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Sweet Music

Staccato's is new (very new) and good (very good)

It must be a restaurateur's worst nightmare: Into the jangled, nervous flurry of a long-delayed opening weekend walks ... a reviewer. The kitchen's incomplete, the staff is new, the menu's a quick photocopy; a proprietor needs a critic at this moment like his salmon en croute needs a bicycle. Polite reviewers of restaurants don't do this. They considerately wait at least a month before sharpening their knives. Intelligent reviewers wait out those maiden weeks, too; no one wants to see a place belly-up before the ink on her copy is dry.

So were I a polite or intelligent restaurant reviewer, on January 15 I would not have been at Staccato's, Leticia Guzman and Kirk Graham's newest venue. My faux pas stemmed in part from spies' reports of diners seated in Staccato's spiffy new downtown space as early as December 3.

"We opened the day before yesterday," said the hostess. "Uh-oh," I thought.
It turned out to be as difficult for me to determine when Staccato's really opened as it was to suss out when its predecessor, Dacapo's on the Parkway, actually closed. Last October, Guzman denied the persistent rumors that Dacapo's was about to go under. With equal conviction, she swore, "And Staccato's will open on December 1." I pictured her shaking a fist heavenward, like Scarlett O'Hara raging in the potato field.

Of course Dacapo's closed within a month of my last report on the subject of Guzman and Graham, and it now appears that Staccato's didn't really open until mid January. So it goes. But who were those mystery diners at Staccato's in December?

"We had dinner parties booked for Dacapo's before it closed, so we just moved them over here," explains executive chef Dwayne Bosse, who also made the move from Allen Parkway. "Staccato's kitchen wasn't even finished yet, so I had to cook in my tiny little kitchen at home and ferry all the food over."

I'm impressed that a restaurant team in the throes of back-to-back closing and reopening still managed to honor its commitments to customers, and over the holidays, no less. And I'm relieved to discover that despite the odds, Staccato's is already "cooking": the just-finished space, still smelling of new wood, is coolly beautiful and intelligently laid out; the food on the short, opening-week menu is impeccably prepared and the service remarkably unruffled.

Staccato's layout is a thoughtful mix of public and private space, with better noise control than that of its former incarnation. Diners, drinkers and dancers mingle in the bar area at the front of the airy, high-ceilinged room, with windows onto an as-yet-ungentrified stretch of Main Street. The horseshoe-shaped bar itself, along with a muraled drop panel, buffers the high-decibel enthusiasm of the Latin-inspired band from the larger dining area beyond, and more private tables are tucked into alcoves along the wall. Otherworldly quiet can be found in two "chef's table" rooms all the way at the back, sound shielded by glass doors that afford a view into both the dining room and the kitchen beyond.

The menu already looks promising, even if the chefs and owners are hedging their bets with proven favorites brought from Dacapo's. Half the items are lighter noshes, appetizers, soups and salads appealing to pre- or post-event diners who want just a tasty nibble or two. I love the crab and smoked scallop cakes ($7.95), full of sweet, firm seafood ever so lightly crumbed, lapped with a tawny Champagne beurre blanc and topped with perky mango chutney. The grilled Portobello mushrooms with pesto ($8.50) are as good as I remember from Dacapo's, and the accompanying bulb of roasted garlic is divine to slather on the grilled pepper bread. Also worthwhile are the tender calamari fritti rings in their crunchy coats ($6.95), served with a standup wasabi cocktail sauce. Cooking calamari properly may not be rocket science, but I appreciate it just the same.

It's deja vu, too, for the understated corn and poblano chowder (cup $3.50, bowl $4.50). Bosse's version is slimmed down and subtle: A hearty chicken stock instead of cream allows the warm, smoky flavor of the poblano peppers to percolate through. Four sturdy dinner salads made the short list, including an eggless Caesar ($5.95) and a lightly dressed tumble of arugula, Granny Smith apples, toasted walnuts and nuggets of mild blue cheese ($6.50).

