I was living in Fort Worth when Reata moved to Sundance Square in 2002, taking over the old Caravan of Dreams space. Not long in Texas, I experienced every day as a Lone Star adventure, and in Fort Worth those adventures were often accompanied by cattle and cowboys, boots and a biker boyfriend. Things aren’t like that for me anymore. I live in Dallas now. I haven’t seen a cow up close in years. I still wear my boots, but that biker boyfriend is only a cherished memory. Time passes. Things change.
But I was excited to revisit Reata. My first meal there, shortly after that opening nearly 10 years ago included the restaurant’s famed tenderloin tamale. I’ve never forgotten that day, the afternoon sun streamed through the windows as I sat across from a woman whom I thought would become a friend (she didn’t) and sank my teeth into my first bite of seasoned beef wrapped in masa and topped with pecan mash. It was heaven in a corn husk.
On Saturday last, I and a fellow ballet lover arrived at Reata at 4:35, after seeing Dracula at Bass Hall. The restaurant wasn’t seating yet, but the hostess gave us a buzzer with a jazzy picture of a horse on it and told us to wait. To pass the time, we browsed the little gift shop, running our hands over rhinestone bracelets, turquoise necklaces, and belts made of both. We tried on studded handbags for size and discussed whether fringe is just a Texas thing or a nationwide trend for spring. We left the spurs for someone else and got a drink at the handsome bar, which I like to fantasize fills with rugged working men later in the night. (I’ve been told it does not.)
Soon we were seated at a two-top. It was only a few minutes after 5 p.m. and already the restaurant seemed busy and full. All that imagined blood-sucking at Bass Hall must have left a lot of people hungry.
My companion and I both honed in on the smoked quail with cheddar grits appetizer. While we waited to order we quelled our appetites with the bread basket. Mini cornbread muffins and pecan-studded biscuits were happy little pillows of sustenance. We gave thanks for the butter, room temperature and made savory with jalepenos and roasted garlic.
We felt equally grateful about the fat, tender, and juicy bird that soon arrived. Butterflied, finished on the grill, and cut in two, it sat atop a pool of jalepeno cheese grits garnished with julienned green onion and a swirl of mesquite barbecue sauce. We each grabbed our half of the bird and went to work – my lovely friend with a knife and fork, me with my hands. I sucked every last shred of that meat from the bone like the redneck my mama raised me to be. I ate spoonful after spoonful of the grits; my friend tried them and declared them too glutinous, but she agreed it was simply a matter of preference. Overall, the dish was a hit.
If only we’d stopped there.
The tortilla soup was unimpressive — and not like the tortilla soups I’ve eaten elsewhere. The thin, bland broth had flecks of cilantro and diced pepper and avocado, but no discernible personality. When I tasted the soup, I complained to my friend, “It’s missing a food group – tomatoes!” To which she replied, “It’s missing a spice group – anything!”
Service was super quick. We’d barely handed over our menus when our very young waiter named Mathew (with one T) brought our quail. I was still licking succulent bird juice from my fingers when a different waiter delivered our soup and tamales. Was it because we were eating so early, we asked Mathew with One T when he came back to see if we were enjoying our food. No, he said, these particular dishes always come out really fast. Which makes sense. Tamales and soup aren’t something the kitchen is making to order.
Oh, about those tamales. They didn’t live up to my recollection. Three huge servings looked impressive on the plate but tasted only average. The meat was a little dry. My taste buds were bored. My friend didn’t especially like the nutty flavor imparted by the pecan mash. “Well, so much for that,” I thought.
Memory is a funny thing. It plays tricks on us. It rewrites history, often making it more palatable. Or maybe it’s just that some things, like biker boyfriends and tenderloin tamales, really are better the first time around. Are better when they remain a fond reflection of a time past.