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There’s this thing that chef Robbie Nowlin does on his @chef_driven Instagram feed. In frame after frame, he’s hoisting up people in his arms in front of the kitchen pass at Allora, the new Italian restaurant at the Pearl where he’s the executive chef.
In one, it’s chef Jason Dady, for whom Nowlin worked at The Lodge in San Antonio. In another, it’s Bistr09 chef and co-owner Lisa Astorga Watel, who’s married to another of Nowlin’s former bosses, chef Damien Watel from the Chez Vatel Bistro days. Friends from old jobs, local celebrities, superfans. Large and small, he lifts them all.
In the process, the shots of this beast of burden in chef’s whites and clogs have become a metaphor for the weight of massive expectations. Robbie Nowlin, the prodigal San Antonio chef, returning from his adventures in California at The French Laundry and beyond, ready to lift up the highest-profile opening at the Pearl since Brasserie Mon Chou Chou in 2020.
Mike Sutter / Staff
Allora’s been the biggest deal in town since Nowlin himself started the social media whispers a year ago, a project from serial restaurateur Peter Selig of Maverick Texas Brasserie, Ácenar, Biga on the Banks and Allora’s casual sister restaurant Arrosta, also at the Pearl. Set in the vaulted chambers of the ground floor at the Credit Human Building, Allora opened March 2 with a menu of antipasti small plates, raw fish crudi inspired by the Italian coast, handmade pastas and entrees ranging from a roast chicken to tomahawk rib-eyes that weigh in close to $250.
It’s big and loud and buzzy, the kind of place Hollywood picks for a romantic comedy. The patio’s in bloom with umbrellas bright as sunflowers, the walls glow tangerine and white, the staff swirls through the space in electric yellow vests and nightclub-level sound caroms off cathedral-size windows on a busy Friday night. Service is sharp and steady, the wine list speaks Italian in short bursts and the cocktails try hard with touches of amaro, aperol and grappa.
But when the breathlessness finally catches its breath, Allora’s just a chef, standing in front of a kitchen, hoping you’ll love him.
Mike Sutter / Staff
Love Allora for ahi tuna crudi with silky cuts of rosy with bright accents of orange and capers. Love it for a surprising roasted cauliflower side dish with the gravitas of an entree, layered with brown butter, caramelized onions and dried sultana grapes.
And love it for one of the best grilled octopus dishes in the city, a rowdy plate of red pepper romesco and potatoes fried to a shaggy crisp around well-trimmed octopus with a clean, firm bite.
Love at first sight gave way to charming, from a light chicken liver mousse with sweet-tart cherry jam and stout sourdough toast, then gnocchi done the right way, with a soft bite that accentuated the potato pasta’s ability to complement and coexist with tangy, sweet and lush elements like apple, lardons and verjus.
Mike Sutter / Staff
And going eye-to-eye with a whole fried red snapper coiled around a ramekin of rich pistachio pesto butter, it was hard not to be charmed by opaline meat with a light battered crunch that pulled away in carefully cross-hatched slices, even if that spectacle rang up at $95.
But with any new love, there are red flags, and Allora’s red flags went up with a dull and bitter rabbit leg confit hard and splintery at its core, as well as a pork chop trimmed away from the bone and then overcooked in a smothering, salty smoked ham bordelaise sauce. There was also the schmaltzy taste of a dull, beige Bolognese over otherwise well-executed tagliatelle pasta, and I couldn’t justify $14 for side plates of wholly ordinary asparagus and an undisciplined splatter-plate of tough-skinned butternut squash.
Mostly, Allora’s a study in well-intentioned likeability. The cutters working with the intensity and precision of sushi chefs at the raw bar turned out oil-rich flounder tartare with the balancing acidity of lime aguachile and clever cubes of Parmesan panna cotta, while a a crudi of striped bass was content to shine with pistachio and mint as fresh as an ocean breeze.
Mike Sutter / Staff
Small plates demonstrated the kitchen’s nimble range with handmade pasta, including little ears of orecchiette pasta with pistachio pesto; translucent ravioli balancing the flavors of spinach, tomato and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese; and lithe, ribbonlike spaghetti alla chitarra with a time-honored cacio e pepe dress of cheese and butter.
That’s all fine. We like likeability in that same way that we like those cookie-cutter rom-coms with Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts or Channing Tatum being all dreamy and vulnerable. But they’re not towering works of cinema.
* * * ½
403 Pearl Parkway at the Credit Human Building at the Pearl, 210-979-9950, allorapearl.com
Quick bite: High-end coastal Italian restaurant at the Pearl featuring chef Robbie Nowlin
Hit: Ahi tuna crudi, grilled octopus, gnocchi
Miss: Tagliatelle Bolognese, rabbit leg confit, pork chop
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; lunch and brunch hours coming soon
Price range: Appetizers, $12-$24; raw fish crudi, $18-$24; pasta, $16-$24; sides, $10-$14; entrees, $27-$95 (up to $250 or more for the priced-per-pound tomahawk steak); desserts, $9-$11
Alcohol: Wine, cocktails and beer
***** Excellent, an almost perfect experience
**** Good, among the best in the city
*** Average, with a few standouts
** Poor, with a redeeming factor or two
* Bad, nothing to recommend
Express-News dining critics pay for all meals.
And so the question arises whether that enduring likeable quality will be enough to shoulder the burden Nowlin’s been asked to bear at Allora. The name itself evokes the Italian conversational expression for “ … and then,” implying an urgent sense of what’s next. In a city forever hoping to be swept off its feet, the clock is ticking.
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