John and Elise Russ didn't plan to stay in San Antonio long, but after moving to the Alamo City in 2012 so John could help open the now-shuttered River Walk restaurant, Lüke, the husband-and-wife team unexpectedly fell in love with the city.
"San Antonio has a very small-town feel with the perks of living in a big city,” Elise, a respected pastry chef whose last gig was at Biga on the Bank, says. “The people here are kind and honest and very supportive of small businesses.”
In 2014, the culinary couple launched Alamo City Provisions, a successful traveling pop-up dinner series that featured the city's best chefs collaborating on menus, all served in unexpected locations. Not only did the series foster camaraderie within San Antonio’s chef community, but it allowed John and Elise the opportunity to fine-tune a fresh and inventive Southern-inspired menu for Clementine, the duo's new restaurant that opened earlier this year to rave reviews.
“San Antonio has skipped a bunch of the fads that we see in other places,” John says. “Most restaurant owners here test their concepts with pop-ups and food trucks before moving to brick-and-mortar, which makes the end result a more thought-out restaurant.”
While most of San Antonio's bars and restaurants can be found downtown, on the River Walk or in the Pearl complex, John and Elise chose to open their concept in the residential Castle Hills neighborhood, helping add to the city's quickly expanding food scene.
“I think it's simple,” John says. “We took the idea of a high-end space, a design that would be more in our inner urban core, and we put it in a neighborhood.”
Appropriately, the restaurant is named after a fearless clementine tree the two found growing from the cracks of a parking lot when they first began their search for a restaurant space. The interior, designed by Ron Bechtol, draws on the name with vintage citrus print ads, a blueprint-like clementine mural and pops of orange contrasted with cool coastal blue walls. Delicate glassware, wabi-sabi ceramics and whitewashed tables complete the bright and airy space.
Despite John’s fine dining pedigree (The Ritz-Carlton and Restaurant August in New Orleans), the food at Clementine is approachable and unpretentious. And though the menu is familiar, each dish features an unexpected flavor that makes it really sing.
“We realized that this would be a great place to open our restaurant not only because the people are great, but because there is access to such wonderful farms that are producing products that keep our food exciting,” Elise describes. “John creates dishes with limited ingredients that really highlight the fresh produce in season. He likes to combine flavors that sometimes sound like they don't work—but they always do.”
The most recent menu features globe-spanning flavor combinations like the punchy Poteet blackberries with grilled okra, toasted cumin, Bayonne ham and rich Marcona almonds; buttered turnips with funky fish sauce and slightly sweet sesame streusel; smothered squash with earthy chicken livers, crunchy pepitas and a bright pepper jelly; and a pile of falafel-inspired hush puppies piled atop a sumac-labneh spread (get the recipe).
As for sweets, pastry chef Elise brightens up traditional desserts with fruits and vegetables, evident in her carrot cake financier with cream cheese semifreddo, or her signature chocolate clementine crunch bar punctuated with hazelnuts and a splash of clementine sorbet.
The wine list, meanwhile, focuses on vibrant selections chosen for their ability to complement the food and is separated into categories like Patio Pounders, which features an Aligoté from the Santa Maria Valley and a skin contact Moschofilero from the Peloponnese, and Esoteric, which offers a full-bodied Ripasso alongside a quenching Txakolina.
Adjacent to the wine bottles displayed against one wall, a spacious whitewashed chef’s table faces the blue-and-white-tiled open kitchen, where Elise can usually be found in her chef's whites, expediting with an acute attention to detail, and John often emerges in his signature blue apron to warmly greet guests.
“The food we cook at Clementine is inspired by our experiences with friends and family at home,” John, who still loves experimenting in his home kitchen whenever he has time away from the restaurant, says. “The simplicity of what we do and the focus on vegetables is how we cook at home, and I wanted to share this with San Antonio.”
Veronica Meewes is an Austin-based food and travel writer. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @wellfedlife.
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