It’s not easy being an icon. Either you’re relegated to senior-citizen status and effectively ignored, or you’re constantly called into question by youngsters determined to depose you from the throne. Chef François Maeder could probably care less either way.
As I remember it, Swiss-born Maeder burst onto the San Antonio restaurant scene at the briefly incandescent Alamo Fish Market & Bakery on the River Walk — a site that’s still looking for a new tenant. In 1980, he took over an Alamo Heights restaurant that now, much expanded, houses Paloma Blanca Mexican Cuisine. From the beginning there were palm leaves and Napoleons (a 1978 Texas Monthly review of the Fish Market noted “a stunning assortment of breads, rolls and pastries”), followed by sauces sporting green peppercorns, salads with creamy vinaigrettes and perfect, house-made patés of a sort only hinted at by such earlier icons as the late, lamented La Louisianne. There was, in short, a kind of European sensibility that locals were mostly familiar with through travels abroad — or to New York, which can often qualify as an “abroad-like” experience. Esquire recognized Crumpets as one of its Best 100 Restaurants country-wide in the early years.
None of that changed with the move to airy new digs on Harry Wurzbach Road. The exquisite setting in a grove of trees might have been expected to inspire a new kind of cuisine, but Maeder clung to his roots, and the menu evolved slowly as it also developed an emphasis on heart-healthy cuisine. The health factor might have been responsible in part for a culinary offshoot, the Gourmet Rafting Trips, now in their 25th year. I went on one of these trips with Maeder in the Big Bend Na- Bytional Park in the event’s early years, and many images still remain. Among the most vivid is one of a raft full of gold-rimmed china and proper wine glasses bouncily navigating the same rapids as the rest of us. Elegance in the outdoors was further emphasized by a classical duo that serenaded rafters around the campfire, and, of course, by the food and wine. Yes, Beef Wellington can be pulled off — in the right hands — without a commercial oven, and salmon somehow tastes even better in the dying light reflected from towering canyon walls. It’s another given that breakfast never tasted as good — despite, or maybe because of, cowboy-style coffee that Starbucks sorts would scorn in an urban setting.
Back at home, if the time-capsule menu is of little interest to those always in search of the next new thing, it is a source of great comfort to others. Marinated Gulf shrimp, two patés, deftly stuffed mushrooms and baked brie with almonds dominate dinner’s appetizers. Pastas such as Alfredo and primavera unabashedly feature cream sauces. (I could be waxing nostalgic here, but I think the Crumpets primavera — with spinach fettuccine, steamed vegetables and a Champagne cream sauce enlivened with cayenne — may have been my introduction to the now-classic dish. Or maybe it was the one with rotini and the whipped vinaigrette.) Duck breast á la François may have been another first for me, at least locally. And I’m personally happy to see that a perfect tenderloin can still be had with Bordeaux, bearnaise or green peppercorn/ Cognac sauces — though these days I’d pick the New York strip for its deeper flavor.
Sautéed calf liver is gussied up with shallots or apple at dinnertime, but it’s prepared with more casual onions at lunch, and that’s just fine with me. I had it recently on one of those perfect December days in San Antonio — a day tailor- made for dining outside on Crumpets’ leafy patio. Maybe it was the outdoor setting — not quite Big Bend, but evocative all the same — but this was liver as it should be done: thinly sliced but still medium-rare, slathered in caramelized onions and unashamed of its butter. Even the simply steamed carrots and beans, a preparation that would normally invite indifference, seemed to work. (And, remember, there was that butter …) And there were the diminutive croissants a generous four of them in a basket — no butter needed in this case — to remind us that the bakery that helped start it all is still alive and well. From that same source (calories consumed outside count for less, you know) also came a generous slice of strawberry Chantilly cake. Billed as a “light” cake, the layers are nevertheless fat with a soaking of custard crème, and there’s a topping of Chantilly studded with bits of fresh strawberry. Though I have been known to sniff over desserts, notably chocolate ones, that are served too cold, this cake is perfect just as it comes.
To be served at whatever temperature you like — and for whatever occasion — the bakery also offers Swiss chocolate buttercream, Black Forest, hazelnut and the baroque Crumpets Delight, among other cakes. Fresh fruit tarts are available. And those primal palm leaves still figure prominently, along with pastry swans, cream puffs and chocolate-dipped strawberries. There’s no need to fiddle with chocolate-dipped strawberries.