Pesto, Puccini, and the Omni Talented Singing With Your Supper

by Virginia B. Wood Ancho's Restaurant at the Omni Hotel

701 Brazos Street, 320-5858

Breakfast & Lunch Monday-Friday,

6:30am-2pm; Saturday & Sunday, 7am-2pm

Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30pm-10pm;

Friday, Saturday & Sunday, 5:30pm-11pm

Singers perform Wednesday-Saturday

evenings & at Sunday brunch, noon-2pm Years ago, when I was a college student studying vocal performance, I spent two summers in the Montana Rockies, working as a hotel maid and singing waitress. While many of my generation were experiencing the "Summer of Love," attending Woodstock, and watching a moon landing, I spent my mornings cleaning toilets and tag-team bed-making and my evenings singing show tunes and slinging hash in the rustic Ptarmigan Dining Room of the Many Glacier Hotel. At that time, I still had dreams of being an opera singer or a Broadway star, and I considered the job a great training experience.

Performing for the public - whether you are singing to them or serving their dinner - is hard physical work which requires practice, stamina, and concentration. What I learned in my two summers in Montana was that I really didn't have the discipline or the disposition for either line of work. I still do a little singing, and sometimes I get wistful about what might have been if I'd had the required discipline when I had the opportunity. But I'd rather be beaten with a tire iron than ever wait tables again in this lifetime.

Because of this episode in my checkered past, I was very curious when I heard that a local hotel restaurant was featuring UT vocal students as singing waitpeople. The Omni Hotel Singers have been performing for a little over a year. The Austin Omni property is one of three in their chain to feature singing waitpeople, and they seem very committed to the concept here.

Music director Eric Martin, a recent graduate of the UT doctoral program in music, held open auditions in early 1994, and the call attracted many current and former UT voice students. He then made recommendations to the management about which singers to hire and set about developing the repertoire and musical arrangements. Martin has myriad duties; he is the arranger, director, and pianist for the singing troupe and auditions new singers when the need arises. The New Orleans native also maintains a small-scale, independent concert schedule and travels to New York and Europe every year.

A music-loving friend and I recently had dinner at Ancho's. We entered the hotel lobby to the strains of a duet from Phantom of the Opera. Our server was a charming soprano named Marlene Moore. In between arias and courses, Marlene told us that she had just finished the masters program at UT and plans to try her luck in New York in the fall. Marlene has an exquisite voice, and her emotional rendition of the Puccini aria from Gianni Schicchi was flawless. It was even more impressive when you take into consideration that she was wearing a vibrating beeper to remind her that once she had finished the hauntingly beautiful song, she had hot plates up and our appetizers were on their way.

Our appetizers were wonderful, truly the highlight of the meal. The Poblano-Parmesan Soup with Crisp Tortillas and Pico de Gallo ($3.50), which arrived in an enormous bowl, was warm, smooth, and earthy. Despite the size of the portion, I would have gladly taken a gallon container of the elegant elixir home with me, had it been available.

My companion was very pleased with his appetizer choice, a Deviled Crab Cake with a terrific Jalapeño-Jicama Coleslaw and Ancho-Chipotle Pesto ($5.75). The innovative slaw was one of the best jicama dishes I've even tasted and it's an idea that I think I'll work with at home.

While we were eating our appetizers, former UT voice student Sydney Allrud sang a love song to a table that was celebrating a wedding anniversary, and one of the waiters did a credible rendition of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll." I noticed that, because the servers were expected to sing, entertain, and visit with customers as well as take orders and serve them, the pace of the meal can be v-e-r-y leisurely. This caused us a slight problem during the entree portion of our meal.

I had chosen the fish special of the evening, a Cilantro Cornbread Encrusted Catfish Filet with Lobster Sauce, Black Bean and Corn Relish, a Pecan Rice Timbale and a Sautéed Vegetable Medley ($13.95). Unfortunately, it read a little better than it ate. The coating was green and unappetizing, the fish was mushy, and if there was any lobster sauce, I sure couldn't find it. Ordinarily, I would have said something about it to my server, but I hated to trip her and interrupt her delightful version of Victor Herbert's "I Love to Be a Prima Donna." The pecan rice and the vegetables were very good, but by the time our waitress had finished her song and shown the dessert tray to another table, it was just too late to send back the fish.

My friend thoroughly enjoyed his entree, Grilled Quail on Wilted Greens with Star Anise-Apricot CousCous and a Green Apple-Tomatillo Chutney ($13.95) from the "simply healthy" portion of the menu. The sweet-tangy chutney was the perfect accompaniment for the moist little birds. Because he had eaten such a virtuous entrée and I hadn't really eaten one at all, we rewarded ourselves with a dessert apiece and one for the table, as well.

The special dessert of the evening was a beautiful Hazelnut Tart topped with Glazed Peaches ($3.95). The crisp shortbread crust and rich, nutty filling were perfectly complemented by the fresh peach slices. My friend chose the warm Apple Spice Cake with Cajeta and Vanilla Ice Cream ($3.95). He was very pleased with his choice, but was disappointed that it was not warm as it had been described. We opted to share the refreshing pale pink serving of Watermelon sorbet served in an Almond Tuile ($3.50).

As we were savoring our dessert and coffee, it occurred to me that Ancho's would be a great place for dessert and coffee after a performance at the Paramount or UT's Performing Arts Center. The dining room and lobby bar are quite comfortable, the desserts and coffee drinks are enjoyable, and the parking in the hotel garage is free. When I spoke with Martin a few days later, he mentioned that they would love to attract both the pre- and post-concert and theatre crowds. According to Martin, he and his talented band of singers have been known to design special programs to complement shows at the Performing Arts Center; selections from Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, for example, when the roadshows were in town.

Make no mistake about it: The musical talent presented at the Omni is exemplary. In a perfect world, these excellent singers would be performing in a room with acoustic quality that matched their skills. However, they are performing in a hotel lobby - an atrium several stories high. When the big, glorious, unamplified voices burst forth, the sound bounces to the top of the atrium and back again, creating what was, to me, a very disconcerting echo. During one of her visits to our table, I asked Moore how she dealt with the echo and she replied that it took her about three weeks to train herself to ignore it. I discussed my perception of the echo with both the restaurant manager and Martin, and both acknowledged that it can be a problem. Perhaps a portable acoustical shell or some kind of suspended acoustical ceiling over the restaurant would help.

According to Martin, the seven singers who perform at Ancho's can also be heard singing leads in UT Opera productions; some have sung in Austin Lyric Opera productions, as well. It is remarkable to me that singers of this quality are making money singing the repertoire they present in a market the size of Austin. It's just another example of the incredible depth and diversity of artistic talent we often take for granted here. I came home and dreamt of singing arias from La Traviata (not even on the best day of my life) and pouring hot coffee on annoying customers (first chance I get). n

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