Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Once you’ve mastered the art of Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps you’re ready to try Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Or just leave the cooking to someone else now that Julia’s Bistro & Bar, named for Julia Child, the author of a book by that name, is open in San Antonio.
Julia’s is the newest arrival on a midtown avenue of favorite eateries with local flair, such as Blanco Café and Chris Madrid’s. Located in a 1930s-era shopping center at 1725 Blanco Road, the restaurant is the latest creation of longtime San Antonio restaurant owner Jean-Francois Poujol and chef de cuisine Zack McKinney.
But the recipes didn’t come from any cookbook, Child’s or otherwise. Poujol and McKinney have designed a menu featuring classic French cuisine, but prepared with local ingredients, resulting in dishes with flavors familiar to San Antonio diners.
A French onion soup is topped with melted gruyere and fried onions. Julia’s cassoulet, or bean stew, is made with chorizo and Mexican spices rather than garlic sausage, and the chicken au vin is served with creamy poblano mashed potatoes, mole sauce, and cojita cheese. Even the escargot, sautéed in Pernod butter and garlic, is served free of its snail shells in a baguette with brie.
Street tacos from the small-plates menu are made with duck confit, roasted corn pico, and cilantro, and the chile relleno is stuffed with braised lamb and goat cheese and topped with chimichurri sauce.
The reason is très simple – there aren’t enough French people in San Antonio for a casual but traditional French restaurant, Poujol said. “You can’t support it here,” he said. “I opened a traditional French restaurant downtown and it was a disaster.”
Born and raised in Versailles, France, Poujol fulfilled a childhood dream and moved to the United States when he was 18. He had no background in the restaurant business at the time.
“When you come to the U.S. and you are French, you are systematically going to work in a restaurant,” Poujol said. He began by bartending and, by age 21, was managing a restaurant, but he always wanted to own and operate his own place.
“I’m very hard to work with – I’ve never had a job for more than a year and a half,” he admitted. “I like to change things. I’m challenge-oriented.”
Poujol came to San Antonio from Los Angeles and opened Soleil Bistro & Wine Bar in 2007. Then came the recession, he said, “and the French restaurant became scary,” as consumers held more tightly to their wallets.
So he changed the concept and the name, and Tost restaurant became a huge success, he said. He sold that restaurant in 2012 and the next year opened Tribeca, serving more casual American fare for about five years, until he got bored.
“I was looking at different opportunities and I always liked this [shopping] strip,” said Poujoul, who resides nearby in Beacon Hill, an early residential development that gave rise to the flourishing MidTown Business District in the 1920s and 1930s.
Today, that stretch of Blanco south of Hildebrand Avenue is an eclectic mix of locally owned restaurants and sometimes campy retail establishments, such as Karolina’s Antiques and The Junction, both within walking distance of Julia’s.
In 2018, Poujol opened SoHill Café at 1719 Blanco Road as a cozy Italian bistro in space that was once home to an old favorite, Casbeers Café.
Julia’s is two doors down from SoHill Café, between Lulu’s Classic, serving fruit cups, ice cream, and Frito pie, and a small collectibles store. Poujol took over the long-vacant space, once a grocery store owned by his neighbor’s uncle, in July and completely renovated the interior.
His idea for Julia’s comes from his experience opening restaurants in a town better known for Tex-Mex and barbecue. “You realize most people here have never had French food, never,” Poujol said.
Difficulty in translating a French-language menu is one barrier, he said, and, “then, they’re afraid it’s too expensive, too froufrou, too fancy.”
“But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can make it simple for you and bring flavors they are used to. It’s not an opposite spectrum of what they are used to.”
Julia’s also offers a dessert menu featuring house-made ice creams and a full wine, beer, and cocktail menu. The wine list includes French reds and whites, available by the bottle or glass, as well as Italian and other wines from around the world.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, for dinner only (4 to 10 p.m.) as Poujol tests the concept, Julia’s was closed on Thanksgiving Day but reopens on Friday. Reservations are recommended on weekends by calling 210-476-5404.