Food Art

Get sauced at the Hobby Center's Artista. It's divine.

Artista's modular menu concept reminds me of Craft, an innovative restaurant on 19th Street near Park Avenue South in New York. There, the food isn't brought to you on a dinner plate. Instead, dishes are set out in the middle of the table on rectangular platters. This presentation allows diners to share their meals or to make up new combinations. I tried the unlikely trio of roasted salmon, spinach and duck prosciutto the last time I was there. Not only did it taste marvelous, I got to congratulate myself for dreaming it up. But for this sort of thing to work, the entire menu has to come from the same family of flavors. At Craft, the culinary underpinnings are Italian.

Artista bills its food as "contemporary American cuisine," but unfortunately that doesn't narrow it down very much. One waiter described the fare as "American cuisine with Asian presentations." Another called it "New World food with a South American accent."

Chef Michael Cordúa is no minimalist -- check out his 
dramatic soft-shell crawfish taquitos.
Troy Fields
Chef Michael Cordúa is no minimalist -- check out his dramatic soft-shell crawfish taquitos.

Location Info



800 Bagby, Ste. 400
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Restaurant > South American

Region: Downtown/ Midtown


Soft-shell crawfish taquitos: $8
Churrasco: $26
Salmon: $18
Lunch shrimp: $12
Lunch chicken: $10

713-278-4782; Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

800 Bagby (in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts),

Confusion about the ethnicity of his food follows chef Michael Cordúa wherever he goes. It began, no doubt, with his Churrascos steak restaurants. Food writers, having correctly identified churrasco as a Brazilian word, began referring to the restaurants as South American steak houses. But the best restaurants in Cordúa's native Nicaragua serve churrasco, too.

In Argentina, a churrasco is a long, skinny skirt steak, the cut known hereabouts as fajitas. In Nicaragua, they developed a meat-cutting method whereby a tenderloin was cut into a long, skinny ribbon that looked like the other churrasco but tasted much better. I suspect the tender steaks Cordúa serves at Churrascos and here at Artista are actually inspired by the Nicaraguan rather than the South American version.

But South America sounds more exotic than Nicaragua, so after a while, a restaurateur has to say, Why fight it? The difficulty in explaining the culinary concept behind Américas, which was originally described as an interweaving of flavors from all over the Americas, was similarly resolved when employees there started calling it "South American food" a few years ago. When I asked for specifics, a receptionist at Américas once informed me that Nicaragua was part of South America.

At Artista, where Michael Cordúa is developing his own version of a modular menu, disparate ethnic flavors sometimes blend and sometimes clash. You might stumble onto a delightful marriage like my churrasco steak and morel foie gras sauce. But you can also get some woeful mismatches.

Starting with the juicy, perfectly sautéed shrimp on the lunch menu, for instance, I managed to compose an utter flop. The shrimp are usually served with cheese ravioli and a lime-tabikko (flying fish roe) sauce. Italians never combine fish and cheese; I try to avoid the practice myself. And since the menu was designed with remixing in mind, I asked the waiter to serve my shrimp with a side order of spinach and the citrus-habanero sauce.

It sounded good, but it didn't work. First of all, the kitchen sent out the shrimp with the unordered cheese ravioli underneath it anyway. And then they poured the citrus-habanero sauce on top. The spinach was sautéed in sesame oil and served on the side. Each of the three components tasted fabulous, but my brain had trouble switching gears between the Asian-tasting sesame oil, the Latin citrus and chile sauce, and the Italian cheese ravioli.

My lunch companion had chicken with coconut beurre blanc and basmati rice with rajas (roasted poblano pepper strips). I wondered if the coconut white butter sauce would be a French-Asian hybrid with coconut milk and Thai basil, or more like a Jamaican coconut milk rundown with fresh thyme. I dunked a big chunk of chicken in the creamy sauce and took a bite. It didn't taste Asian or Caribbean. It tasted like coconut cream pie. The sauce was made with lots of coconut extract, which is not a flavoring that goes with just anything. And that's the problem with Artista's mix-and-match menu: The flavors are bold and all over the map.

While New York's Craft has the modular thing down, I can't say I was all that impressed with my meal there. Sure, everything combined perfectly, but only because the dishes were all so utterly simple. In order to make things interchangeable, Michael Cordúa would have to minimize his food. And that would be a mistake.

Michael Cordúa is an artist, but as dishes like his soft-shell crawfish taquitos prove, he's no minimalist. His best dishes are shockingly imaginative combinations of bold flavors presented in wild new ways. You can take a gamble and mix up your own dinner from the columns of entrées, sides and sauces. But you're better off to sit back and put yourself in the hands of the master.

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