Sunday, November 18, 2007

Banderas - A Texas Bistrot

Urban Vaquero Coastal Tejano Germanic Cajun cuisine! Who knew?

Where: 9721 Arboretum Blvd (in Rennaisance Hotel)

We stopped by the Arboretum Barnes and Noble for a technical book. The Renaissance Hotel is only a short walk through the trees and is home to Banderas, which bills itself as a Texas bistrot. We weren't sure what that was, but it sounded interesting and it was close.

Banderas is the high-end restaurant at the Renaissance. There is also a deli, a nightclub and the lobby bar. Per usual for a rush hour date night, the place was practically deserted at 6pm. However, a table of Tivoli conference trainers were at the far end of the room, proving their prowess as presenters by having a conversation that was fully discernable from 50 feet away. As a result, not only can I tell you about Banderas, I can also give you some pointers on the national seminar presentation racket.

Tip #1: Never pick up the tab.

Oblivious to the Texas Tapas theme emblazoned at the top, we browsed the whole menu and constructed an order exploiting their signature items. Hey, if I don't like the stuff they think they do best, no need to come back and try the rest. Here’s what we got. We split everything.

  • BBQ swordfish
  • Spinach salad with strawberry, bleu cheese, candied pecans, balsamic fig vinaigrette dressing
  • Roasted sweet potatoes
  • Angus bleu cheese burger with applewood smoked bacon on a jalapeno cheddar roll
  • Peach streusel cheesecake with cinnamon ice cream

How can you not dig these options? The swordfish was surprising, a thin plank of fish drizzled with BBQ sauce and served with tomatoes and olives and some other stuff. Not bad. The salad rocked, especially the dressing. Taters, good. The burger was fantastic, as was the cheesecake.

Tip #2: Drink hot tea with lemon to keep your voice from fading.

However, in addition to having a great selection of entrees, Banderas features a slate of Texas-oriented tapas. For the uninitiated, I should explain that tapas are basically small appetizers that go far beyond the typical options of calamari sticks, chips/dip, fried mushrooms or jalapeno poppers. You order several to go along with your drinks. If you want to know more than that, read the Wikipedia entry.

Banderas has created a selection of tapas based on five different Texas cuisine influences. As their literature says:

  • Urban Vaquero. The Vaquero or cowboy is a historical figure that has attained romantic features and near-mythic stature. The urban vaquero is creative southwestern big city cooking using classic campfire cuisine techniques.
  • Coastal Epicurean. From Port Arthur to Brownsville the shoreline of Texas stretches over 372 miles. The Gulf coast is known for its abundance of fresh and flavorful seafood and fish.
  • Tejano. The term Tejano encompasses the influence of Texas on Mexico and vice versa in culture, language, literature, art, music and cuisine. This unique style of cooking and enjoyment of foods stems from cantinas and taquerias of Texas and Mexico.
  • Germanic Hill Country. The proximity of the Hill Country with its European descendants has given us a wide variety of artesian cheeses, fresh produce, honey and game to choose from.
  • Texas Cajun Country. We are still pure Texas, with our Bayou roots, a combination of two colorful cultures. Key towns like Marshall, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Houston in close proximity to the Louisiana border have contributed to the Cajun influence in our cooking. [Note: Fred, Texas is right between Marshall and Beaumont.]

The menu I found online is evidently out of date, although the tapas listed there sound great and I would love to try them. On our second visit we decided to do the tapas. We walked through the throng of the Society for Petrophysicists and Well Log Analysts (say that three times fast) and got a table immediately, as the SPWLA were on their way to a cocktail hour followed by getting on three large cruise buses to go eat somewhere. (I wonder why they allow only well log analysts. If you get sick, is your membership revoked?) There were six tapas alternatives on the menu and we had them all:

  • Quesadilla, beef or chicken with salsa, guacamole and sour cream
  • BBQ swordfish
  • Lump crab cake with avocado and tomato salsa and a Bloody Mary vinaigrette dressing
  • Salt and pepper calamari with a sweet chili sauce
  • Seasoned jumbo scallops with a 5-spice citrus salad and scarlet orange vinaigrette dressing
  • Chili glazed shrimp with manogo crema, chili oil and cilantro scallion oil

The total damage for the lot was $58, but any four of them would have been plenty for two people, which is not a bad price for two peoples in a classy joint like Banderas. We resorted to the little red wagon to drag away what we couldn’t finish. Let’s just say I’m going to have some interesting scallop wraps for lunch tomorrow, and I won’t be crying about it.

Tip #3: You’re always auditioning for your next gig, so never let your hair down or let them see you sweat.

At first I thought we could skip the quesadilla. After all, what can you really do with a quesadilla? Here’s what, load it with nice chunks of juicy steak. Holy tamale, Batman! They were luscious. Typically I squirt some lemon juice on crab cakes, and this one came with lemon but we took one bite and realized it was perfect just like it was. However, that didn’t stop us from scarffing down the salsa along with it. The calamari was cut into half-inch rings and was very tender. They were slightly spicy and were great with or without the sauce. The scallops were huge, tender and rich. The shrimp was large, meaty and very spicy. The Woman, a shrimp lover, quit after one, but I, a capsaicin addict, ate the remaining ones for her.

I asked the server if they saw many locals and he said they didn’t. After all, how often do you think, I’ll just head down to my local hotel and grab an incredibly superb meal? That’s fine with me, as it means it won’t be crowded the next time I go. It also means a lot of locals are missing out on a really good thing. But I can live with that.

Tip #4: Learn to hide the hat.

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