A substantive stay-cation at Sustenio

Took a vacation today. Well, not a real one, but a brief mid-day stay-cation, a totally relaxing, pampered experience.

Julia Rosenfeld almost reeled me in as soon as she posted “soft-shell crab” on Facebook. I’ve been following them everywhere this summer – Luke, Bliss, Sushi Zuchi and Where Y’At Third Coast Kitchen. There was a substantial price tag at the bottom of this crab trail, but the Mister stepped forward and offered the master cooking class with Chefs Stephan Pyles and David Gilbert at Sustenio as an anniversary present, one much nicer than mine to him.

Tequila at 11 a.m. was a great start. If classes in college had begun this way, I never would have cut a one. With Cointreau, a jalapeno-infused simple syrup and passion fruit puree each in equal parts to the lime juice, the “passion chile margarita” was a tad on the sweet side. Not so sweet that I didn’t enjoy inheriting Julia’s.

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Smoking and grilling was the billing, and perhaps that is why most of the attendees were male. The main part of the grilling lesson was about using charcoal briquettes and chunks of soaked hardwood, lit with an electric starter. Lighter fluid always scared me to death. I assumed no one used it any more except when actually grilling some place without power, but that probably is one more bit of evidence that I’m not from Texas. Chef Pyles read Cort Sinnes’ condemnation of lighter fluid from The Grilling Book:

If aliens from outer space landed in a typical suburban neighborhood around 6:00 p.m. on any given weekend, when the aroma of lighter fluid is at its most pervasive, they would surely conclude that ours is a volatile atmosphere…. lighter fluid is on  the wrong side of the fence when it comes to a “natural” approach to life….

We didn’t really hang out at the virgin grill much; most of the food preparation was inside where we sat at clothed tables facing the open demonstration kitchen with two mounted screens providing overhead views of the action.

This method of learning to cook is quite appealing. Twomey by Silver Oak Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc 2010 arrived at the table while gazpacho was being prepared.

In fact, Chef Pyles’ method of cooking is appealing as well, scurrying sous-chefs having chopped everything in advance and placed it conveniently in front of him in tidy little containers. Plus, none of the food had to be prepared completely; like Keebler elves, cooks in the main kitchen out of our view were preparing what we were served.

But Chef is a bit testy; the containers were hard to open and the blender not delivered prior to being requested. We think he should have knocked back a couple of those mood-improving margaritas first or learn to disguise his peevishness.

Ah, but the smoked tomato gazpacho with goat’s cheese-horseradish panna cotta and olive oil powder was amazingly good. The addition of a small red beet gave it a deep, shocking violet hue.

On to a glass of Emina, Medina del Campo, Verdejo, Spain 2010. Even though my soft-shell crab was the runt of the litter, measuring about three inches from toe to toe, Pyles’ method of grilling it made it my favorite preparation of the seasonal delicacy. The crabs were simply brushed with a basil pesto and placed on the grill, resulting in less grease than most recipes. The accompanying tomato-ginger jam was perfect on the side, although knowing 3 cups of sugar were used to make 3 1/4 cups of jam is unsettling.

Next, a pour of Ritual by Vermonte, Casablanca Valley, Chile, Pinot Noir 2009. Loved the molasses marinade – soy sauce, dark beer, dark molasses, lemon and orange zest, lemon verbena and fresh ginger – for the quail and the way it caramelized while grilling. Corn pudding tamales stuffed with goat cheese and sautéed onion were a wonderful invention, particularly with the morita chile salsa.

Finally, a Becker Vineyard, Provencal Rose 2011 and rosemary-citrus grilled peaches with jamon serrano ice cream. In the preparation, the serrano ham was discarded as was most of its flavor; I longed for little bits of it in the ice cream. The grilled peach was a perfect summery touch.

Was the class worth its $75 price tag? I don’t think anyone left complaining. We were well-entertained, well-fed, professionally served and left with a nicely spiral bound booklet of recipes.

Will the Mister see a return on the investment, aside from the fact that I feel cheerfully rejuvenated from the retreat? While I didn’t experience an a-ha moment that will revolutionize my cooking forever, I do plan on talking him into grilling soft-shell crab the next time we cook it. I’d like to make the tamales but fear that scurrying sous-chefs made that look a lot easier than it is. I also think I’ll make the morita salsa some time.

The salsa was so good Julia enticed our server to bring me a small bit to go to take home for the Mister. And, as I don’t venture to the north side that often, she suggested chicken and mole tamales from Tamahli for him.

That was my intention when I exited Wurzbach, but Ali Baba International Food Market lured me into its parking lot instead. So strangely, I came home from Sustenio with all kinds of cupboard-filling food products we didn’t need. But Ari’s “honey with aligned nuts” – pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, roasted chickpeas, walnuts and raisins in honey – seemed crying out for our next cheese plate. And the fresh still-warm Syrian bread was too hard to resist. So the Mister’s pre-band-gig snack ended up being the bread, warmed with cream cheese and what I billed as the morita salsa. Whoops, the server snuck me tomato jam instead. Still delicious.

Thanks, Chefs. Sustenio seems to be a great addition to San Antonio. I’m certainly still content hours after my visit.

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