Posts Tagged ‘Atmosphere’

Olmos Perk

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Just south of the railroad tracks on McCullough in Olmos Park you will find The Yard. The location, once a rail yard, still evidenced by the old railcars housed there, some of which are now storefronts, has always intrigued me. Sadly, for many, many years The Yard was a ghost town with a feel not unlike a true rail yard: sparse, cold, and dilapidated. Over the last couple of years The Yard has seen a wonderful vitalization, led in no small part by the outstanding Olmos Perk.

My first visit to Olmos Perk seals the deal. Unlike other places you have to warm up to, or which seem to have to warm up to you, Olmos Perk immediately welcomes you into its fold. I walk up to the counter, slightly awkward, trying to discern the menu, not because there is anything inherently counter-intuitive about it, just trying to get my bearings in an unfamiliar place. A pleasant man greets me and asks if I need any help. Nothing unusual. I state this is my first time at Olmos Perk and he in an even friendlier tone says, “Well, that’s great! Glad to have you!” Not in an excited, lab puppy kind of way. Just genuine and easy. I am now a frequent visitor. As with any eating establishment, each visit presents an opportunity for disappointment, but I never am. The service is consistently good and amiable. It’s like having a great neighbor.

A neighbor who also happens to be well connected, but without the name dropping, glad-handing, false-smile attitude, and all while happily fostering connections among its connections. We all have a friend who seems to know everyone and who is like glue, like Kevin Bacon to use a tired metaphor. Olmos Perk is this friend. It is not unusual for me to see people from far-reaching parts of my life all converge on some random Friday at Olmos Perk.

This down to earth, forthcoming, more the merrier approach permeates Olmos Perk. The fixtures are stylish without being pretentious. The furnishings are contemporary but comfortable. The vibe is relaxed, with a studious side, given its bank of open-faced computer cubicles and free wi-fi, enhancing an already stay awhile style.

Then there is the coffee which is really why I am here. Provided by local coffee roasters, Kiva Coffee, the coffee at Olmos Perk is superb, smooth and rich. I almost always get a latte unless it is screaming hot outside. (I mean, it is not impossible to hit 90 before 9am in San Antonio in August.) In that case, it is an iced coffee black with a hint of sugar. Mostly though, I always think about getting something other than a latte then order a latte. This is no way the fault of Olmos Perk. They offer several varieties of specialty coffees, smoothies and Italian sodas. They also offer various baked goods and pastries provided by the venerable Broadway Daily Bread. All fantastic.

Bottomline: You may have to go a little out of your way to get to Olmos Perk but it is well worth the detour. Great atmosphere, greater coffee, the greatest people. Go and you will have a friend for life, a great life.

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Specht’s Store

Monday, April 26th, 2010

It is hard to imagine when you are there that Specht’s Store is only about 10-15 minutes north of Stone Oak on Specht Road off of Blanco Road. A world away from the congestion and onslaught of humanity and houses is a place of wide open spaces, a couple cows and trees…and Specht’s Store. According to its website, the store that is now Specht’s was originally built in 1887. In 1908 William Specht purchased the store, changed its name, and added a saloon and dancehall, which operated along side the general store. Much of the original structures and fixtures remain to this day, lending Specht’s not only infinite character, but also one gets a true glimpse of Texana history. Along side this wonderful atmosphere, you can also find, as accurately advertised on its website, home-cooking, live music, a game of horseshoes and a killer sunset. We experienced all of this at Specht’s (along with cool breezes on the night we went) and enjoyed ourselves immensely doing it. http://www.spechts.com/index.html

The food is really good, surprisingly good actually. Expecting decent, but average, burger joint fare, we received well done, grandma in the kitchen, home-cooking. My bacon cheeseburger was well seasoned, with perfectly cooked, crispy (not crunchy) bacon on top. All the fixings were fresh, bright and flavorful. The fries were thick cut, which is my preference, golden with a fluffy interior. My Mr.’s chicken fried chicken was excellent. The chicken was tender, not chewy, and the wonderful breading was not in the least doughy, heavy or greasy. The plate came with two sides. One, home-style mashed potatoes, cooked through, piping hot, but left a little lumpy, with some texture, ladled with white cream gravy with great flavor, made even better with a little doctoring of a bit of black pepper. Oh…so good! The second side was a bowl of green beans and bacon. Usually, I am not a big fan of really well done green beans, but add some bacon and good amount of seasoning, I’m a convert.

