Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bice -- museum food

Bice is an expensive chain of restaurants based in Milan. It began in 1926. Although there are no other locations in Italy, there are over 40 locations around the world. One is in the Galleria.

Like a traveling art collection, but it's food

This is the basic idea: Take 40 or so elegant Italian (many Milanese) recipes and carefully train staff to copy those same dishes around the world. Customers in far-away places like Brazil, Dubai, and Houston will pay a lot of money to get faithful reproductions of risotto Milanese, ossobuco, or potato gnocchi - without having to fly to Italy.

It is like copying the permanent collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence - a classic collection of Renaissance art - and displaying the copies in a Houston museum.

Museum Quality Food

To get the classic museum experience, we ordered some typical dishes:

-Tricolore salad ($11). Three colors: purple, white, green - radicchio, endive, arugula. This is the bitter food equivalent of Campari. Three strong, bitter greens are paired with an acidic lemon juice dressing. The only relief from all the bitterness is some nicely toasted pine nuts. I like it -- even if Bice's version is unbalanced by a little too much endive.

-Carpaccio di manzo ($18). Thinly sliced raw beef is served with arugula, lemon juice, capers, and mustard. The menu also mentions "black truffles," but we could not find them. Although the mustard was delicate, it slightly overpowered the beef, making the dish taste a bit like a deli sandwich. My wife agreed that we might have liked this dish more if we had not just tried a much more interesting version at Mockingbird Bistro.

-Risotto with shaved black truffles ($25/$50). A half-sized order of rice -- probably less than one cup -- costs $25. The rice is topped by six or so, quarter-sized, super-thin shavings of black truffle. The waiter explained that Bice served white truffles last year, but had to stoop to black truffles because the price has risen. The delicate, slightly funky flavor of freshly shaved truffles is unique -- completely different from so-called "truffle oil," which is usually made with artificial truffle flavoring. Although it was the most expensive cup of rice I have had, this dish was subtly interesting. Yet it left me scratching my head about why truffles have become so expensive.

-Tagliata de Tonno ($28). Tuna steak and white beans may be my favorite classic Italian combination. With Bice's version, I appreciated the restraint: the beans were served al dente, and the tuna was barely seared. Interestingly, the dish was accented with a sweet balsamic vinegar sauce. Although I usually prefer this dish with more garlic, and less sweetness, it was the only dish of the night that was remotely surprising.

Some "not museum quality" wines

Bice's wine list is dominated by high priced wines. It includes an adequate selection of Italian wines from Piedmont and Tuscany, plus some requisite Chiantis. But some other Houston restaurants have more interesting collections of Italian wines.

Surprisingly, much of the list is Californian. Next to us, a 50-something man, dining with an attractive 30-something woman, ordered Silver Oak, an over-oaked, over-priced cabernet that I cannot imagine drinking with Italian food. Unlike Da Marco and Dolce Vita, Bice does not require that its customers drink interesting Italian wines; it lets customers drink the same overpriced California wines they drink in steak houses.

The Price/Value calculation

Have I said Bice is expensive? Most beef and veal courses cost over $40. Ossobuco was $49. First courses are almost all over $10. Some, like my risotto, are over $20.

Although Bice had an elegant atmosphere early in the evening, a noisy party in the upstairs ballroom changed the tone for the second half of our meal. It is hard to imagine yourself at dinner in Milan when a phat bass guitar vibrates your body and a singer noisily belts out "Brick House." My wife asked if it was ok to get up and dance.

For food, Bice is like any museum collection of old art. You ought to pay the steep ticket price to visit once. If you really like it, you might go a few more times. But over time, the rewards of visiting the same old collection probably will not match the price.

This is particularly true in Houston, where we have a few Italian restaurants that are more creative, more flavorful, more contemporary, and less expensive than Bice. And those restaurants will never serve customers a bottle of Silver Oak.


Anonymous said...

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