They had me at “quick sautéed with gobs of garlic and black pepper.”
Granted, I was already inclined to check out buzzy, Southern-oriented Clementine, and when I read those words on the San Antonio restaurant’s website, I was hooked. These people have their priorities right, I thought, as I clicked on “Make a reservation.” Now, if only I didn’t have to wait a week.
Three months old, Clementine is the first solo effort from husband-and-wife team John and Elise Russ. They moved to San Antonio in 2012, when John, a New Orleans native, was hired to head up the kitchen at Lüke, New Orleans chef John Besh’s now-defunct River Walk bistro. Initially they intended to stay only a year or so, but San Antonio got under their skin. “We fell in love with the city,” Elise says, and soon the couple, who in 2014 had created Alamo City Provisions, a series of successful pop-up dinners, were thinking of starting their own place.
“At first we wanted to be downtown,” says 32-year-old Elise, who previously worked as a pastry chef at the River Walk’s Biga on the Banks. But rents were sky-high, so they headed north, to a pleasant, well-established shopping center in the Castle Hills neighborhood. They named their restaurant for a fearless clementine tree growing out of a crack in a parking lot that they spotted during their hunt for a location, and hired local architect Ron Bechtol to do the design. The look he came up with is bright and cheery, suited equally to both business types and the ladies and gents who lunch. Families are certainly welcome, but the menu isn’t exactly kid-friendly (except for the random six-year-old who likes grilled cheese sandwiches made with coffee-and-lavender-rubbed cheddar).
Because both John, 39, and Elise, who grew up in Georgia, are Southerners, they initially looked to that region’s long-standing traditions for inspiration. But for every conventional dish—say, fried oysters with horseradish ranch dressing—they made a point of doing something new and unexpected, like hush puppies with labneh and a sprinkle of sumac. John handled the savory side of the menu, Elise the desserts. Clementine’s concept caught on quickly with neighbors who wanted something slightly edgy but didn’t care to drive downtown or far north. Then word spread, and soon customers were coming from all over the city.
Had we been starving on our first visit to Clementine, which was at lunchtime, my trusty dining companion and I could have ordered fried Bandera quail, a seared tri-tip steak, or a roasted chicken thigh with romesco sauce. Instead, we were drawn to the creative salads (not a chicken Caesar or Cobb among them!). My friend has a taste for really tart dressings, so she loved the thinly sliced button mushrooms lavished with Meyer lemon juice and olive oil in the White Mushroom Salad. I needed the other ingredients to soften the effect: fat curls of pecorino and pomegranate seeds. More to my liking was Ms. Julie’s Beets, a heap of sweet golden beet slices bolstered with Gorgonzola dolce, fresh fennel, nuts, and a flurry of emerald green mint leaves.
Once our vegetable craving was sated, we ordered a few more light dishes. The “chalupa” turned out to be a variation on the German tart called a flammkuchen, slathered with bacon-tinged aioli and topped with expertly fried oysters and more marinated mushrooms. (“Why is it called a chalupa?” I asked John later. He just laughed: “We polled our customers, and nine out of ten said it looked like a chalupa to them.”) I did wish the oysters had been a day fresher, but the flavors worked, and the crunch-on-crunch effect was enormously satisfying. But my favorite dish that day was the sweet potato tart. Essentially a variation on flatbread, the puff pastry rectangle was layered with thin, near-melting slices of sweet potato tricked out with a salty-savory olive tapenade, shaved Parmesan, and a lemon-splashed arugula salad. The yin-yang effect was dynamite.
The next evening I was back with three other friends, only to find that the jaunty look that had so beguiled me at noon was a little out of sync at night, when a more expansive and sophisticated dinner menu seems to call for a more subdued ambience—maybe a candle on the table, at least. The offerings were so engrossing, though, that after a minute I hardly noticed. If I were forced at knifepoint to choose between the two beefy entrées we tried, I’d have to go with the excellent 24 Hour Short Ribs, a sous-vide preparation that for once resulted in meat with actual texture. I’m sure I was influenced by the accompanying Bordeaux jus and pretty browned fingerling potatoes, but even so, the other red-meat selection, flat iron steak under a pungent layer of chimichurri, was in no way inferior, nor were the earthy red lentils alongside.
If we hadn’t been in the mood for beef, we would have still been in luck, because fish and fowl are two of the best things on Clementine’s concise menu. The lighter of the two was the pink-fleshed steelhead trout, a lovely hunk of protein distinguished by a layer of phenomenally crisp, chestnut-hued skin (I’m not kidding; it was nearly potato-chip caliber). The more substantial was the Chicken Under a Brick, a beautifully moist rendition that also stood out for the crackly seared skin. (The kitchen obviously has its crisping technique down to a fine art.)
The chicken came with broccoli rabe, but I wasn’t about to leave without ordering the thing that had persuaded me to visit Clementine in the first place: the greens sautéed with gobs of garlic and black pepper. So, did the treatment, which also involved tons of butter, live up to its billing? Oh yeah, baby.
By now, we were winding down but still in the mood for a little something sweet. I had high hopes for the apple pie, but the crust was a tad dry, and the Granny Smiths cried out for more sugar. The homemade cake-style doughnuts were fine but unremarkable (the accompanying coffee ice cream—now, that was a different story). As it turned out, Clementine’s best dessert wasn’t one we had that night. It was a special from the day before. My friend and I hadn’t intended to indulge, but our waiter started talking, and before we knew it, we were polishing off a slice of one of the best pies I’ve had in ages: graham-cracker crust filled with a custard made of whipped cream, cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, and the juice of a gazillion key limes. I give Elise credit for perfecting the technique (and for juicing all those damn limes), and I give our waiter credit for a masterful sales job.
He had me at “Elise’s grandmother’s recipe for key lime pie.”
2195 NW Military Hwy, San Antonio
Opened January 17, 2018