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. Chunks of roasted zucchini and eggplant bolstered the sauce, and ribbons of fresh basil provided a heady nip of flavor. 209 E. Main; 830-990-8289. Lunch Monday and Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10. Closed Tuesday. Entrées $15 to $24.
In almost every way, the Fredericksburg Brewing Company is the antithesis of the Nest and the Navajo Grill. It is, after all, a brewpub, serving the likes of Pedernales Pilsner, Jailhouse Bock, and Not So Dumb Blond Ale along with vast quantities of stout German fare. But behind the scenes, there is also a serious kitchen run by two serious cooks—the husband-and-wife team of Vickie Bonewitz (head chef) and Darrel Bonewitz (pastry chef)—both of whom have Certified Chef de Cuisine credentials from the American Culinary Federation, a nationwide professional chefs organization.
From half a dozen evening specials, I decided to try the ostrich ossobuco, simply because it was the most provocative item on the menu. Almost like a beef stew and made with the neck meat of the bird rather than the shank, the dish proved to be a delicious stand-in for the Milanese-style veal classic. The lean red meat, most of it tender but some of it sinewy, came in a thick, herbal, tomatoey ragoût that was laden with carrots and celery and saturated with the deep flavor of long cooking. The dish’s apt accompaniment was soft and creamy polenta, an absolutely world-class nursery food. Completely different in concept, the Brewing Company’s crawfish and scallops in vol-au-vent shells recalled the days before “butter” became a four-letter word. The little nests of puff pastry were filled to overflowing with crisp, smallish scallops and crawfish tails in a sybaritic cream sauce boosted by chopped leeks and bits of red bell pepper.
The desserts we sampled were, to echo Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, ready for their close-up. Even the firm, stocky German chocolate brownies were beautiful, iced and stacked two to an order in gorgeous puddles of chocolate sauce and crème anglaise. Ditto the apple strudel, a couture creation in a chestnut-colored pecan-praline sauce. A caveat: You can go into sugar shock just reading the menu descriptions of these dishes, much less eating them. Plan on splitting an order. 245 E. Main; 830-997-1646. Open Monday through Thursday 11: 30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10, and Sunday until 7. Entrées $10.75 to $15, specials to $22.
On the Austin end of Main, Ernie’s Mediterranean Grill is located in a spanking new shopping complex of faux-venerable cottages. Slightly schizophrenic, Ernie’s menu is an amalgam of Italian dishes (assorted pastas, tiramisù) and somewhat retro French classics (trout in maître d’ butter, seared duck breast in a port-spiked green-peppercorn sauce). Oddly, American apple pie à la mode is also offered, but some things in life do not require an explanation.
Every day, Ernie’s kitchen—under the direction of chef and co-owner Ernie Briggs, formerly with Louie’s 106 in Austin—offers a different ravioli. The four-cheese version I sampled one Thursday consisted of fat pasta pillows surrounded by cannellini—white kidney beans—in a vegetable-and-chicken broth; though promisingly dark, the liquid was a little thin in flavor but improved considerably as the cheese melted into it. My soup, another daily special, was a crunchy combination of whole kernels of corn and red bell pepper in a creamy base.
Veal Marsala proved that the past is not by definition passé. Briggs had updated the traditional robust, almost raisiny wine sauce with a salty sprinkling of capers and green peppercorns, a chancy combination that actually worked. On the side were two appropriately simple vegetables: al dente florets of broccoli and cauliflower and a casserole of potatoes in a rich custard sauce. Desserts at Ernie’s, at least the two I tried—tiramisù and old-fashioned profiteroles—were pretty but not exceptional. Next time, I’ll save the calories. 423 E. Main; 830-997-7478. Tuesday through Saturday lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Monday. Pastas $6.50 to $10, entrées $10.50 to $18.75.
The last thing I ever expected to see in Fredericksburg was a wine bar. But the impossible has happened (we are nearing the millennium), and not only that, the place is also selling cigars. About a block off Main, in a tiny concrete-floored stucco building that’s been redone on a shoestring, with old pewter and tin platters arranged cleverly on the walls, the eighteen-month-old Lincoln St. Wine Market is introducing Hops City to the glories of the grape. The gregarious young husband-and-wife owners, Todd and Jodie Smajstrla, swear they’re not really running a restaurant, but you’ll be perfectly comfortable sitting down and snacking on the Market’s sandwiches, soups, cheeses, and pâtés. Most days, either Todd or Jodie is behind the counter, pouring tastes of wine in the typical relaxed, shirtsleeves style of Texas oenophiles.
On my first visit I was completely taken with the wonderfully flavorful balsamic-marinated-and-grilled-portobello-mushroom sandwich. When I returned a day later, I had the sliced smoked turkey sandwich with roasted red bell peppers, but found that the deli-quality turkey rendered it rather ordinary. The imported pâté, however, was a lush combination of duck liver, truffles, and cognac, and I left carrying a shopping bag filled with exotic olives and European cheeses, including a potent English “Stilchester” that the menu described as “best served with a breath mint.” 111 S. Lincoln Street; 830-997-8463. Open Monday through Wednesday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday until 9, Friday and Saturday until 10, and Sunday 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sandwiches $4.95 to $7.95.
That’s pretty much it for full-service restaurants. My only other tip for dining in Fredericksburg is this: The old Palace Theatre has the best (and to my knowledge only) espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes in town, although you might want to order them to go because seating is minimal while the space is being renovated. 146 E. Main; 830-997-2055. Open Monday 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Tuesday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. until the last movie ends, Saturday 9 a.m. until the last movie ends, and Sunday noon until the last movie ends.
Oh, one last thing. If you absolutely must bring your nasty big-city habits with you, you can get the New York Times at the H.E.B. on South Adams and at the Circle K on East Main at South Columbus. But you didn’t hear this from me.