The service is, as expected, very friendly. The only negative thing I have to say is that they were out of Dos Equis and limes (that’s what you get for going on a Sunday after a crazy busy beautiful Saturday night). So we settled on Tecate and Modelo with lemons. Not perfect, but certainly not horrible.

Specht’s is family friendly – kids are able to run around in the side yard adjacent to the covered patio and stage (this is also where the horseshoes are set up). Bottom line, Specht’s offers up wonderful atmosphere, excellent food, great music, cold beer and GOOD TIMES!


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Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I have to tell you – I just love the atmosphere at Gristmill in Gruene, Texas. On a beautiful Texas day, there are very few better places to eat. Gristmill has outdoor seating on its many decks looking out over the woods and river. But you don’t have to eat outside to enjoy the scenery or the pleasant weather. The indoor seating is much like eating on a covered patio. On nice days, Gristmill opens the windows, letting a nice breeze run through the dining area. On the Sunday we went, we ate inside right next to one of those open windows – you could hear the leaves rustling and the river rushing (thanks to the many rainy days prior – very nice to hear and see after the months long drought). http://gristmillrestaurant.com

As it advertises, Gristmill is located beneath the Gruene water tower in an old cotton gin overlooking the Guadalupe River and is considered on the most unique dining spots in Texas. I cannot argue with that claim. It is one of the most unique restaurants I have ever eaten at. Gristmill has character in spades. The place is steeped in history and is endlessly interesting. You can almost feel the presence of the Texans who made their living there in the aged brick walls, the only remaining portion of original structure, scarred by the fire that brought the mill down in 1922. Despite its expanse, Gristmill feels warm and familiar with its hand hewn wide plank wood floors and huge beams and countless pieces of memorabilia. Our server was sweet and friendly, attentive and quick, which only added to the welcoming atmosphere.

But frankly, while the atmosphere is original and distinct, the entrees are rather average and ordinary. On the day we went, I had the Chicken Acapulco, a marinated chicken breast grilled then topped with a homemade pico de gallo and sour cream. The chicken breast was well seasoned, but small, and the pico de gallo was less than fresh. The entrée also included one side, a choice of Pinto Beans, Homemade Mashed Potatoes, Gruene Beans, Steamed Fresh Veggies, Potato Salad, Hill Country Cole Slaw or “Gristmill Fries” Original Round Cut Fries. Anything else would have been better than my choice of the “Gristmill Fries” which were more than a little disappointing. My side of “Gristmill Fries” amounted to nothing more than a single potato sliced moderately thin, lengthwise, fried and dusted with cheap seasoning salt. They were limp and unappealing. As disappointed as I was, double that if I had actually purchased them a la carte for $3.49. In my opinion, $3.49 is too high a price for any side of fries. But if I ordered fries for that price and been presented with what I received, I may have actually sent them back, something I think I have done maybe twice in my entire life and once it was for a bug in my food.

My Mr. ordered the Chicken Fried Chicken with a side of the homemade and homestyle, skin-in, mashed potatoes, and white gravy. The mashed potatoes were good and, thankfully, plentiful so that I could share. I only wish they were a bit hotter in temperature, salted a bit more and the gravy a little more peppery. The chicken fried chicken was perhaps the smallest I’d ever seen in Texas. In fact, it was so small that my husband ate it before I even got a bite, which is unheard of – I always get a bite. Although he did eat it all, he ranked it low in taste and texture, and explained his empty plate with his incredible hunger.

On a high note, my parents both ordered the Gruene Bros. “Best” Wurst, links of Falls City, Texas, Polish wedding sausage, served with BBQ sauce and spicy mustard, which they really enjoyed. I thought it was a bit dry, but had great flavor. The side of Hill Country Cole Slaw was a particular standout, with its fantastic vinegar base and crisp cabbage.


