Unlike many traditional French dishes where the sauce — in this case, an especially rich and exotic one — takes over, the Fig Tree fillet fought back with rich, meaty tastes of its own, enhanced by a welcome taste of the grill. The slabs of foie gras set atop the fillet, part of the Perigourdine preparation, were almost superfluous in context but welcome nonetheless. More finely chopped truffle (not the synthetic “truffle” oil often used) infused the accompanying mashed potatoes, which were very good.
Chanterelles were the prevailing fungus in the wild rice mixture accompanying our roasted duck breast with huckleberry sauce, and I frankly could have used more of them. The duck was dutifully cooked to a medium rare. Fig Tree’s iconoclastic version of a Beef Wellington, a mustard-mint crusted lamb rack with Moroccan couscous, and prosciutto-wrapped yellowfin tuna with soy sauce and soba noodles are other options, and they illustrate the range of disparate cuisines that have crept into the once almost fully French menu over the years.
Baked Alaska is one of those Continental classics that has probably seen many sources — and Fig Tree adds its own excitement with a final flaming in Grand Marnier. Oh, we could have had a chocolate bombe or a pear-almond tart, but the night seemed to want for a little flame. (Bananas Foster and Cherries Jubilee are other pyrotechnic possibilities.)
The meringue, in this case, is orange-inflected as well, and the ice creams are chocolate and pistachio. Our waiter kept referring to the meringue as marshmallow — and in a sense he was nearly right; it could have been stiffer for my taste. But then it doesn’t get much time in the oven, for obvious reasons, so my advice is to go for it as is. A split of Taittinger brut would taste pretty good right about now, too. As it did.
Author: Ron Bechtol
Photographer: Janet Rogers