Use Your Noodle
San Antonio’s Battalion serves primo Italian, including some of the best pasta in the state.
For a dozen years, any San Antonio restaurateur who happened to drive past the defunct fire station on South Alamo must have thought, “Now, that could be a great space.” And it was true. With its buff bricks and graceful arched windows, the two-story twenties-era structure had lots of curb appeal. But nobody ever followed up, because the concrete interior was basically a garage and it would have cost a fortune to convert it into something else. But when the city put the building up for sale, restaurant owner Andrew Goodman, the man behind Feast and Rebelle, decided to take a chance. In 2015 he bought it at auction for $850,000, then sank another $2 million into a nose-to-tail redo. A year and a half later, customers are practically scaling the walls to get into four-month-old Battalion, and all the other restaurateurs who drove on by are no doubt kicking themselves up one side of the street and down the other.
As you might (or might not) guess from the name, Battalion is Italian. “My first culinary job was in an Italian kitchen,” says Stefan Bowers, age 42, who is the chef and Goodman’s business partner at all three restaurants. “In my twenties,” he says, “I apprenticed at a place in San Diego run by two sisters from Positano. They were great, always talking about balance and salt and acid and olive oil. I learned how to build flavor from them.” After that, he moved to Houston. “I went to LeNôtre,” he says. “The teachers there were French chefs. They were super-grouchy, insulting, and demanding, but they taught incredible technique.” When Goodman bought the fire station, he and Bowers agreed that the time was right for Bowers to go back to his roots—with his own spin, of course.
On a couple of recent evenings this spring, two groups of friends and I were among the crowds streaming into Battalion. We were eager to eat, but first we were dying to see the decor. Goodman is also Battalion’s interior designer, and he’s addicted to bling. All I can say is he’s outdone himself here. The place is a riot of chrome tables, sparkling silvery vases, and gleaming metallic epoxy floors. Upstairs, a giant sculpture of a lollipop sits next to a Dr. Who–style red elevator. High above the main room is a mammoth blown-glass chandelier that looks like frozen crystal flames. People of taste and decorum might call it tacky; I think it’s a blast. One of the wags at my table said it was as if the Museum of Modern Art, a warehouse, and the Bellagio Hotel were having a ménage à trois.
The menu is designed to share, and that’s exactly what you should do. If you’re absolutely famished, you can start with some quick snacks. One item that we loved was the decadent whipped ricotta snuggled up to the thinnest slices of grilled pear, all garnished with rosemary. Another was a smashing charred-eggplant dip kicked up with pine nuts, mint oil, and—get ready—a lavish dusting of cocoa powder. Says Bowers cryptically, “Southern Italians love eggplant, they love chocolate.” Somehow, beyond all logic, the combo works.
Those two dishes took the edge off our appetites, but a couple of friends lobbied for octopus, so we had a tender grilled tentacle on top of tiny chickpeas with pesto and gloriously piggy guanciale. Then somebody else had a hankering for vegetables, so we got the panzanella made from big, blowsy squares of focaccia tossed with tomato and assorted greens (notably a nice kale) under a handful of feathery grated Parmesan. But as much as I liked all the appetizers and small plates we sampled the first night and the next, the most stunning thing on the menu is pasta. To be honest, before we went I had heard as much and, frankly, scoffed. Well, I am now a true believer. Battalion’s pasta is so fantastic I wanted to grab every platter and run away with it so I could have it all to myself. The tagliolini were ribbons of silk bathed in a glorious golden-tomato-and-Italian-chile sauce. Equally miraculous was the spinach manicotti, gossamer sheets of the deepest green folded around ricotta and luxuriating in an aromatic pomodoro sauce. Only slightly less astonishing were the nubby buckwheat pappardelle in a resonant ragù of black trumpet and hen of the woods mushrooms. And the fettuccine car-bo-nara, lightly coated in a golden egg-yolk cream sauce, breathed new life into that stodgy classic. “Who is the magician making your pasta and where did they come from?” I asked Bowers when we talked later. “Her name is Elena D’Agostino,” he said, “and she fell out of the sky.” Around January, he said, he posted the job opening on Facebook. Twenty minutes later she sent a résumé. “She’s from Torino. I just get out of the way and let her do her thing.”
If you fully indulge in the appetizers and pastas, you may be tempted to forgo the meats, but that would be a mistake. Not only is the cooking—under the watchful eye of 34-year-old executive chef Ezekiel “Zeke” Cavazos—excellent, but the plates are generously sized and a tremendous bargain at $26 each (for now). The first night, our table shared a quartet of grilled, herb-crusted lamb chops with a roasted-garlic-and-white-wine cream sauce. Because each one was just a few bites, we had enough room to try a very fine inch-thick T-bone. Was the meat USDA Prime? No, it was not. Was it tender and so robustly seasoned with rosemary, oregano, lemon, and fennel pollen that we gnawed it down to its hallmark bone? Yes, it was and we did.
“Do you think you’ll be changing the menu very often?” I asked Bowers at the end of our conversation. “Well, once we get past the shakedown phase,” he said, “I might change a few things. I anticipate this restaurant being open for twenty-five or thirty years, so I’ve got plenty of time.” We hung up the phone, and I thought to myself, “Wow. That’s bold.” I wasn’t sure I believed him. Then I thought about the pasta—I hadn’t believed that either. With this latest venture, Goodman and Bowers have shown that they know what people like and how to have fun. I think Battalion will be around for a long time.