Bottomline on Gristmill. Go for the atmosphere on a blue sky day (have lunch/dinner early – the crowds and the wait grow pretty quickly, especially on a nice weather weekend), order the sausage, a burger or one of their tasty sandwiches (I have had the Grilled Chicken Sandwich and Gruene Country Club Sandwich on previous visits and was absolutely pleased with both. I have also heard really good things about the Beef Tenderloin Sandwich, although I have never tried it). Skip the fries. Have a cold brew, sit back and relax. And you will have a great dining experience. Then head over to Gruene Hall, the oldest continually operating dance hall in the State of Texas, for some great music, more amazing atmosphere and another cold brew. You just can’t beat that for a fun-filled afternoon (or evening).

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Cafe Cenizo (Marathon, TX)

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

In the middle of nowhere, in the blank interior of the triangle formed by Big Bend National Park, Alpine and Fort Stockton, Texas lies the small ranching and oil town of Marathon. In that town sits the magical Gage Hotel. Originally constructed by Alfred Gage in 1927, the hotel also served as the ranch headquarters for the 500,000 acre ranch owned by Gage, a transplant from Vermont. The hotel then sat unoccupied for many years, the commerce of Marathon no longer able to support it. That is until an oilman and Son of Texas, J.P. Bryan, bought it and took on the decades long restoration process to restore the hotel to its old glory. With that mission accomplished and, new hacienda-style rooms, Los Portales, added, the Gage Hotel is now a destination not to be missed. The Gage’s beauty and mystique is matched equally by its restaurant, Café Cenizo. The painstaking attention to detail and the authenticity to culture and lifestyle found throughout the property are also most certainly found at Café Cenizo and in the food it serves. http://www.gagehotel.com/

We began our evening at the White Buffalo Bar (the White Buffalo also a transplant – this time Wyoming), the intimate and authentic Texas bar adjoining Café Cenizo. And while it serves up a wide array of specialty tequilas and margaritas, I decided on a fine Pinot Noir, the Mr. ordered a Cab, and we sat back with our son enjoying the warm atmosphere and toasty fire before our meal. Once seated, we again were treated to a decidedly relaxed, comfortable atmosphere where the only outward indications of fine dining came with the quiet, candlelit setting and the white table linens. No pretention here.

The same holds true for the food. But don’t equate lack of pretention with ordinary or uninspired. Rather, the food is sophisticated and imaginative, while honoring the ingredients and flavors of the southwest. Appetizers include Grilled Quail with black currant veloute sauce, persimmon bread salad in apple vinaigrette, Pan Seared Sweetbreads, Scallop Cocktail with a red pepper sorbet, Duck Risotto, Braised Shortribs with a green chile polenta, Ginger Sweet Potato Soup, Chipotle Dusted Jumbo Shrimp with white bean puree, avocado mousse and tortilla crisps. Entrees include Mole Rubbed Tenderloin with mashed potatoes in a poblano cream sauce and chayote squash, Crispy Skinned Adobo Rubbed Chicken with a cilantro rice and refried white beans, Duck Enchiladas, Pan Seared Scallops with a roasted sweet corn chowder, Grilled Lamb Chops with herbed couscous, tomato and pearl onion confit, in an orange-coriander demi-glace, Wagyu Ribeye with oregano roasted potatoes, ranchero sauce and sautéed kale, Chicken Fried Steak, Pepper Crusted Venison with potatoes au gratin and a truffled mushroom demi-glace.

As you can imagine it took some time to order. No matter, we just continued to sip our wine leisurely. The server checking in occasionally, not rushing or pushing, answering questions about the menu, at which he was obviously uncomfortable or untrained. We are still unsure of whether the venison my Mr. ordered was local axis, as another server indicated to the patrons sitting beside us, or shipped in from eastern New Zealand as our server told us. My Mr. ordered it anyway and it was excellent (more on that a little later). Decisions made, we started with the Chipotle Dusted Jumbo Shrimp with white bean puree, avocado mousse and tortilla crisps. Visually, the dish was beautiful, the taste…incredible. Not usually a big bean fan, it is amazing what a lot of butter can do to change one’s mind. The bean puree was creamy and silky, with none of the usual chalkiness. The richness of the beans played wonderfully against the heat of the chipotle on the perfectly cooked shrimp and in the chipotle sauce drizzled on top. Not tangential, the rich avocado mousse rounded out the flavor by adding a touch of sweetness. The tortilla crisps while mostly decorative brought some crunch to the dish, which I always appreciate. Needless to say, the plate had not a spot left on it – we used the remaining bread served earlier to literally wipe the plate clean.

