By JOHN DeMERS
I just got back from San Antonio – from the tourist-crazed Riverwalk, no less. And I just sampled and recorded a radio show at something I figured I’d never live to see: a restaurant not only good enough but serious enough about its culinary mission to lure SA locals into the nightly fray.
Chef John Besh, a friend from my New Orleans days and now quite the Emeril-Lite TV star, is renowned for his Crescent City successes going back to Restaurant August. Places like Besh Steakhouse, the original Luke and even his fresh-eyed spin on the old La Provence in Lacombe across Lake Pontchartrain have expanded and solidified his personal fan base, his personal brand. And after the traumas of Hurricane Katrina, the guy could have done worse than penning a mammoth cookbook about his lifelong love, titled My New Orleans.
His first venture outside Louisiana steers true to the original, which was an inexplicable tribute to a cuisine most diners in New Orleans and elsewhere hadn’t given a moment’s thought. Here, in the world of gumbo, etouffee and blackened everything, was a serious chef‘s take on German-French Alsatian food. In San Antonio, the new Luke “explains” (as much as great food ever needs an explanation) its menu with a nod to the heavy German influence in the Texas Hill Country.
Located within the also-new Embassy Suites Hotel, Luke is a kind of double-barreled brasserie: two stories of food and drink that stop short of oom-pah-pah but nonetheless serve up fun with the straight face you’d expect from a Frenchman sharing his foie gras. The whole thing is open to not only the San Antonio River and the Riverwalk but to itself. All food is prepared on the second floor, in a tirelessly moving open kitchen under the care of New Orleans Besh veteran Steven McHugh. That means waiters and trays are always on their way up and down the broad staircase. They all seem to be in excellent shape.
One of the best hot apps is the fried Texas quail with buttermilk ranch (no one ever failed to make friends in Texas by bringing more ranch dressing), while crab bisque wrestles with shrimp and sausage gumbo for best soup from the distant shore of the Sabine. I somehow missed my chance to sample my life’s first flammnkuchen, that famed Alsatian onion tart with bacon, Emmenthaler cheese and caraway. Great reason, as they say, to go back to Luke.
An excellent German-French entrée choice is the choucroute garnie –in some places, even in Alsace itself or in those reverential brasseries of Paris, mostly sauerkraut (which is okay with me). At Luke the dish celebrates Big Meat the way Dallas celebrates Big Hair. When all this is over, surely with a couple of Texas craft beers you haven’t tried before, you won’t have any room at all for dessert. Get the cheesecake in a jar anyway. Its clever presentation of Humble House mascarpone, red wine-stewed berries and Graham cracker crust will knock what little’s left of your socks off.