Clementine: San Antonio’s Lone James Beard Award Finalist for 2023
Over the past few years, San Antonio has had a number of chefs and restaurants achieve some type of national buzz. From shoutouts in food publications like Bon Apétit to wins in national competitions like Chopped, SA chefs have made both a name for themselves, and a name for the culinary scene in the city at large. One such chef is Chef John Russ, chef and owner (along with his wife, Elise) of San Antonio eatery Clementine, and now a 2023 James Beard Award finalist for best chef.
The Russ family moved to the Alamo city back in 2012 and immediately began making names for themselves – John as the executive chef at the now closed restaurant Lüke, and Elise as the pastry chef at Biga on the Banks. They then established a restaurant group in 2016 followed by the opening of Clementine in 2018. Since that time, Clementine has become one of the most consistently popular restaurants in San Antonio.
With the newfound recognition from the James Beard Foundation, we decided it was time to check out Clementine for ourselves in order to see if it lives up to the hype. In short: it most certainly does.
Clementine is located in the heart of the Castle Hills area of northwest San Antonio, right at the intersection of West Ave. and NW Military Hwy. This NY-style neighborhood bistro is at the end of a strip mall that backs up to private residences.
Given Clementine’s location in a strip mall, there is plenty of free parking in the lots on both sides of West Ave.
Clementine’s tan brick exterior is accented with black awnings and umbrellas, and bright pops of blue and yellow chairs. There is a fair amount of outdoor seating and a small, shady, covered area with fans.
The indoor dining room is largely decorated in blue hues with fruit posters of clementines (obviously!) adorning the walls. The restaurant’s sizable wine list is on display with wine racks snaking along the inside wall of the restaurant. And all indoor diners have a front row seat to the open kitchen where Clementine’s chefs work their magic. Overall, the aesthetic is classy, if a little simplistic.
Service at Clementine is what you might expect from any upscale eatery – prompt, friendly, knowledgeable, and accessible. The servers that we interacted with were all very educated about the menu and food options. They listened to our preferences and were able to make informed recommendations for what we should order. And they were always quick to respond to requests or refills.
But perhaps what made the servers really unique was the pride that they exhibited regarding the restaurant. It was clear that they enjoy their jobs and believe in what the restaurant is trying to accomplish. In fact, it felt as though the restaurant was staffed by a bunch of enthusiastic foodies who simply wanted everyone to enjoy the cuisine that they have fallen in love with.
Food is always best enjoyed with a group, and the waitstaff at Clementine was eager to be a part of that enjoyment.
If there is one reason Clementine has been nominated as a finalist for a James Beard award, it is for the food. Chefs John and Elise Russ have created a menu that is simply a celebration of flavors and cooking. In so doing, they have managed to avoid the dual pitfalls of either defaulting to super traditional new American dishes that have been done time and time again, or by heading in the opposite direction and trying to be so cutting edge that they create a menu so totally bizarre that nobody actually cares to eat anything from it. Clementine’s menu, while inventive and original, is still food you will want to eat, and more than that, you will enjoy it as you do so.
Menu choices at Clementine include petites (hors d'oeuvre), sideboards (can be main course sides or appetizers), platters (entrees), and “the best parts” (clearly desserts). We ordered a dish from each section of the menu (two from the platters) and all dishes were consistent and flavorful. The standouts for us were definitely the African yams, seasoned with black garlic, pastrami spice, sunflower seeds, and harissa, and the Alaskan halibut that was cooked to utter buttery, tender perfection (seriously, it was unreal how perfectly cooked it was!).
For the more adventurous (read: trusting) eaters out there, Clementine has another menu option entitled “Feed Me.” Guests who choose to take this route, will pay $81 per person and the chef and his team will prepare a multi-course meal on the fly, based on the individual’s preferences and what is available and in season. If you are one to enjoy surprises or simply want to put the entire evening in the hands of the pros, “Feed Me” is a fun and different way to dine.
Clementine’s food is an unmitigated showstopper. The plating is precise and attractive, the depth of flavors is dynamic and fresh, and the portion sizes leave you pleasantly satiated. What the restaurant may lack in ambience/location/atmosphere, it certainly makes up for with its food.
When the James Beard Award winners are announced on June 5, 2023, should Clementine’s name be among the mix, it will be a deserving win.
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