For my entrée, I ordered Grilled Lamb Chops with herbed couscous, tomato and pearl onion confit, in an orange-coriander demi-glace. The dish, an obvious nod to traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, was delicious. While one of the chops was slightly undercooked and fatty, the other was cooked to a succulent medium rare. Both chops had a good sear on the outside and great overall flavor. The herbed couscous was a delightful and appropriate side. I particularly enjoyed the tomatoes and onion confit, sweet and fun as some of the tomatoes had not burst in the cooking process, so I got to “pop” them in my mouth. Bringing the dish together was the orange-coriander demi-glace. Not in the least overpowering, the sauce scented and accented the dish nicely. As with our appetizer, this entrée was a complete experience for your palate; there was no lingering feeling that something, somehow was missing.

In keeping with Texas, the portions are substantial at Café Cenizo. Not wanting to be wasteful, I ate the last of my lamb by dipping it into the extraordinary, wildly addictive, truffled mushroom demi-glace served with my Mr.’s entrée. As said before, his Pepper Crusted Venison with potatoes au gratin and a truffled mushroom demi-glace was excellent. The venison grilled to a spot on medium rare. The potatoes au gratin were very well done – the potatoes fork tender, the sharp cheese sharp matching well with the strength of the pepper and venison, and the top fabulously golden. But the star of the show was the definitely the sauce. Once I finished the lamb, I was still looking around for things to dip into it.

Finally, not wanting to skip dessert, but having no more room and barely able to move, we ordered a Chocolate Blueberry Peanut Butter Tort to go (which the kitchen did with absolutely no problem, even including cloth napkins and silver) and we rolled back to our room. After some time to settle, we dug into the dessert, which was only average. The chocolate glistened, but the other elements were disappointing. I am glad the dessert experience was separate, in both time and place, from our main meal since the dinner was so wonderful.

This is not the first time we have eaten at Café Cenizo and it will not be our last. The Gage Hotel holds a special place in our hearts; and we are not alone – we met a couple who have been going there every year since 1983. The Gage is also incredibly popular – it was completely booked. We would come to the Gage regardless since it is a wonderful place and makes a perfect one night layover before heading into Big Bend National Park for a few days. The fact that one can get amazing food here as well is just a cherry on top.

Cafe Cenizo on Urbanspoon

Sushihana

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Girl’s Night Out found us at Sushihana this month. http://www.sushihanasan.com/ Sushihana is a contemporary Japanese sushi bar and restaurant, centrally located on N.W. Military Highway. The same restauranteurs who own and operate Taipei Chinese Restaurant, a San Antonio institution, also own and operate Sushihana. Their expertise is reflected in each and every detail. The atmosphere is fashionably zen in keeping with its Asian fusion food. Every aspect of service is spot on, yet friendly. Our server accommodated my request for Merlot when a Cabernet was offered at Happy Hour. He even ran after me in the rain when I forgot my leftover soup on the table. And the food is fantastic!

We started with the Happy Hour offering Four for You, a 28 piece mix of Spicy Tuna Roll (spicy mayo, sriracha, cucumber & masago), Salmon Avocado Roll (salmon and avocado with rice outside), New Orleans Roll (spicy crawfish, avocado, topped with spicy tuna, snow crab and tobikko), and Spicy Girl Roll (black pepper tuna, avocado, topped with snow crab and chili pepper). A great deal at $19.00! Every roll was really good, made with fresh ingredients – the avocado perfectly green, the cucumber crisp and flavorful, the fish bright in color and taste. While I enjoyed all the rolls, the New Orleans Roll was the stand out. The heat of the spicy tuna and crawfish offset against the creamy cool avocado and sweet snow crab was just delicious. For sushi on a budget, Happy Hour at Sushihana can’t be beat.

We also shared an order of Harru Maki (Japanese spring rolls). They were crunchy, not greasy, but relatively average. The fabulous orange sweet and sour dipping sauce (with chile flakes) is what set this appetizer apart. Sitting at home by myself I may have dipped and licked my fingers too. Sushihana offers many more intriguing appetizers, including Crab Cakes with Asian slaw and ginger soy butter sauce, Seared Scallops on wilted spinach with bacon, enoki mushrooms and crispy leeks, and Pepper Tuna with daicon radishes and Ponzu (a Japanese citrus based sauce).

