Lüke Brings New Orleans to the River Walk

To denizens of the Crescent City, chef John Besh must be the culinary equivalent of one of Japan’s National Treasures. Not only does he have several successful restaurants, but he has just come out with a second cookbook and is a frequent apostle of New Orleans (and just plain good) cooking on shows such as Top Chef and Iron Chef. It’s flattering, then, that Besh chose San Antonio as the location of his first restaurant outside of Louisiana. Head-to-head comparisons of the two cities are neither possible nor useful, but Lüke did try to stack the deck in its favor by selecting a site on the River Walk, an environment that, for all its charms, NOBODY can replicate. Though it does have some outdoor tables more-or-less overlooking the fabled waterway, it’s unfortunate, then, that the restaurant otherwise takes little advantage of its prime setting, and there’s not much but clever ceiling fans in the way of inner-focused interest to compensate. Charm will have to come from elements other than décor.

Fortunately, charm is readily at hand in the form of one of the bar’s well-made Sazeracs, a New Orleans classic made with actual Sazerac rye and Herbsaint, another favorite of French Quarter bars. A French 75 with cognac and Champagne and a St. Rita with St. Germain elderflower liqueur and Don Julio tequila are other possibilities, and should you be there during daily happy hour, Gulf oysters and excellent empanada-like meat pies are both plentiful and advantageously priced. The menu, which attempts to incorporate some elements of German Hill Country cooking, has evolved in the year or so the restaurant has been open, but dishes from the New Orleans canon remain a mainstay. Oysters Bienville, with shrimp and mushrooms, are one such classic (Lüke adds crab and leaves out some other ingredients, it seems), but even allowing for variations on a traditional theme, these don’t work: They’re all crumbs and cayenne. Fortunately, a creatively served and thoroughly delightful paté of rabbit and quail livers more than compensates. The truffle “perfume” comes through in judicious measure, the paté’s texture is voluptuous, and accompaniments such as house-made mustard and watermelon pickle are perfect. Other patés and terrines, wild boar and Berkshire pork rillettes among them, suggest settling down with a lusty beer or two from the excellent list and simply not budging for hours.

From the menu in force at the time of this review, fried oysters were available only as an accompaniment to a salad with romaine, Alan Benton’s most excellent bacon and avocado. This is a shame, for though the salad is adequate, the oysters themselves are paragons of bivalve pulchritude; everybody should fry them this well, and we simply wanted more. Though not necessarily with the béarnaise sauce that accompanied our “slow-cooked” hanger steak. Low on taste and tarragon, the sauce was the only weak link in the handsome board-served presentation. (The slow cooking, we were told, consists of a sous-vide process followed by grilling.) The steak was otherwise flavorful on its own, the bedding of caramelized onion was much appreciated, and the sidekick fries were good while hot. So, by the way, was the house-made bread, which has improved mightily since inaugural days.

The Alsatian sauerkraut specialty, choucroute garnie, is not on the current menu, but if it cycles around, don’t fear to take the plunge. House-made bratwurst is a part of that equation, and it was available in more of a featured role served with a potato and apple “hash.” As usual, the sausage was taut, moist and did its German heritage proud. We were less thrilled with the chunky hash, which, despite more good bacon, needed punch. A garlic sausage stars in Lüke’s deconstructed cassoulet, and it, too, might have benefited from more aggressive seasoning to distinguish it from the bratwurst. At this point, it’s fair to disclose that we have done a cassoulet production number in the past, complete with making garlic sausage, confiting duck and turning the crumbed crust over the requisite number of times in the oven, so the shortcut process is never going to please altogether. But for those unfamiliar with the dish, Lüke’s beans are well-flavored, and the fried sage is a welcome addition. With all this, a bottle of 2009 Domaine des Hauts Crozes Hermitage Les Galets did yeoman service, being at once light enough in body for bratwurst and adequately full-flavored for steak.

There is a list of daily specials on Lüke’s menu, and they include the classic red beans and rice. Have them here. Shrimp and grits are also to be tried wherever on the menu they may appear. We, however, have now come to dessert and Brendan’s bread pudding, named, if I remember correctly, for one of Besh’s sons. When sampled early on, flooded in hot buttered pecan sauce, it seemed entirely over-the-top. This time, the sauce had literally overflowed the pudding, with most of it ending up in the saucer below. We retrieved it as best we could and professed ourselves semi-satisfied. Just like the bread itself, we suspect they’ll get this right in due time.

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