Sometimes you need comfort food -- something simple, fresh, traditional, and not too spicy. And comfort food is best in a simple, neighborhood restaurant that feels like an old shoe. After some particularly nasty food trauma, my wife and I needed some comfort food last night.
Our instincts led us back to DiVino Restaurant and Wine Bar. DiVino is a small Italian restaurant on West Alabama near the Menil museums. It is the kind of place that has a lot of regulars, the kind of place that may be more crowded on a weeknight than a weekend, the kind of place that feels like home. We are not regulars, but we have been going to DiVino once or twice a year since it opened about a decade ago.
DiVino is not the most upscale or creative Italian food in Houston. But it also is not a highly-marketed chain, or a cheap, red-checker-tablecloth place that sells lots of tomato sauce and pasta. It is a mid-priced, traditional Italian restaurant, with a focus on the food of Tuscany and central Italy. Most of the menu does not change, but there are seasonal specials.
DiVino doesn't go for big flavors. Its dishes emphasize tastes that are simple and often garden-fresh. An appetizer of bruscetta comes with grilled Italian bread, glistening from a few brushes of olive oil. It is served with three bowls of dips -- olive tapenade, pureed white beans, and tomatoes with basil. I make olive tapenade and pureed white beans frequently, and I usually experiment with different ways to pump up their flavor: concentrated orange oil, truffle oil, cayenne, smoked paprika, or lots of garlic. Not DiVino. Their tapenade tastes like just olives. Their white beans tastes like just white beans. No big bursts of flavor. No surprises. Yet with the perfectly grilled bread, these dips are delicious.
Another appetizer is grilled shrimp with grilled polenta with tomato sauce. The fresh shrimp are skewered on a sprig of rosemary, which infuses them with rosemary flavor. The polenta are perfectly textured, not too thick and not falling apart, as usually happens when I try to grill polenta. The tomato sauce is very light, barely cooked, and hardly more than a simple tomato puree. Right now, in high tomato season, I was glad the tomatoes had not had the heck cooked out of them.
An entree of pork tenderloin with white beans, tomatoes, and green beans is as simple as it sounds. As it should be, the focal point of this dish is the beans, which swim in a slightly soupy, tomato-based broth. The pieces of pork are hard to find in the soup, almost as if it was added as an afterthought for flavoring. These beans do not provide the burst of flavor that I had in a similar white bean and tomato dish last weekend at Quattro. But this dish, particularly with its addition of green beans, does taste clean and fresh from the garden.
Most of DiVino's dishes are what you expect. Fillet mignon is served with port reduction. Duck breasts are served with cherry sauce. Butternut squash pasta is served with fried sage. The menu is quaintly predictable.
The biggest element of surprise at DiVino is the wine list -- one of my favorite small wine lists in Houston. Most wines are between $15 and $56. About 1/3 of the wines are Italian. But it is a great list for wine geeks. Almost every entry is a small-production wine from little-known producers. Many wines are from off-the-beaten-path regions like Friuli, Sicily, and Prioriat. And, although the list has some cabernets and chardonnays, it also has a fair number of exotic varietals like Primitivo, Nero D'Avola, and Nerello Mascalese.
As we left DiVino, I realized I had not tried anything new. My food horizons had not been expanded. But, somehow, I felt better. There is something restorative about good, well-balanced food.