Wednesday, June 06, 2007

New Chef at Quattro

I wish I knew the back story behind the last several years of chef shuffling at Quattro. One of Houston's best chefs, Tim Keating, opened the restaurant in the Four Seasons in 2002. But Keating left Quattro and left town in 2005, ultimately ending up at the Walt Disney World's Flying Fish Cafe.

Then Quattro hired Paul Wade, who had been the head chef at the Little Nell in Aspen -- possibly my favorite restaurant in Colorado. But Wade left Quattro abruptly.

Now Quattro has a new chef, Gaetano Ascione. Ascione is a native of Naples, but has cooked around the world. The Chronicle's food writer Alison Cook is a big fan.

When I first saw Quattro's new menu, I was underwhelmed. Under Keating, the menu had focused on complex combinations of many exotic ingredients. Although the menu was Italian-influenced, there was no doubt that this style was not traditional, but new food. And Keating's dishes were some of the busiest, most interesting combinations in town.

In contrast, Ascione's menu looks dull. It is quite short. And the dishes just don't sound very interesting. For instance:

"Beef Carpaccio, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, Shaved Parmigiano-Regiano and Arugula"

"Insalata Caprese - Buffalo Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil"

"Seasonal Whitefish, Shellfish, Vegetables, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Broth"

The entire menu consists of simple descriptions of ordinary ingredients in a simple-sounding preparation.

In cooking, simplicity is not always a virtue. Several years ago, I purchased a cookbook that contained only recipes with three ingredients. The dishes I cooked from it turned out dull. Similarly, a few years ago, I finally tried Chez Panise in Berkely, the restaurant from which Alice Waters started a new trend toward simplicity in cooking. My meal was underwhelming at best.

But Ascione's version of simplicity was delicious. The truly revelatory dish was my entree -- a thick piece of grouper, resting atop a modest stew of white beans and tomatoes. Something about the three simple flavors of this dish came together. I love the combination of white beans and tomatoes, and they were even better with this fish. Of course, it helped that the grouper was perfectly cooked -- flaky inside, slightly crispy on top -- and one of the best quality pieces of fish I have had this season.

Two fairly simple appetizers were also good. The carpaccio was made from very high quality ingredients: beef (in impossibly thin slices), arugula, and Italian cheese. This simple dish is classic because the ingredients work so well together.

A Cesare salad had similarly standard ingredients, but an unusual preparation. The chef had made a little basket out of crisped Parmesan cheese, pouring the garlic/anchovy dressing on the bottom of the basket and arranging the romaine lettuce in the basket like a bouquet of flowers. I had fun eating it, but my wife thought it was too much work.

I rarely trust wine guys to pick a wine for me, but I let Quattro's wine guy guide me toward a brilliant white wine from the Friuli region of North Eastern Italy, made half with the grape "tocai friuliano" and half with some other varietal I did not recognize. I have had some great under-$15 white wines from Friuli, but this one was otherworldly. It was light and fruity, yet the nose, and the changing flavors in the different spots of the palate made this one of the most profound Italian whites I have tried. I was impressed that the wine guy recommended something so exotic, rather than just an over-oaked Pinot Grigio or an over-priced Orvieto.

Here is a secret about Quattro: It seems to get its biggest crowd during the week at lunch, and its next biggest crowd on week nights. Under all its different chefs, it has been uncrowded, quiet, and romantic on most weekend evenings when other restaurants are at their most crowded. That is when I like to go -- and when I will be returning soon.

No comments: