The One That Got Away

I've always been sorry that Bruce Auden, the whippet-thin Englishman who was once the chef at Charley's 517, escaped Houston and put down roots in San Antonio. Recently I had cause to be even sorrier: a dinner at his Restaurant Biga there was exciting enough to justify a three-hour car ride, and it confirmed my long-held belief that Auden is one of the most gifted chefs in the state.

His osso buco rubbed with Moroccan spices was opulence itself -- full of dark flavors, notes of cinnamon and nutmeg and hot chile, falling apart at the touch of a fork. All that richness was brilliantly balanced by the juice of preserved lemons and bitter greens and melting triangles of salty, Texas-made feta; everything came together in a tapestry of flavor on a bed of tiny, pearl-like pasta spheres swirled with pan juices. "How soon can I eat this dish again?" I found myself wondering helplessly.

I was hosting guests from out of town, and I had been nervous that Biga might not live up to the billing I had given it. Silly me. One of them nursed his whole baby snapper as if it were the holy grail. Small wonder: the taste of fresh, green herbs practically exploded off its surface, and the immaculately oak-roasted fish got a further lift from its fresh-tomato vinaigrette with a haunting undercurrent of fennel. Its clutch of baby clams had been timed perfectly. So had a dish of romano-crusted scallops as smooth as the best silk satin, reposing on a miraculously unmushy bed of angel hair pasta dressed with olives and smoky tomatoes and wilted spinach leaves.

Even the jokey-sounding smoked salmon nachos were spectacular: elegantly thin and crisp, underlain by a chipotle-laced cream that looked far more innocent than it tasted. Oh, we did have one complaint: the pickled carrots en escabeche advertised as part of this dish turned out to be a token, decorative dice. But we had completely demolished the nachos before we noticed.

Was it a bit too loud in the wood-floored dining room of this charming old house? Maybe, but it was the din of people eating well and enjoying themselves hugely. We speculated on where Bruce and his baker wife, Debra, had found the idiosyncratic vintage oil paintings that crowded the walls. We also speculated on a sour-looking gentleman two tables over. Perhaps one of Biga's desserts might have improved his disposition; they certainly improved ours. The unthinkably creamy rice pudding was best; no, the macerated plums in a frothy sabayon sauce were best; no, the ricotta bread pudding with golden raisins and vanilla bean sauce was the best. Next day the blissful haze induced by this feast was still with us. "I think," said one of my friends, "that was the best meal I've ever had."

Of course, he hadn't had the tacos nortena à la parilla at La Fogata, the San Antonio landmark that is the second great reason to make a food pilgrimage to the city. One bite and you can see why crisp tacos were invented: fried right on the grill with their cargo of smoky beef shoulder, beans and cabbage shards, these paragons of taco virtue have so much going for them you don't even need La Fogata's formidable, charred-tasting red salsa. Add a flawless limeade; lavishly creamy, subtle rajas of poblano chiles and onion; distinguished handmade tortillas. Set the whole package down in an idyllic patio spilling over with fountains and pink petunias, a small paradise that has sprung up around La Fogata's ancient core, a converted Dairy Queen. See how long it takes for you to start planning your next road trip.

-- Alison Cook

Restaurant Biga, 206 East Locust, San Antonio, (210) 225-0722; La Fogata, 2427 Vance Jackson, San Antonio, (210) 340-1337.

Restaurant Biga: osso buco, $18; whole baby snapper, $18.

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