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At Artista, the extraordinary new restaurant in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, dinner comes as three discrete elements on a rectangular plate. On the left is a bowl of mascarpone mashed potatoes. In the middle is a hefty chunk of tender churrasco-style steak. And on the right, there's a little pitcher full of a morel mushroom sauce that's been thickened with foie gras.
The potatoes are creamy and comforting. But once I cut into the steak, I forget about them for a while. In fact, I forget about everything for a while. The decadent excess of the rich mushroom and duck liver emulsion dribbled over a bite of butter-soft medium-rare steak sends my appetite into Roman orgy mode.
The truth is, it wasn't the chef who combined these flavors. It was my idea. Artista encourages audience participation with a menu that's set up in three columns titled entrées, accompaniments and sauces. If you read straight across, each entrée is matched with a recommended accompaniment and sauce. But you're free to mix and match, if you prefer. The steak was actually paired with a béarnaise. The morel and foie gras sauce went with a veal chateaubriand. Maybe the combination of foie gras and steak is a little over the top, but I get totally submerged in it.
800 Bagby, Ste. 400
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
713-278-4782; Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
"Don't you want to taste my salmon?" my neglected tablemate intercedes, shaking my arm to bring me back to reality. The salmon, slightly rare in the middle and crispy on the outside, is served with a piquant citrus-habanero sauce. I'm sure it would be absolutely delicious if my entire mouth weren't coated with beef fat and foie gras.
We started off our meal with Artista's increasingly famous soft-shell crawfish taquitos. The Houston Press Cafe section's Carol Rust said one of these tacos "looks like a centerfold spread of an erotic shellfish magazine" (Hot Plate, April 24). After a description like that, I couldn't wait to try one. The whole deep-fried crawfish is presented on a bed of fuzzy lettuce and cabbage shavings atop a miniature soft tortilla that reminded Rust of a bearskin rug. Zigzags of black hoisin and wisps of white fried bean thread noodles complete the outrageous visual. You roll the soft tortilla around the salads, sauces and crispy crawfish and eat them all together.
A soft-shell crawfish, like a soft-shell crab, is one that has recently molted. The beginnings of the new shell are still rubbery and paper-thin, so you can eat the whole thing. And because you're eating the whole thing, "softshells" have a unique full-throated flavor. Soft-shell crabs have been around forever, but Paul Prudhomme brought soft-shell crawfish to the world's attention only a couple of decades ago. Batter-dipped and deep-fried, they are an incredible spring treat. Artista's taquito is the most dramatic, dare I say "artistic," presentation of a soft-shell crawfish I have ever seen.
Obviously, Artista's location on the second floor of the new performing arts center has inspired everything about the restaurant, from the name to the menu design to the theatricality of the decor. The soaring roofline of the Hobby creates a three-story-high space inside the restaurant. And the enormous windows frame the downtown skyline. Each table is surrounded by overstuffed modern chairs covered in a French vanilla-colored fabric. Dark red oval-shaped booths line the back walls. The shelves behind the romantically lit bar are two stories high. It's a treat just to walk into the place.
Like the restaurant itself, the center's grand ambitions inspire both admiration and eye-rolling -- depending on who you talk to. When the design for the $100 million Hobby Center was first unveiled, its resemblance to an airport terminal earned it the nickname Hobby 2. But after attending a show there, you can't help but be impressed by the remarkable performance space and exceptional acoustics.
With its mix-and-match menu components, its innovative ingredients and its globe-trotting ethnic blend, Artista is a departure from the average dining experience on many levels. And the complicated nature of the concept made for a bumpy takeoff. My first visit was the night of the Patti Smith concert in late March, three weeks after the restaurant opened. To accommodate patrons who want to eat quickly before attending a performance, the restaurant offers a simplified "show menu," which offers two options, appropriately named "choice 1" and "choice 2." We tried one of each.
A potato-leek soup, with basil and a port wine glaze floating on top, was absolutely stunning. But my dining companion's lobster bisque was tepid. So we sent it back to have it heated up. Meanwhile, her medium-rare tenderloin with béarnaise was excellent, but my chicken breast was raw in the middle. So we sent that back, too. The chicken returned cooked through, but the lobster bisque never reappeared. We asked about it at the end of the meal, and it was brought out for dessert -- still lukewarm. The food was brilliantly conceived but badly executed. The manager apologized profusely and insisted we return for dessert on the house. I looked forward to coming back when the bugs were worked out.