Skinny is as skinny does. One taste of the transcendent grilled oysters in pancetta sauce invented by whippet-thin Englishman Bruce Auden proves it. Auden—all six feet one, 128 pounds of him—is the most underrated of Texas’ bright young chefs working in the New Southwestern-New American mode. He has never been part of the clique that sprang up when interest in regional ingredients surged. Guys like Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, and Robert Del Grande get the ink; meanwhile the diffident Auden gets better and better. After stints at Dallas’ short-lived Exposure and Charley’s 517 in Houston, he has moved on to San Antonio’s immaculately restored Fairmount Hotel—a little Victorian Italianate jewel box snatched from its fate as a flophouse by King Ranch heir and hotel co-owner B.K. Johnson, who had it hauled through downtown to a new site. Now Auden is busy turning out the most provocative food in the city at the 37-room Fairmount’s coolly handsome (and unfortunately named) restaurant, Polo’s. His arrival has galvanized the competition; local foodies contend that all the ambitious San Antonio restaurateurs are looking over their shoulders to see what Auden’s up to.
What he’s up to hinges partly on the dramatic open-to-view wood-burning oven that expands the possibilities of his small kitchen. From its 800-degree heart emerge cooked-in-a-flash pizzas that defy clichédom: A nicely singed, puffy-thin wheel of yellow cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, feta, and Dallas mozzarella punctuated with the slight tang of arugula is one brilliant example. Spectacular on their black Bennington plates, Auden’s pizzas lure local drop-ins who don’t want to spend lots; so do calzones like an herby, luxurious melt of cheeses with an earthy wild-mushroom note.
The restaurant’s daily bread issues from the same fiery furnace: rough, garlicky country loaves, wispy naan, and crackly wedges of pizza bread to eat with a head of slow-roasted garlic, plus a sampler of the relishes and salady garnishes Auden does so well. He even uses the oven to indulge the San Antonio passion for Mexican food, turning out a rustic black-bean-and-chorizo quesadilla that could hold its head up anywhere in town.
Auden’s best sauces always have been incandescent, and he’s got some terrific new ones: a luminous cilantro-lime butter that sets off a subtly curried corn-and-crabmeat flan; a smoky-suave chipotle cream or his crab-and-lobster enchilada; a burnished black-peppery demiglace with undercurrents of tamarind and maple, classic Auden in its deft use of a mere hint of natural sweetness and an apt backdrop for his grilled quail stuffed with spicy boudin sausage. San Antonio may have whetted his interest in Mexican flavors, but Auden is experimenting more and more with orientalisms. He keeps a pot of what he calls Viet stock simmering to make sauces like sesame butter for soft-shell crabs; he concocts a lime-spiked venison-and-rice-noodle salad that’s as Thai as they come; he does pleated veal-stuffed dumplings on a vivid ancho sauce that Uncle Tai would envy.
Grills, game, and smoked dishes form an increasing part of Auden’s repertoire—ironic for a product of North London suburbia who, when he arrived in Chicago to bus country club tables at age sixteen, "didn’t even know what rare and medium rare meant—I thought you just ate meat one way." Tapped for the club’s management-trainee program, Auden—who had never thought of cooking for a living—made it as far as the kitchen and decided that was where the fun was. He cut his American culinary teeth cooking "hamburgers and stuff like that." Now it’s second nature for Auden and sous-chefs Philip Rice and Mike Bomberg (New American types recruited from La Mansión del Rio and La Mansión del Norte, respectively) to labor in the back alley over a pair of hardware store-variety smokers. There they produce their intense, mahogany-skinned tea-smoked ducks and squabs, or the slow-smoked pheasant that electrifies a spinach salad tossed with tart apple and bacon.
So what’s the downside? Occasionally an Auden creation is executed with less conviction than its brave conception. Meaty, respectfully roasted swordfish could stand more than a whisper of lemongrass; mushy, pallid corned beef hash disappoints; crisp breakfast potatoes need more than a suggestion of rosemary. Such is the ferment of Auden’s brain—and menu—that exhaustion can set in, if only momentarily. "Grilled veal chop on fennel with achiote sauce and wild mushrooms served with mango chutney" looks nutty in print, for instance, but in reality is pleasant and nonterrifying. And while Auden’s exuberantly embellished plates often dazzle, sometimes they seem dauntingly busy.
The upside to Auden’s creative ferment is that he seldom bores and nothing escapes his attention. The soups du jour can be nothing short of miraculous, from exhilarating grilled chicken and poblano to a heady antelope consommé, dark as night and graced with one perfect kale-and-antelope-stuffed ravioli. Even breakfast, that most neglected of meals, is cause for thanksgiving at the Fairmount. San Antonian pastry chef Sophie Gold bakes extraordinary banana or maple-walnut muffins, pear nutbread, and English muffins herbed with fresh dill (at last, room-service breakfast worth ordering). Auden’s idea of suitable morning eats runs to colorful goat cheese frittatas or high, light Belgian waffles studded with dried sour cherries and almonds, then finished off with honey yogurt—not your basic skinny person’s food.