More pop Italian snacks will soon emerge from the brick pizza oven. "We're going to add great pizzas, calzones, stuff like that," enthused co-owner Kirk Graham. "Just as soon as we can get the oven going."

The influence of Staccato's northern Italian chef, Maurizio Gulinello, can already be seen in the pasta listings. Out of the six opening-week choices, we especially liked the potato gnocchi ($9.95), tender, cheesy and perfectly cooked, accented with green notes of sage and spinach lightly sauteed with plenty of garlic. But before ordering, be certain you know on which side of the love/hate slash you stand regarding Gorgonzola cheese; it dominates the dish.

"I worked with Maurizio in Galveston, and I really trust him," says Bosse, who formerly presided over the Wentletrap's kitchen. "I was supposed to stay at Dacapo's while he ran the kitchen here at Staccato's. So, even though it didn't work out that way, I still want him to get his turn to shine." Look for more pasta output from Gulinello in weeks to come, such as walnut-sauced ravioli stuffed with roasted butternut squash.

For now, heavier appetites will have to make do with a handful of interim entrees. Staccato's big meat dishes won't come on line until February, when the rotisserie grill promises daily entree specials such as prime rib, stuffed pork loin, wild boar and leg of lamb. By the time we dined, late that fateful first evening, the start-up larder was getting a little bare. The grilled Gulf snapper was already gone, so we tried the salmon Milanese instead ($17.95) and stumbled serendipitously in love. The salmon steak was perfectly moist and firm, sealed up in a thin, crunchy crust of bread crumbs, grated Parmesan and a mix of fresh herbs, with tarragon predominant. Couched on a sunny bed of firm saffron rice and bathed with a subtle roasted shrimp sauce, it's a knockout.

We had equally good luck with the beef tenderloin crusted with black peppercorns ($23). I'm suspicious of anything "encrusted" with black pepper, but Bosse's Asian-themed infusion of red wine, star anise, thyme and lemongrass tames all that pepper so that it doesn't overwhelm the meat. "That sauce sounds weird, doesn't it?" asked Bosse. But it works.

The steak is crowned with a tower of delicate onion rings, stacked whimsically one atop another. Their golden light batter is gently flavored with Tsing Tao beer; they're good enough to go solo on the appetizer list. (Dacapo's regulars will be relieved to know that the alternate tenderloin interpretation -- with grilled coffee beans in place of the peppercorns -- has resurfaced at Staccato's. The novelty tempted me, but I was too afraid of a week's insomnia to order it.)

It's too early to say for sure, but I'll bet fortune will favor Staccato's. While the Guzman/Graham team may have lost some credibility during Dacapo's decline and garnered a revolving-door reputation for their kitchen, devoted Dacapo's fans should easily transplant from Allen Parkway to Main Street without suffering root shock. Advance bookings extending well into April bear witness to their loyalty.

Staccato's new spot is a pioneer outpost in that particular block of Main Street, and pioneers are sometimes identifiable postmortem by the arrows in their backs. But it's just around the corner from the nightly frenzy at the former Rice Hotel, where Dallas-based Sambuca maintains two-hour waits for weekend tables. ("Staccato's? Never heard of it," sneered Sambuca's earringed host.) Unlike our Dallas brethren, Houstonians eventually tire of long waits behind velvet ropes. We're just as likely to amble over to try a new place.

Right now, Bosse and Graham seem more jittery than mere opening-night nerves would account for, despite unwavering performances from both the front and back of the house. Is there a skeleton in the Staccato's closet? Are the finances solid? Will the downtown stadium ever be finished? I don't know. But I'm rooting for them.

Staccato's, 711 Main Street, (713)227-9141.

Got a hot restaurant tip or an interesting piece of food news? E-mail Margaret L. Briggs at margaret_briggs@houstonpress.com.

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