Lüke pairs intention with location

by Natalia Ciolko

Published in the San Antonio Current, December 2010

Brand new restaurant at a brand new hotel downtown — selling Old World charm? That’s a challenge. Historic Houston Street is packed with 19th-century buildings, and tourists come to San Antonio specifically for the historic qualities of the Missions, the Cathedral and the Alamo. Lüke, built in 2010, just doesn’t qualify.

But despite the difficulties, New Orleans restaurateur John Besh and chef Stephen McHugh set forth boldly and have generated tons of buzz about their new project on the River Walk: a French/German brasserie-style eatery. A brasserie, for your edification, is a place to kick back and have some drinks, first and foremost. On that note, Besh has done a great job — the menu is stocked with regional craft beers, good wines for under $40, and memorable cocktails, like the French 75 and Sazerac.

In the way of food, the selection ranges from housemade rillette and pork ribs, to shrimp and grits, to matzo ball soup. There’s a lot of meat. Meat pies, sausages, burgers, fried quail, and Benton’s Bacon on just about everything. The raw seafood bar is great, specializing in fresh finds from the Gulf, a point of pride for this New Orleans-based restaurant group.

The prices aren’t too crazy, keeping in mind this is the River Walk, but a small salad or a dessert is going to set you back $8. Entrees hover around $20. Happy Hour has some great deals — the signature cocktails are half off, and the meat pies go for 50 cents. Come between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to get those deals.

The location is genius. As the Northernmost restaurant on the River Walk, Lüke is positioned to catch all the foot traffic coming south from the Museum Reach, while enjoying quieter surroundings than the main loop of the River Walk. It also bookends Houston Street, a locus of activity all its own.

However, by functioning as an attachment to the newly built Embassy Suites, Lüke has made sacrifices. There are certain contrivances — like multiple TV screens overhead and overly bright lighting — that upset the bespoke glamour Lüke strives for, and remind you that you’re at a hotel restaurant.

That sacrifice extends to the menu, at times, as well. Chef Steve clearly wants to make Lüke a top-flight dining destination, but the problem with River Walk restaurants is they must cater to the lowest common denominator. Yes, Lüke serves housemade game pates and rillettes, but when the “Shrimp In A Cup” is the most enthusiastically pushed menu item, we may come to see a menu shifting southward.

The description of the Organic Baby Green salad lists locally produced Humble House blue cheese, toasted pistachios, and candied beets, but when it arrived, the salad looked like it may have been picked off another diner’s table: haphazard leaves, no garnish. It took several bites to find any trace of blue cheese, which was apparently the centerpiece of this dish. The beets sitting under the greens were nice, but candied might be an overstatement.

The wild rabbit and quail pate was served meticulously and came with a nice nopalito jam, pickled (and watery) watermelon rind, stone-ground mustard (possibly from a jar), and “pickled cucumbers.” The pate, which is made in house, had a fine flavor and good texture. The portion was huge (picture yourself eating an entire Mason jar of pate. It’s not easy) and served with fried ciabatta bread. You can’t go wrong with that kind of dietary decadence.

The meat pies were toddler fist-sized empanadas of ground meat and chicken liver, creating a nice, complex meat flavor but it was … all meat. Not a carrot cube or fresh herb in sight, just a cream sauce, which was just wrong.

Our $30 bottle of Malbec was a treat, and our waiter never made us feel rushed. We lounged there for hours, in true French style, debating the merits of Lüke. The jury is still out.

One simple area I’d love to see Lüke improve in is with the French bread. Very basic, I know. But it seems to be a struggle for them. Over several visits, I experienced one that tasted like a cold, day-old bolillo from H-E-B and then another that was warm, and reasonably crisp-crusted, but it would be blasphemy to call it French.

Poor but serviceable carbs are no reason to boycott Lüke. Neither is the slightly uncomfortable arena-like atmosphere. Chef Steve and his ilk should be praised for daring to elevate River Walk cuisine beyond the typical Tex-Mex or bland Italian so prevalent.

After only three weeks in, I can’t wait to see how Lüke will evolve and develop. I can imagine it hitting a sweet spot between tourist trap and fine dining that may just send locals calling for more pate. It’s all yet to be seen. If you haven’t been yet, it’s time to take an exploratory trip downtown. •