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Cooking With Myra: Cioppino and The Sendera

By Myra Starkey
Feb. 12, 2013 at midnight
Updated Feb. 11, 2013 at 8:12 p.m.

Cioppino with shrimp, mussels and Italian sausage

For me, the essence of Valentine's Day is spending time with those you love. It could be a candlelight dinner in a quiet, romantic spot with just your soulmate, or it might be a celebration with several couples in more of a party environment.

The bottom line is that this holiday is about love and expressing the feelings we have for the one who is most special to us. We generally are so busy and caught up in the routine of life that we don't often stop to consider true love. I see it as a deep fondness, the binding of our very heart with another, the comfortable acceptance, the grace, the hoping for their best even when it means sacrificing our self, the choosing to be with that person before all others.

That is love.

We have Valentine's Day plans for a romantic dinner on the actual date, but Taylor and I had a special treat just a few days ago at the home of some good friends.

It was a preview of what all of us will have a chance to experience in a few months. Dennis and Louise have had such great success with their first restaurant, The PumpHouse, that they are ready for a new venture, to be called "The Sendera" (the pathway). It is currently under construction on the top floor of One O'Connor Plaza. The chef has already moved into town, and he served us examples of what will be offered, and it was impressive.

Dennis and Louise are friends who have a zest for life. Just being around them brings energy to the room and to me. At a time in our lives when some of us are winding down, the two of them are adding one more restaurant to their plate.

Their vision is to create a dining space with a South Texas ranch feel, circa 1800s filled with antiques, bookcases and quiet nooks where friends can enjoy fine food and wines. The restaurant perched atop the tallest building in Victoria enables the diners to get a bird's eye view. The menu will feature game such as buffalo, elk and venison, dry-aged prime beef and seafood dishes. The restaurant will be open near the end of March or early April, but for now, the hammers are hammering, and the chef is perfecting the dishes.

Chef Sean Fanelli, of Austin, is looking forward to being in Victoria. While in Austin, he worked with Apple, serving at multiple events weekly. One of his most interesting positions was to serve as Lady Bird Johnson's private chef until her death. Although he has been a chef in many restaurants in his career, he is up to the challenge of building The Sendera into a fine dining experience from the vision of Louise and Dennis.

I could not contain my excitement in meeting him and sampling his cuisine. He reminds me of Mr. French from that late 1960s show "Family Affair." Mr. French was the guy who looked after Buffy and Jody. Chef Fanelli is a quiet and humble man with an incredible palate. Our first course was elk carpaccio with crisped capers and juniper berries.

Carpaccio is made from a lean cut of raw elk meat shaved and pounded. Normally, carpaccio is usually served as an appetizer. We were sitting around the table oohing and aahing as our next course arrived, English Ale soup with aged cheese. The soup had a velvety texture with a tangy end. The crowd was quiet as I heard the scraping of spoons since no one wanted to miss even a drop.

Next, Chef Fanelli brought out buffalo osso bucco with root vegetables. The aromatic dish was served with a marrow spoon so we could scoop out every bit of deliciousness. Some folks at the tables declined this portion, so I was happy to accommodate them by eating theirs.

The marrow in the shank bone absorbs all the flavors and tastes a bit like buttery fat. I have to say, I passed on the rolls since I was satiated and couldn't eat another bite. Then I saw Kim, the dessert chef, coming from the kitchen with teacups. The teacups were filled with chocolate pots de creme and Texas figs. The creamy chocolate concoction was just the right sweet to end an incredible meal. Of course, I had just enough space left in my stomach to finish it all.

Once again, food brought us all together around the table. If the old saying is true that food (or the stomach) is the closest way to a person's heart, then Dennis and Louise really know how to show how much they love their friends. We laughed and lived vicariously through them and their new dream. It is truly a delicious dream, and I cannot wait for The Sendera to open.

I know you are probably going to be disappointed in me, but I do not have a recipe to share from Chef Fanelli. He did inspire me to go home and try a dish I have never made. I frequently eat cioppino, which is an Italian fish stew, but for some reason I have never cooked mussels before, and that is one of the ingredients.

Over the weekend, we entertained Susan and Bob. Since we are getting old, I cannot eat large amounts at night - or at least I "usually" can't eat large amounts at night - so I thought having a soup, salad and dessert would be just the right amount of food.

My cioppino was delicious. I purchased live mussels from the grocery store, making sure the shells were closed. I figured each person would have about three, so I purchased a dozen. I added the small bay scallops and shrimp, and the soup was divine.

This would be a perfect Valentine's Day meal for your sweetheart. I also prepared an orange rosemary babycake with glorious rum glaze (adapted from the Fredericksburg Herb Farm cookbook).

The dessert is fast, and the individual portion can be shared with your sweetheart. This light menu leaves lots of room for the strawberries dipped in chocolate for a midnight snack.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, 77901, or email myra@vicad.com.

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