For my entrée I ordered the seafood udon in dashi broth. Loaded with fresh seafood and a ton of fresh vegetables, including broccoli florets, carrots, snow peas and seaweed (is seaweed a vegetable?), this soup is both incredibly flavorful and healthy. A couple of the other items on the menu which piqued my interest were the Orange Miso Sea Bass poached in sake and served with shitake fried rice, snow peas and garlic ginger sauce, and the Grilled Atlantic Salmon topped with cilantro crab and glazed with ginger soy butter with wok fried green beans and sticky rice. I am SO looking forward to future visits so I can try both. And while seafood reigns supreme, Sushihana also offers what look like excellent beef, pork and chicken entrees.

This was only my second visit to Sushihana, but I can comfortably say that it is my favorite sushi restaurant in San Antonio. You will find all the traditional sushi restaurant offerings on the Sushihana menu: gyozo, miso soup, squid and seaweed salads, nigiri, sashimi and tempura. What I believe truly sets Sushihana apart from the others is not only the level of quality of the ingredients used in all of its dishes, but the creativity and imagination also seen in many of its sushi roll, appetizer and entrée offerings. Sushihana serves amazing sushi and so, so much more!

Sushihana on Urbanspoon

Tong’s Thai Restaurant

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Tong’s Thai Restaurant is located just outside Alamo Heights on Austin Highway. Despite being open for years, my first experience there came on Wednesday at lunch with my Mr. and the little one. I have driven past Tong’s innumerable times and always thought it looked like an oasis in the midst of a somewhat questionable area, even as that area is seeing a bit of revitalization. And in that regard it doesn’t disappoint. The front patio seating is well screened from the Austin Highway sights and sounds by tropical plants and palms, even though they are a bit ragged. The atmosphere inside is warm and interesting, clean and neat, with modern touches, set along side the more stereotypical, but unique, Asian-influenced art and artifacts. http://www.tongsthai.com/

Tong’s offers authentic Asian cuisine with an emphasis on Thai and Chinese dishes. The lunch specials are very reasonably priced and the meals presented quickly by a friendly, courteous and attentive wait staff, making Tong’s a perfect place to go for lunch if you work in the area. A caveat to this recommendation is that the parking is extremely tight and limited, and the lunch crowd relatively large, which can result in a pretty frustrating situation. Although I did not have any trouble getting a space in my compact car, my Mr. in his full-size truck had to park across Austin Highway in parking lot between a no-tell motel and Nosh restaurant (P.S. Nosh is on my wish list – this sister restaurant to Silo serves tapas and cocktails – crossing my fingers on a future post!).

I ordered the Pad Thai since I cannot resist it even when I fully intend to try to something new (besides I am performing a survey on the best Pad Thai in San Antonio – so in the interest of science and my stomach…). Sadly, Tong’s Pad Thai missed the mark for me. The noodles were chewy and while the chicken and tofu were cooked nicely, the shrimp were well overdone and rubbery. The overall flavor of the dish was fine, especially after some doctoring with some fish sauce and sambal Thai chile sauce.

On the other hand, Mr.’s Shrimp Pad Khing (Ginger) was much tastier in my opinion, with plenty of carrots, onion, black mushrooms and strips of ginger, and the shrimp cooked properly. Mr. commented the ginger could have been more pronounced in the dish. But in my bite the ginger was strong and good, with a wonderful peppery kick. He also felt the portion size was a bit weak, including the rice, but in my survey around the room, the other diners did not seem to have this issue, especially those who ordered Thai bowls (essentially the main dish served without rice or a spring roll). And my portion, while not overly generous, was certainly appropriate for a lunch special serving.

The absolute highlight of the meal actually came at the beginning, but I wanted to save the best for last. We started with a cup of the Hot and Sour Soup, which we agreed could quite possibly be the best Hot and Sour soup we have ever tasted. Smooth and silky, loaded with vegetables, this flavorful soup also packed some real heat which, while not for the timid, I happen to really enjoy. Pair a whole bowl of this soup with Tong’s tasty, not in the least greasy, spring rolls and you have a great lunch worth going to back to again and again.

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