These days, it’s difficult to keep up with San Antonio’s restaurant scene, even if you do so for a living. It seems like a promising newcomer pops up almost every week, taking risks (like recent entry Oky Doky Restaurant and Bar’s enchiladas and borscht) that would be unheard of in cities like Austin or Dallas. This summer, four newbies managed to set themselves apart from the crowd — and become the must-hit places to dine in this fall.
This Castle Hills delight from chef John and Elise Russ proves that chefs don’t have to fuss with elaborate techniques to make an impression. It’s not that it doesn’t sparkle on an Instagram feed, but the restaurant doesn’t value looks over taste.
The team did make the most of their location with large-scale art that nods to the eatery’s namesake fruit, and a trio pop art circles at the entrance that shield the dining room from the parking lot outside. When you dine there, it’s easy to forget you are in a strip mall. Each bite feels intimate, even when its shared with a capacity crowd.
I recommend letting the chefs have free reign by ordering the $54 “Feed Me” option. Using local ingredients, the team creates a bespoke coursed feast for the whole table with many of the plates unavailable anyplace else. A white mushroom salad, paper thin slices dressed in a slick of olive oil and brightened with Valley citrus and sprinkled with a little Pecorino cheese, was one of my favorite dishes of the year.
Call it the country cousin to Clementine. From the unassuming locale (the former home of Tre Enoteca) to the husband-and-wife duo, the two restaurants share a lot in common — especially when it comes to the purity of the cuisine.
Chef PJ Edward takes a slightly more rustic approach with a menu inspired by Southern cooking and seasonality. The team has approachability on its mind. It’s hard not to be seduced by a thick slab of cornbread — almost moist enough to be spoonbread — and slathered with either a spicy pimento cheese or a honey butter that throws in some lard because why not?
The vegetable dishes, however, are where the restaurant truly sings. On opening night, I was bowled over from a minimal salad of charred okra topped with crispy fried shallots and a pecan crumble and pristine house farfalle tossed with eggplant, smoked shiitake mushrooms, and delicate dill. Even acorn squash, that afterthought of many a Thanksgiving dinner, feels like a special occasion. (And I would eat the shishito jam by the spoonful.)
Andrew Goodman and Stefan Bowers’ already have a mischievous streak. Just look at the frisky touches at their other restaurant, whether its the Clockwork Orange-like atmosphere of Rebelle’s private dining room or the fireball chandeliers at Battalion. Playland has the acclaimed restaurateurs in full funhouse mode with a wall of convex mirrors and a punky collage that combines images of skulls with Macauley Culkin’s famous gasp from Home Alone.
That’s not to say that sourdough pizzas are just a goof. Chef Bowers manages to surprise by experimenting with familiar forms (the Heresy, for example, offers a tongue-in-cheek on controversial Hawaiian pies with shaved fresh pineapple and smoked ham). None quite reach the brilliance of the Forest Fire with bitter rapini bouncing off the brightness of cherry tomatoes and Calabrese chilis.
Don’t skip out on the starters like wings and dips. The jalapeño poppers — one breaded and stuffed with a sharp pimento cheese and another wrapped in lardo and stuffed with fried garlic and cream cheese — are essential, somehow finding revelation in one of America’s most common foods.
Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewing Oyster Bar
Okay, this isn’t a new restaurant per se, or really a restaurant at all. The new extension of the Pearl favorite, located in a kiosk just outside the door, offers a totally different experience than the eatery inside.
Southerleigh is a beer place, and head brewer Les Locke creative brews always dazzle, but start your visit with a sangria. Packaged like a fancy Capri Sun, it’s the kind of a spirit-lifer everyone needs after a long day at work. And it’s the perfect thing to sip while watching the parades of people (and a few adorable pugs) bustling about Pearl Park.
During a Friday happy hour, I snacked on a variety of East Coast oysters and a vibrant ceviche. All were up to the standards that have made the place a mainstay of best-of lists. Still, the star of the show was plain shrimp. Who woulda thunk they go so well with barbecue sauce?