Remember "continental cuisine"? Thirty years ago, that was the description used to categorize most of the fine restaurants in Houston. Continental restaurants served French and/or Italian-based dishes in a formal setting. Men wore coats and ties. Waiters wore bow ties. And the ladies looked lovely.
In today's restaurant world, the term "continental" is hopelessly out of style. So is the stuffy formality associated with continental restaurants. Houston's finest French and Italian restaurants emphasize their casual atmosphere. Restaurant decor has transformed from ornate and traditional to minimalist and contemporary.
So I was a bit shocked when I walked into the dining room of Ristorante Cavour, which just opened in the new Hotel Granduca in Uptown Park. The small dining room had only five tables, bookshelves with antique knick-knacks, antique paintings, elegant chairs and tables, and candlelight. I felt like I had stepped onto the set for a Merchant Ivory period film.
Only two other tables in the tiny dining room were occupied. One had a large group of 8 or 9 European women speaking an Eastern European language. Another table of four well-dressed, older Houstonians were discussing the department store Battlesteins, which closed decades ago. I wasn't sure whether we had been transported to Europe, transported back in time, or both.
Usually, efforts to recreate European luxury in Houston feel false and pretentious. But Cavour felt romantic and even a little exotic.
The real reason to go to Ristorante Cavour is the cuisine of Executive Chef David Denis. Denis is also the owner/chef of Le Mistral, my favorite French restaurant in Houston. He comes from Southern France, not too far from Italy. So it makes some sense that his second restaurant would focus on Italian dishes. The style is much the same as Le Mistral -- high quality ingredients in simple preparations that borrow heavily from tradition but branch out in new directions. Denis's food is some of the most artistic and best tasting in Houston.
We tried these five outstanding dishes:
-Antipasti: mixed greens with basil lemon dressing and roasted pine nuts. The greens arrived on a clear glass plate, shaped into a beautiful mound, almost a column, with two long chives crossing over the top. The star of this salad was the unctuous dressing, more basil-flavored, than lemon-flavored. Although it was delicious, my wife complained that the salad was a bit overdressed.
-Antipasti: beef tenderloin carpaccio. This dish also arrived on a clear glass plate, and the beef and parmesan were sliced so thinly, that you could almost see through to the table. It was lightly dressed with a sweet balsamic sauce. On the side was a shot glass with gazpacho-flavored juice.
-Primi: pan seared potato gnocchi with sage. This gnocchi had the best texture of any gnocchi I have tried, even in Italy. Perhaps it was the pan searing: each little ball of potato had the texture of a tiny pillow with almost an imperceptible crispness on the exterior. The sage also had been crisped, presumably in butter. By my second bite, my wife asked me why I was doing the happy dance in my chair.
-Secondi: Although it was hard to follow the gnocchi, Colorado lamb chops were also excellent. The chops were lightly covered with a chunky sauce of green olives, prunes and roasted garlic. On the side was a simple serving of white beans, prepared al dente and full of flavor. I could tell a lot of care and effort went into making this simple side of beans.
-Dessert: Chocolate fondant with a milkshake. This dish is a carry-over from Le Mistral. Denis makes some of the best chocolate cake in town, and the shake is an inventive side.
Cavour's wine list is currently small, but well chosen. Italians dominate. Most bottles are between $40 - $100, and the markup seems to be a little less than twice retail, which is better than most restaurants.
Chef Denis may not be the most well-known chef in Houston, but he is one of our best. I am so glad he has created an Italian menu, and that he has done it inside the Beltway.
Cavour is pricey, but not as pricey as it feels. Most antipasti and primi are between $8 - 10 and most secondi are between $25 - 35. When the food is in the same league as Da Marco, Tony's, and Bice, those prices are almost a bargain.
Although it is not my style, there is something to be said for Cavour's romantic, old-world atmosphere. If your significant other swoons over Italian and French antiques, and if "continental cuisine" is not a dirty word, this might be the place to go for Valentine's Day.
UPDATE (5.4.08): A second visit to Cavour last weekend was just as good. Yet on a Saturday night, there were only 6 customers. For the past several months, this has been one of Houston's best and most romantic restaurants. Where are the customers?