GET OUT YOUR PENCILS, STUDENTS. This is a pop quiz.
Question: Where in Texas can you find all of the following dishes: grilled shiitake mushrooms, creole-style paella with seafood and sausage, an eggplant-and-portobello sandwich, and ostrich flank steak with a sesame-soy glaze? If you answered Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, or Austin, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. The correct answer is—oompah fanfare, please—Fredericksburg.
For years this Hill Country village has attracted swarms of tourists, but not because of its food. Until now, you came to stroll around downtown, poke into shops in German stone buildings, stay in über-cute bed-and-breakfast inns, pick fresh peaches at dozens of orchards, and climb the lovely mammiform dome of Enchanted Rock. But with a few notable exceptions, when it came time to dine, you were out of luck. Well, friends of Fredericksburg, that has changed. In the past four years, but especially in the past two, the city’s country cafes and ubiquitous schnitzel-and-sausage houses have been augmented by several excellent and varied restaurants that, culinarily speaking, have not only brought Texas’ very own Munchkinland into the twentieth century but readied it for lift-off into the twenty-first.
Before we get down to details, though, a word of reassurance for diehards: Fusion cuisine has not totally eclipsed Fredericksburg’s cherished culinary traditions. Just because you can now order a romaine salad with sherry-pecan vinaigrette doesn’t mean you can’t still get plain old coleslaw. You can still have cutlets and cabbage with the home folks at Friedhelm’s, Tex-Mex and sausage plates at the Altdorf, barbecue at Ken Hall’s, blue plate lunches at Andy’s Diner and the White Buffalo, and American and German breakfasts and more at George’s bakery and the Gallery. And of course, the best of the old stalwarts—the inimitable Peach Tree tea room and the Hill Top Cafe—are still turning out casual but beautifully prepared food that would pass muster in cities many times the size of Fredericksburg. So don’t panic: The Hill Country’s most picturesque micropolis is not losing its roots; it’s just adding new ones.
Open for two years, the Nest tops the list of the five best new places in town (the total would have been six if the highly regarded Stag’s Leap hadn’t unexpectedly closed last fall). The Nest isn’t just sophisticated for Fredericksburg; it’s sophisticated, period. The strongly Mediterranean menu is smart and up-to-the-minute, and so is the minimally decorated space, with gleaming pine floors, arched doorways, and black and white photographs hung on walls the color of toffee ice cream. That’s it: no carpets, no curtains, no clutter.
Chances are you wouldn’t limit yourself to one item if you were to visit the Nest, but if you had to—well, as I was told by at least five people, “You gotta have the mussels.” This strapping appetizer consisted of more than two dozen of the exquisitely tender, steamed mollusks in a bowl brimming with a buttery, cilantro-infused shellfish broth—a brilliant combination that was ample for a friend and myself.
Perusing the entrées, we finally settled on two contrasting dishes, one from the land and one from the sea. My grilled quail, two meaty little linebackers, were served on excellent polenta. Because they were unboned, they were a hassle to eat, but that was more than compensated for by the accompanying mushroom sauce. Lightly flecked with herbs, dense with small crimini mushrooms, and intensely flavorful, it was like a fantastic cream of mushroom soup. The polenta, cut into firm wedges and sautéed, became a handy sponge for soaking up that irresistible sauce.
At first, the Nest’s sautéed shrimp with citrus-garlic sauce and turnip mashed potatoes sounded a little iffy. But in the hands of chef-owner John Wilkinson (a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of the Ritz Carlton in Aspen), the oddball combination was a smashing success. The mashed potatoes were terrific, the turnips giving the potatoes character and the potatoes smoothing out the turnips’ aggressive flavor. As for the five plump, tender-crisp shrimp, they could not have been more expertly cooked. The only, minor problem was that their garlicky hollandaise sauce was short on its promised citrus tang.
For dessert, we abandoned the quasi-familiar for the quasi-exotic—grapefruit sorbet surrounded by cinnamon-sprinkled pastry crisps and morsels of fresh fruit, and lavender ice cream in a red-wine sauce. Dominated by vanilla, the ice cream had not a hint of the promised lavender, but it melted seductively into the accompanying sauce, softening its tannic bite with each spoonful. The icy grapefruit sorbet, three crunchy, sunrise-colored scoops, was as sweetly astringent as a Rio Star from the Valley. 607 S. Washington; 830-990-8383. Dinner Sunday, Monday, and Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrées $9 to $19.
Back on Main Street, Cajun and Southwestern cuisines give focus to the menu at the Navajo Grill, which is no surprise, considering that chef and owner Steve Howard cooked in New Orleans at Emeril’s, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, and Nola’s. Located in the heart of town, the Grill is one of the most appealing of Fredericksburg’s new restaurants, with subtle taupe walls, frosted glass sconces, and a brick terrace that can be enclosed in the winter or opened to the breezes in the spring.
Whatever else you order at the Grill, be sure to try the house salad of crisp baby greens, if for no other reason than to have a shot of the fine tart-sweet cilantro vinaigrette. (In fact, salads are fresh and sassy at all the new restaurants; I hardly ever had a loser.) Salads aside, the rest of the meal honored the restaurant’s Cajun-Southwestern orientation. A cluster of fresh, crisp sautéed shrimp in a peppy remoulade sauce was arranged on angel-hair pasta and topped with Asiago cheese. (The nopales—cactus pads—blended into the sauce lent more texture than flavor.) A special with similar elements, the escolar with linguine offered a nearly three-inch-tall knob of the firm white fish atop pasta in a snappy creole-style tomato-cream sauce.