By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
When I fall in love with a restaurant, I fall hard. I wake up thrilled like a kid on Christmas morning, only my first thought is, "Today I know I'm going to have a great meal." I'm infatuated with the new menu, obsessed by every detail of its dishes. While sitting idly at a traffic light, say, or waiting in an ATM line, I indulge in Technicolor reveries of the flavors and fragrances that captivated me.
At this very moment, I'm visualizing the slender curve of the artichoke alla giudea ($7) I ate as an appetizer at Da Marco. The artichoke's trimmed core was balanced heart-down upon the plate, its tender stem pointing straight up like an exclamation mark. I can taste the fruity olive oil it was fried in, smell the fresh lemon pulp and crinkled mint leaves, feel its firm green-gold flesh yielding under my fork.
I never thought I'd be captivated by an artichoke, much less one that was fried. When a friend told me about Marco Wiles's new restaurant and his fabulous fried artichoke, I formed a mental image of one of those battered and deep-fried bloomin' onions, and I yawned. Da Marco opened last month in the little house on lower Westheimer once occupied by that Ethiopian restaurant, Awash. The exterior was none too promising, painted an eye-popping shade of orange, but hey, at least there was a parking lot.
Houston, TX 77006
So I went in expecting little. Indoors it was much less orange, more warm, sunny yellow. A dozen or so tables were arranged on the pale hardwood floors of what must have been the home's former living room, and a fireplace was still in place in one wall. There was a crisp tang of wood smoke in the air, coming not from the cold hearth but from a brick oven behind the bar, the flames inside leaping and crackling. Sunlight streamed through the windows and the French doors opening onto the wooden deck outside.
A waiter brought us a complimentary antipasto of lemon-scented chickpeas sautéed in olive oil, spiked with flakes of dried red pepper and tumbled over slices of grilled bread. I think my love affair began with the luscious carafe of bellinis ($7), made Venetian-style with real white peach puree authentically flecked with tiny specks of pulp and pit, and sparkling Italian Prosecco, not too sweet, not too tart, and icy cold. The waiter gently tipped the syrupy mixture into our waiting pair of frosted martini glasses, and I knew I was lost.
Wiles served me that artichoke himself. He frowned in concentration as he cut the heart and stem into precise quarters, scattering the few soft leaves around the plate with a practiced flick of the wrist. "You have to eat it all, the stem too," he told me. "Or what, I don't get any dessert?" I joked. "No, you can have dessert, why not?" he asked me, dead serious, the tiny pucker between his eyebrows deepening in dismay.
Meanwhile, my friend smiled happily at his plate of San Daniele prosciutto ($9). At first bite I thought the sweet flavor came from the fig jam thickly spread on the split crostini, standing on end tepeelike in the center of the plate; later it dawned on me that this prosciutto itself is sweeter and less salty than the Parma variants I've tasted.
Perhaps I should fast-forward here; nobody really wants to hear the endless besotted particulars of someone else's infatuation. Suffice it to say I was waiting on Da Marco's doorstep for lunch the very next day.
That day the octopus appetizer ($6) I'd also heard about was in; Wiles had run out the night before. It was stunning. Not so much for the little grilled tentacles charmingly curled on the plate, though those were surprisingly tender and delicious, but for the combination of soft chunks of Yukon gold potatoes, slivers of roasted red pepper and shreds of fresh lemon underneath. The whole assemblage was dressed with a tangy, citrusy vinaigrette, and there were garnish details that didn't register fully until I had delved into the dish: thin slices of radish, tiny sprigs of dill -- frills I might ordinarily brush aside, but here merited my undivided attention. I can imagine Wiles in the kitchen, forehead creased thoughtfully, adding and subtracting tiny fragments of flavor and texture until the dish is perfect. He reminds me of a stern filmmaker who tolerates no extraneous detail in any frame. Nothing on these plates is arbitrary; you really must eat it all. Thoughtfully.
We were equally enchanted with the clams veraci ($8), a purple, soupy bowl of littleneck clams and long links of fennel-scented sausage bathed in a fragrant, grapey Lambrusco and topped with crisp garlic bruschetta. We waded into the "primi" courses with relish. The wild asparagus risotto ($14) tasted intensely and marvelously "green" (thanks, I'd guess, to an asparagus broth used to cook the rice), graced with halved stalks of asparagus and swathed with toothsome slices of an excellent smoked salmon. The risotto with porcini ($11) was cooked to a heavenly state of creamy al dente, topped with shavings of aged Parmesan cheese; the mushrooms contributed just the right note of woodsy, nutty flavor without taking over the dish.