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A half-pound of medium-rare Black Angus hamburger meat smothered in melting Gorgonzola and topped with a pile of wispy batter-fried onions sits atop a honey-wheat bun bottom. I pick up the top half of the bun, which has three black lines attesting to its recent toasting on the grill, and flip it onto the meat. Then I squish the sandwich down and slice it in half -- the better to admire the juicy, red meat.
One heady bite and I'm hooked. The burger has a fabulous chargrilled flavor. Farrago uses a gas grill, but this meat tastes like it was cooked over a wood fire.
My dining companion is engrossed in her fish and chips. The dish is a clever remake of the British street food classic, with tempura mahimahi substituted for the usual bland battered fillet of cod or plaice. Instead of "chips," by which the British mean french fries, Farrago serves salt-and-vinegar potato chips. There's also a small bowl of excellent spicy vinegar dipping sauce.
318 Gray St.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Farrago Burger: $9
Fish and chips: $12
Curried mussels: $10
Caesar salad: $6
The rest of her plate is covered with what's supposed to be slaw. Unwieldy slices of vegetables have been tossed with a dressing, but they aren't finely shredded enough to stick together. I take the trouble to chase a few bites around the plate with a fork, but the big pieces of napa cabbage are utterly tasteless.
The British often douse their fish and fries with malt vinegar, so the substitution of vinegar-flavored potato chips is a funny little joke. But when she's finished chuckling over the chef's drollery, my companion wants some freaking fries. Lucky for her, my burger is accompanied by perfect, crispy ones, lightly coated with salt and herbs.
The bold sign over the restaurant's entrance reads, "World cuisine." Evidently, what that means to chef Todd Stevens is a lot of culinary cleverness. Stevens, who once worked at eatZi's and the Ritz-Carlton in Aspen, has thrown off the shackles of tradition and formality and soared into the outer space of innovation.
At Farrago, Stevens serves up trilingual brainteasers like "miso bacon beurre rouge sauce" with his beef tenderloin. And his idea of crawfish pasta is described on the menu as "Chinese noodles tossed in a sundried tomato citrus butter sauce served with crawfish tails, sweet chipotle sauce, fresh mangos and a grilled jumbo shrimp."
According to Webster's, farrago means "a confused mixture," "a hodgepodge." The chef has done an impeccable job of sticking to the concept.
My first two visits to Farrago took place shortly after the restaurant opened (see "The Apple Martini Tour," October 19, 2000). On that go-round, I tried the most original-sounding stuff on the menu. I liked the kooky tomato pizza salad -- a fresh tomato, pesto and buffalo mozzarella pizza topped with salad greens and vinaigrette -- even though the crust gets soaked with dressing as you eat it.
The curried mussel appetizer came out swinging with big flavors. But after dipping a few mussels in what tasted like Thai coconut curry soup, I made the mistake of picking up a spoon and discovered that the broth was way too salty to eat. The chicken curry topped with dried cherries, mango, cilantro and crushed peanuts was toothache-sweet. And the grilled salmon with fruit and sun-dried tomato salsa was sawdust-dry and overcooked.
I wasn't very impressed. But in the intervening two and a half years, Farrago has become a hot spot, especially on weekday nights. Every time I drive by the place, I wonder: What do all these people know that I don't?
The corner location in the thriving Midtown neighborhood is hard to miss. And the polished concrete floors, clean modern furniture and dimly lit bar are coolly inviting. The overflow crowds down the block at The Fish probably haven't hurt the restaurant's popularity any either. But while The Fish is a dress-to-kill destination, Farrago is much more casual and laid-back. No doubt this is why it's more crowded on weekdays than weekends.
For fear that I might be missing something, I decided to rereview the restaurant. But this time, instead of running the typical restaurant review drill -- starting at the top of the menu and working my way down -- I decided to turn things around by starting at the bottom. Instead of gravitating toward food critic bait, the most unusual dishes, I ordered everyday items.
The difference was remarkable. Farrago's Black Angus burger is one of the best in the city. Their herbed french fries are outstanding. The Caesar salad with shaved manchego cheese and fried capers is terrific, and you can turn it into an entrée with the addition of grilled chicken or shrimp. Even the fish and chips would be awesome if they broke down and served real french fries and regular slaw with the crunchy tempura mahimahi. (A few salt-and-vinegar potato chips sprinkled on top would even preserve the joke.)
The bottom end of the menu is definitely where you want to be at Farrago. But even there, avoiding chef Stevens's creative excess is a challenge. Take the pizzas, for instance. Our waitress said the chicken and garlic pizza was the best on the menu -- if you order it without the lemon slices. As a restaurant critic, I figure it's not my place to reconfigure dishes. So I ordered the pizza, lemons and all.
What I got was a crunchy sourdough pizza crust topped with tasty rotisserie chicken, roasted garlic and rosemary -- all blanketed by a solid expanse of melted mozzarella. I suspect the five thin slices of lemon were initially added to the top of the pie for visual appeal. The first triangle I picked up had half a lemon slice on it. The sour lemon juice and bitter pith provided a refreshingly robust accent to the oily cheese and mellow chicken and garlic. Emboldened, I ate a whole lemon slice on my next piece.
Ack! Maybe a whole slice is just too much. Or maybe lemon oil is one of those flavorings that accumulates on your palate. Whatever the reason, the second time around, the lemon rind flavor was so acrid I wanted to spit it out. The moral of the story: When eating at Farrago, listen to your server. He or she will know which bizarre garnishes need to be scraped off the food before it can be eaten.
But the easier alternative is to head for the build-your-own part of Farrago's pizza menu. The sourdough crust is top-notch, and with such uncutesy toppings as marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms, onion, green peppers and garlic, it's easy enough to circumvent the silliness. Of course, there are lots of wacky options in the ingredient bin, too. Want to try to beat a fusion chef at his own game? How about Asian pesto, manchego cheese, pineapple, lemon slices and jalapeños?
We had a bottle of Bonny Doon's Pacific Rim Dry Riesling with our chicken pizza. The big crisp, slightly sweet spice and melon Riesling flavor stood up beautifully to the unsubtle food. Farrago's wine list is exceptional in its unpretentiousness. There are more than 50 great wines here, and nearly all of them are priced for a weekday night. Sure, there are a couple of big bubblies, but there are also a lot of $25 to $30 bottles. And more than 20 wines are served by the glass.
Venturing cautiously beyond burgers and pizza, we sampled the goat cheese brûlée salad with toasted pecans, roasted garlic and tomatoes. The tiny patch of scorched spice coating on top of the little discs of goat cheese didn't add much; the cold roasted garlic cloves tasted like they'd been in the refrigerator too long; and the pecan fragments were few and tiny. Despite its affectation, the salad was exceedingly ordinary.
An imaginative mezza plate featured a wonderfully zippy Thai curry hummus. The oily mandarin orange tabbouleh didn't include much parsley, but it made a rich citrusy dressing for the small green salad on the plate. I would have preferred regular pita instead of the stiff whole wheat variety provided for scooping up the dips. Does anybody in the Middle East actually eat whole wheat pita, or was it invented by Whole Foods? But I suppose there's no point in being a stickler for tradition if you're going to order a mezza plate at Farrago.
Fusion cuisine can be great. But when it's not, it sounds like a bad ethnic joke. Witness Farrago's Spanish paella made with Israeli couscous and served with Mexican/French chipotle rouille -- I found it too bewildering to order.
My advice: Ignore the world food hoopla here. Farrago has a great crunchy pizza, an excellent Caesar, a list of innovative and inexpensive wines and one of the best burgers in the city. What else can you ask for in a neighborhood restaurant?