By Edmund Tijerina
Published: 12:00 a.m., Wednesday, January 5, 2011
That is, until trying the trout at Ostra, easily the best seafood place downtown and certainly one of the best in the city.
It’s not a new restaurant, but there is a new menu from executive chef John Brand and a name change for the former Pesca on the River.
Truly, it might as well be an entirely new restaurant, at the Mokara Hotel and Spa, formerly the Watermark Hotel. These are all name changes that followed the ownership change from hospitality entrepreneur Patrick Kennedy to Omni Hotels.
As for the restaurant, it manages to convey a relaxed sense of welcoming with upscale dining refinement, a tricky balance.
And the food is quite good. At times, it’s exquisite.
Tops on the list is that trout, a dish that’s a world away from a weekend fishing trip.
Presented simply on an oval plate with some flavored oils drizzled around it, the fish has a beautifully crisp skin with a little crunch on the edges with a tender and delicate flesh. It came with a choice of sauces, and it did go very nicely with a lemon butter caper sauce, but this fish didn’t need any adornment.
The humble trout may have been the most successful dish, but not the only one.
An order of scallops arrived just right: A light crust from a good sear and very tender flesh. An accompaniment of a spicy cabbage slaw made for a nice counterpoint, although we have mixed feelings about a wedge of coconut shell as a garnish. It added nice color and held the slaw, but other than as a dish, it didn’t serve any purpose on the plate. Still, the dish tasted great.
One of the salads, the shrimp and crab “Cobb” salad, took some liberties with the form but blew away the traditional Cobb salad in its execution. It started with a thick slice of iceberg lettuce topped with shredded crab, diced jicama and avocado and a single barbecue-glazed shrimp. Dressed lightly with a housemade buttermilk ranch dressing, this salad was both upscale and informal. Not to mention very tasty.
Another salad, the Caesar, included a lightly pickled anchovy atop the classic dish, a nice touch for another quite good item.
Among the appetizers, the calamari arrived on thinly julienned pieces of cabbage and the squid itself had a beautiful flavor. It did have a flaw that came from another garnish, some crisp and curly fried rice noodles. They looked great but made the dish difficult to eat.
The list of complaints with the cuisine is small and minor. A redfish was served blackened, and that’s a type of redfish preparation that has become a restaurant cliché. Surely there are other, more imaginative methods of preparing the fish.
An apple tart perhaps proved the biggest disappointment. A soft, bordering on soggy, crust ruined the dish. It was too bad because the thinly sliced apple pieces tasted wonderful.
The closest item to a complaint with the service came on a very busy and seemingly understaffed Saturday night, when glasses of water took extra long for filling and servers were trying very hard not to look overwhelmed.
Fortunately, the quality of the dishes didn’t suffer.
On the dessert menu was an item listed as Cookies and Milk. Seeing it on the menu made our group think that it was some play on words, or some type of deconstructed funkiness.
Instead, it really was some warm, thick, house-baked chocolate chip cookies and a glass of regular milk.
It faked us out by sticking to the basics and doing them very nicely.
Address: 212 W. Crockett St. between St. Mary’s and Navarro at the Mokara Hotel and Spa
Phone: 210-396-5817 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 210-396-5817 end_of_the_skype_highlighting
HIT: Trout, calamari, shrimp and crab “Cobb” salad, scallops
MISS: Too-soft crust on apple tart
NOTEWORTHY: Bar features 65 different tequilas
LIGHTER CHOICE: Order grilled seafood items with sauce on the side.
Ratings key: **** Excellent| *** Very good | ** Average | * Poor
Price range: Calamari, $9; crab cake, $13; shrimp and crab “cobb” salad, $14; trout, $25; scallops, $26; salmon, $30; cookies and milk, $6; apple tart, $9.
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. breakfast; 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. lunch; 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. dinner; daily.