It's Friday night. The dining room is empty save for three tables plus ours. Average age: 62, a generous number since a guest at our table is a ripe 9. L'Ancestral has been around since 1983, though not always in this Travis Street locale. It opened on Alta Avenue, just off the lowest nub of Greenville Avenue.
Years have soldiered on. L'Ancestral has soldiered in place. Let's be straight here: The food is clumsy, with little thought to visual composition. Shrimp in avocado is this: a halved avocado, tiny shrimp bumping a swath of rémoulade composed of house-made mayonnaise stirred with ketchup. Green flecks freckle the surface. A strip of romaine is lodged near the end of the avocado where it tapers.
Shrimp are good, with a clean briny taste and a firm texture that doesn't feel like cured caulk. Nothing is done to the avocados, save for the pulling of the pit. Nothing is whipped, mashed or fussed with in any way. It just is, in its greenish pale yellow that drifts in and out of dirty gray. Couldn't they have fiddled with this just a little bit? Carved it from the rind and stirred before the shrimp infiltrate? Hit it with a shot of cognac and set it on fire?
Grilled artichoke hearts smelled flammable. It's just a plain saucer with five sections of heart, the folds alternating between pale green and faded yellow, the edges withering in black. These were canned hearts no doubt. Drained. Singed. Soaked in olive oil. The smoky flavor was good, but it was hard to shake the perturbing hints of lighter fluid, but this could have simply been avocado wish fulfillment. Here's a rule of thumb: Pouring olive oil all over something doesn't necessarily make it better, except maybe for French bread.
The lone man at the table sips espresso, pinching the cup handle tightly between his fingers and lifting it to his face ceremoniously. He wipes his lip slowly, back and forth. You try to catch his eye, maybe to give him a smile. But his eyes are locked on the distant wall. Maybe he's drinking in those portraits that seem shackled to the 18th century, to a time before French heads rolled.
These walls are peculiar. They're soiled with brown runnels that could be coffee or jus or maybe a Bordeaux reduction. It flakes, this paint, a little like dried Dijon around an open jar mouth. So much of L'Ancestral seems not so much stuck in a time warp as warped by time. There are baskets of dried foliage tacked to the walls, big ones in case it was lost on you that this isn't the "rich, elaborate, formal" French fracas that was a cliché back when Don Johnson was striking his Miami Vice poses from the wheel of a cigarette boat.
I ask the waiter for another splash of pinot noir; French stuff, from the Languedoc (of course). He's horrified. "I've never heard anyone ever call it a splash," he sneers. No? Hmm. Listen closely, beyond the twisting retches and polish-rubbing squeaks of a cork eased from the neck, past the dull "poop" as the stopper is heaved beyond the lip. At first, it tinkles into the glass. But then the rush builds momentum, splashing waves of red against the sides of the bowl before the pour dissipates into a conspicuous trickle. Tinkle, splash, trickle; take your pick. Yet maybe he was just thinking beyond sounds, but do I need to know what he's thinking?
The french fries sag. They're lazy. They don't satisfy. So why are they addictive? Maybe it's not that they're addictive so much as habit-forming. Like biting your nails or cleaning your ears with the car keys, it's hard to leave frites alone, even when gripped in a sweaty Atkins fit. These have a slightly sweet aftertaste. You keep pinching them with your fingers and pushing them between your lips; the reflex is involuntary.
French fries will appear with the lamb chops if you wish. The chops are ugly, and there are six of them. They look like ground beef teardrops on a corn dog stick. The meat is motley and rough, as if the chops had been dry rubbed with a belt sander before grilling. Thin bones. But here's the miracle: They are juicy, tasty and seasoned well. The sidelines? Not so much. There's a tarry green smear off to the side of the plate. This is spinach. It looks and feels like a can native. But this would be wrong. "Fresh," says the waiter. "Good, huh?" A nod was hard to come by. Vegetables--squash, zucchini, carrot--are fine, except the carrot strips are faded and floppy from heat exhaustion.
But hang with the menu long enough and things turn wonderful. Onion soup (you'd expect as much) is exquisitely prepared, rushed to the table right out of the oven, cheese bubbling, broth sending up coiled steam once the bubbling mass is punctured, sodden bread beneath. Broth balances its sweet inklings among dark richness and assertive seasonings.
Pâté is house made. It's deliciously grainy, boldly firm, with a nutty flavor (it's embedded with pistachios) and sweet overtones. House-made mustard adds smooth texture with pounding bite, a well-defined sharpness that doesn't overwhelm and draw blood. The shame is the bread doesn't stand up to this wizardry. It tastes old; not quite aged stale, but clicking the pen over the AARP membership form. The crust flakes like dandruff if you work the pâté too vigorously into the pores.
There's a sitting area near the cash register with a basket of matchbooks. Perched next to a chair is a stack of thick glossies: Food Arts and Philanthropy; good reading while you wait for a chance to poke a mound of steak tartare (is there a society for the preservation of frayed French eateries?).
The raw beef is sculpted into a Buckyball. The tartare is cool. It's packed with green freckles--pulverized cornichons and capers. Tabasco injects the zing, while a lettuce leaf gives the dome a place to perch. It seems small for $23, but beef isn't cheap when it isn't bred for the flame broiler or the sausage casing. Yet this recipe seemed overwhelmed by the ingredients. The meat was too shy for this onslaught of gregarious assertiveness. You scrounge for ways to urge the cornichons to speak in softer tones or get the Tabasco to shut up--just for a moment because both are key elements in the conversation.
Sautéed shrimp in red sauce was tired; shrimp flavors didn't offer much, and the sauce didn't help. Scallops are much better: rich, firm and deeply sweet. They're pummeled with capers to foil that flavor a bit and add some complexity. This worked beautifully. A side of rice creeps up to the steep scallop sides, perfectly smooth and separate, like shiny grains of canary seed. Yet somehow, it comes across like Success, "America's favorite boil-in-bag rice."
L'Ancestral feels like a diva in decline. It's a good bet the audience is slowly dwindling, too, perhaps at the same rate the paint is flaking from the walls. Yet it's not anything fresh thinking, wet Sherwin-Williams, new oils (keep those portraits and rotate 'em out with impressionistic renderings of Chirac in sweet crude) and a "splash" of new kitchen insight couldn't forestall. Here's hoping. 4514 Travis St., 214-528-1081. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Open for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$