For our anniversary, my wife and I went to Da Marco. In the past, we have thought that Da Marco serves some of Houston's best food. Last night was no exception.
First, some caveats. Da Marco gets two common complaints: the price and the service. Both complaints are fair.
Many friends have had sticker shock at Da Marco when they got the bill.
This is surprising because Da Marco menu items are cheaper than other lesser restaurants. For instance, most of Da Marco's menu appetizers cost $7 - $15, and most entrees $20 - $30. Compare that to Brennan's, where appetizers cost $13 - $20 and entrees $28 - $40.
But the bill at Da Marco has a way of creeping up. One pitfall is the bottled water. On this visit, two or three different people tried to push it on us. That H2O can be pretty pricey.
The other pitfall is the specials board. These dishes have much better descriptions than the Spartan descriptions of dishes on the menu, but the price of specials is not disclosed. It can be outrageous. My friends have ordered Da Marco's specials, expecting a price in the $30 range, only to find it was more like $70.
Although I know Da Marco's bottled water trick and its specials board trick, I always pay too much for its wine. The all-Italian list has some great bottles priced over $150, but not many good wines for less than $75. DaMarco's markup is high -- about three times retail for more common wines, and a lot more for some rarer wines. Da Marco's sister restaurant, Dolce Vita, has some good wine values in the $20 and $30 range. But Da Marco's list goes out of its way to avoid those values.
It was our anniversary, and I splurged. I picked a bottle for $150. Six years ago, I bought the same wine at Specs for under $30.
Countless friends complain about Da Marco's service. Some say the wait staff snubbed them because they did not order an expensive wine. Yet I learned that it does not matter how much you spend. The service is just inept.
One problem is the wine guy. Thirty seconds after receiving the list, he asked if we had any questions. I said, "Not yet, but we probably will in a few minutes." He never returned, even when I ordered that $150 wine.
Another problem is DaMarco's waiters. Most do not have a good command of Italian -- or English. Our waiter gave Italian ingredients a Spanish pronunciation. When he brought an amuse bouche of crostini covered with a thick orange puree that looked like butternut squash, I asked him the ingredients in the puree. "Oh," he said, "eeets olive oil." I responded, "But it is thicker than olive oil. Isn't it some sort squash?" He said, "Oh, Jes." Either he had no clue what was in the dish, or no clue what I was saying.
I'm no xenophobe. I admire immigrants who face the daunting task of learning English. But at a restaurant with food as good as Da Marco, it would be nice to have just one person -- a chef, the wine guy, or a waiter -- who can have an informed conversation about the food.
The language barrier can be a real problem when ordering wine from a Da Marco waiter. I always double check the label. On the first try, they usually bring the wrong wine. Predictably, our waiter got it wrong and brought a wine made with a completly different varietal. When I then gave the wine a Spanish pronunciation, instead of an Italian one, he finally understood. I can't understate how important it is to confirm you get the wine you ordered before it is opened. Some of DaMarco's wines cost over $1,200.
I mention the service only because it is important to some people. Not me. The food is the thing. And at Da Marco, the food is fantastic.
Da Marco serves one of Houston's best dishes: artichoke alla giudea. The artichoke is softened in chicken broth, fried, and served with a lemony sauce. This time, we did not get it.
Instead, we ordered two different types of crudo -- raw fish dishes. I ordered a tuna crudo, a good-sized cylinder of raw tuna and crab topped with arugula, tiny tomatoes, and a lot of lemon juice. The meaty and sweet flavors of the tuna played off the arugula's bitterness and the lemon juice's bite. The dish captured the essence of the sea, and the essence of Italy.
It was surprising, then, that my wife's hamachi crudo was so Japanese. The yellow tail fish was covered with a mound of green and red tobiko -- flying fish roe -- advertised on the menu as "caviar." The green tobiko had been soaked in wasabi. The red tobiko was soaked in another ingredient I could not identify. (No use asking the wait staff).
As her entree, my wife ordered an appetizer: a frisee salad with taleggio cheese and pears. Like my tuna crudo, it was a wonderful contrast of textures and flavors. She thought the taleggio was a bit strong -- or as she said, "stinky." I thought it was creamy and buttery and even a bit mild for taleggio. But I have a high tolerance for stinky cheese.
I ordered roast quail with fava beans. I was more interested to try the beans than the quail, and they did not disappoint. The fava beans were bright green, cooked al dente, and served with a thin layer of some Italian cheese. (No use asking the wait staff.) Again, the mix of textures -- earthy, creamy, and meaty -- was brilliant.
I finished the evening with a shot of espresso. It was much more dense and flavorful than espresso from Starbuck's or other American coffee chains. It triggered a memory of a sidewalk cafe in a Roman Piazza dominated by a Bernini sculpture. (It also reminded me of how hard it was to talk to Roman waiters in Italian.) The coffee was a wonderfully Italian end to a wonderful, mostly Italian meal.