In With the Old
An abandoned building in King William gets a new, delicious lease on life.
Like people, buildings have lives. They start out all perky and new, sag and spread after a few decades, and ultimately lapse into either distinguished or disheveled old age, depending on whether anyone has been tending to their finances and grooming. Well, the lucky ones do. In many big cities (Houston, I’m talking to you), old buildings were once routinely razed long before they ever qualified for a senior-citizen discount. Progress, you know. Happily, San Antonio has not been as ruthless. There, elderly structures hang on for eons. Which explains how a group of would-be restaurant developers who went poking around last year were able to quickly find a suitable building in the King William Historic District. As Brigid’s chef, Chris Carlson, told me, “We had all seen the building for years. It had been empty since the mid-seventies.” Down but not out, the old gal was, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, just waiting for her close-up.
Inside, the ravages of time have been reversed by an eclectic redo. Large black, tan, and white tiles cover a back wall, their bold geometry balanced by small gilt-framed mirrors and an abstract painting or two. Dish towel–type napkins grace gray-marble tabletops. Edison bulbs in glass fixtures glimmer against raw concrete pillars. The only truly incongruous touch is a huddle of stodgy black booths that could be mistaken for the front seats of pickup trucks.
As at most restaurants, lunch is more casual than dinner, but Brigid also offers ambitious selections in an obvious bid for the business trade. Our group of four friends started light but were quickly enticed by the substantial stuff. Of several very generous salads, the frisée had the most character, with a toss of cubed, soft-baked butternut squash and slices of crisp red-edged Anjou pear. The mixed greens of the Brigid salad had a well-rounded champagne vinegar dressing that moistened its slices of red bell pepper, avocado, and small, toasty croutons. All the salads, though, seemed weighed down by their dressings, which somewhat defeated the point of using fresh greens from local sources. We were amazed and amused by a truffle-scented but bland cream of cauliflower soup that was so thick our spoons left holes in it. But we quickly pushed it aside to make room for our first serious entrée, the grilled flatiron steak. Cut into medium-rare slices interspersed with julienne red bell pepper and french fries, it was so reasonably priced, at $18, that the slightly chewy texture was quickly forgiven. The best part of the next sampling, seared and roasted chicken, was its hedonistic jus, savory with crusty bits of bacon and cipollini; the fowl itself was pleasant if rather ordinary.
I was debating whether to return for dinner when the Scottish salmon arrived, and after one bite, I knew we’d be back. Under a delicate thatch of tawny scales, each distinct and crisp, was a square of shimmering, pink, beautifully cooked fish. On either side were swooshes of miso vinaigrette, sweet and nutty. The arrival of a sybaritic seared red snapper proved there was nothing accidental about the flawless execution of the first fish. It sat on a bed of wild mushrooms and peeled asparagus surrounded by a velvety, utterly captivating cauliflower emulsion. “Fish is all about timing,” said Carlson when I talked to him a few days later. “You have about a thirty-second window where the crispy skin and the soft, supple texture are in perfect balance, and if you miss it, forget it.” (He should know; long before Brigid, the 41-year-old Chicago native cooked at two of San Antonio star chef Andrew Weissman’s restaurants: seafood-oriented Sandbar and the late French gem Le Rêve.) Back at our table, we found the entrées had had the most amazing effect on our mood. Suddenly the room was brighter, the light jazz on the sound system more scintillating, our conversation wittier. Hell, we even looked better.
If Brigid’s staff did a double-take when three of us showed up again six hours later, they concealed it masterfully. We settled in and perused the dinner menu. It was killing us not to order fish again, but other dishes begged to be sampled, specifically shellfish. More specifically diver scallops. The bivalves came in two distinct guises. The first was a fan of sashimi-thin slices sided by labneh that had been tricked out with dill and yuzu, like a recalibrated tzatziki sauce. The second treatment was a trio of whole scallops, seared to a coppery finish (actually, slightly overcooked, which was a surprise), with an earthy fennel emulsion and a sweet-sour citrus gastrique alongside. But the real stars of the evening meal were the meats. The first evidence of this was a fat, eight-inch-long canoe of bone marrow brushed with smoked garlic butter and capped, in a genius touch, with a sweet tomato jam. Continuing the evening’s carnivorous theme, a bowl of house-made cavatelli (“little hollows”) came with bits of pork and smoked garlic cloves scattered with squiggles of finely grated Parmesan. I was a little hesitant about our third choice, red beans and rice, which seemed awfully pedestrian. But—surprise, surprise—standing regally in the center of the plate was a bone-in pork shank wearing a rakish cap of chopped green onions and parsley. Cooked sous vide, the gloriously tender meat had the deep flavor of hours-long braising. More than that, it turned something worthy of slurping up while watching the Super Bowl into a dish of true distinction. And even more than that, it showed that Carlson’s kitchen has the chops to cook low and slow as well as fast and furious.
Brigid may be youthful and at the beginning of a promising run, but she has something in common with the vintage building she occupies: she’s ready for her close-up.
Brigid: 803 S. Saint Mary’s, San Antonio (210-263-7885). L Tue–Fri. D Tue–Sun. B Sun. $$–$$$
Opened: September 9, 2015