The new Italian Pearl Allora restaurant bears the brunt of expectations in San Antonio

There’s this thing chef Robbie Nowlin does on his @chef_drive Instagram feed. Image after image, he hoists people in his arms in front of the kitchen pass of Allora, the new Italian restaurant at the Pearl of which he is the executive chef.

In one, it’s chef Jason Dady, whom Nowlin worked for at the Lodge in San Antonio. In another, it’s Bistr09 chef and co-owner Lisa Astorga Watel, who is married to another of Nowlin’s former bosses, then-Chez Vatel Bistro chef Damien Watel. Friends from former jobs, local celebrities, superfans. Big and small, he lifts them all.

In the process, shots of this workhorse in chef’s whites and clogs have become a metaphor for the weight of massive expectations. Robbie Nowlin, San Antonio’s prodigal chef, back from his California adventures at The French Laundry and beyond, set to open the most high-profile opening at The Pearl since Mon Chou Chou Brasserie in 2020.

Allora is the new Italian restaurant featuring Chef Robbie Nowlin’s cuisine with spacious indoor and outdoor patios at The Pearl.

Mike Sutter / Staff

Allora has been the biggest business in town since Nowlin himself started the social media whispers a year ago, a project by serial restaurateur Peter Selig of Maverick Texas Brasserie, Ácenar, Biga on the Banks and the Allora’s casual sister restaurant, Arrosta, also at the Pearl. Located in the vaulted ground floor rooms of the Credit Human Building, Allora opened on March 2 with a menu of small plates of antipasto, raw fish crudi inspired by the Italian coast, pasta made by main and dishes ranging from roast chicken to tomahawk rib-eyes that weigh in at nearly $250.

It’s big, loud and bustling, the kind of place Hollywood chooses for a romantic comedy. The patio is blooming with umbrellas shining like sunflowers, the walls shimmer tangerine and white, the staff swirls through the space in electric yellow vests and disco-level sound caroms on the cathedral-sized windows a busy Friday night. The service is precise and regular, the wine list speaks Italian in small touches and the cocktails strive with touches of amaro, aperol and grappa.

But when the panting finally catches its breath, Allora is just a chef, standing in front of a kitchen, hoping you’ll like it.

Ahi Tuna Crudo incorporates raw tuna, capers, oranges and extra virgin olive oil at Allora, the new Italian restaurant The Pearl.

Ahi Tuna Crudo incorporates raw tuna, capers, oranges and extra virgin olive oil at Allora, the new Italian restaurant The Pearl.

Mike Sutter / Staff

Love Allora for the ahi tuna crudi with silky cuts of pink fish with bright accents of orange and capers. Love it for a surprising side dish of roasted cauliflower with the gravity of a main dish, covered in browned butter, caramelized onions and sultanas.

And love it for one of the best grilled octopus dishes in town, a raucous plate of red pepper romesco and fried potatoes in a hairy crisp around a well-trimmed octopus with a crisp, firm bite.

Love at first sight gave way to charm, starting with a light chicken liver mousse with sweet and sour cherry jam and sourdough toast, then well-cooked gnocchi, with a soft bite that accentuated the ability potato pasta to complement and coexist with tangy, sweet and lush elements like apple, bacon bits and verjuice.

A fried whole red snapper is served with pistachio pesto butter at Allora, the new Italian restaurant The Pearl.

A fried whole red snapper is served with pistachio pesto butter at Allora, the new Italian restaurant The Pearl.

Mike Sutter / Staff

And face-to-face with a whole fried snapper wrapped around a ramekin of rich butter with pistachio pesto, it was hard not to be charmed by an opalescent meat with a light battered crispiness that came off in neatly hatched slices, even though this show rang in at $95.

But with all new love, there are red flags, and Allora’s red flags rose with a dull and bitter candied rabbit leg hard and burst at its heart, as well as a pork chop cut from the bone then overcooked in a choking, salted 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 quite ordinary plates of asparagus and an unruly plate of skinned butternut squash. hard.

Above all, Allora is a study in well-meaning sympathy. Cutters working with the intensity and precision of raw bar sushi chefs produced oil-rich plaice tartare with the balancing tartness of lime aguachile and clever cubes of parmesan panna cotta, while a striped bass crudi simply shone with pistachio and mint as fresh as a sea breeze.

All'amatriciana ravioli are made with tomato sauce, spinach, caramelized ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Allora, the new Italian restaurant The Pearl.

All’amatriciana ravioli are made with tomato sauce, spinach, caramelized ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Allora, the new Italian restaurant The Pearl.

Mike Sutter / Staff

Small plates demonstrated the kitchen’s nimble range with handmade pastas, including little orecchiette pasta ears with pistachio pesto; translucent ravioli balancing the flavors of spinach, tomato and Parmigiano Reggiano; and soft, ribbony spaghetti alla chitarra with an age-old cacio e pepe dress of cheese and butter.

Allora

* * * ½

403 Pearl Parkway at the Credit Human Building at the Pearl, 210-979-9950, allorapearl.com

Quick Bite: Upscale Coastal Italian Restaurant at The Pearl with Chef Robbie Nowlin

Hit: Ahi tuna crudi, grilled octopus, gnocchi

Miss: Bolognese tagliatelle, confit rabbit leg, pork chop

Hours: 5pm-10pm from Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday; 5pm-11pm from Friday to Saturday; lunch and brunch times coming soon

Price scale: Appetizers, $12 to $24; raw fish crudi, $18-$24; pasta, $16 to $24; sides, $10 to $14; entrees, $27 to $95 (up to $250 or more for tomahawk steak priced per pound); dessert, $9-$11

Alcohol: Wine, cocktails and beer

***** Excellent, an almost perfect experience

**** Good, among the best in town

*** Average, with some notable points

** Poor, with a redemption factor or two

* Bad, nothing to recommend

Express-News food critics pay for all meals.


It is very good. We love sympathy the same way we love those cookie-cutter rom-coms with Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts or Channing Tatum all being dreamy and vulnerable. But these are not imposing works of cinema.

And so the question arises whether this pleasant and enduring quality will be enough to carry the burden that Nowlin has been asked to bear in Allora. The name itself evokes the Italian conversational expression for “…and then”, implying an urgent sense of what’s to come. In a city that still hopes to be swept away, time is running out.

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