By Brooke Viggiano
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Vitello tonnato — thin slices of chilled veal covered with creamy tuna, anchovy and mayonnaise sauce — may sound bizarre, but it tastes wonderful. And the version at the new Simposio on Westheimer is one of the best I've sampled. I mopped up the tuna sauce with some crusty Italian bread and washed it down with a white wine.
Back when it was located at Richmond and Chimney Rock, Simposio was considered one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. After the new location opened, I heard that a young chef had been brought over from Italy to run the kitchen, so I was eager to see what he could do. Anticipating a romantic evening, I brought along a special dining companion.
I remember Simposio's old dining room as a dark, boxy space. The interior design of the new place is much more sophisticated, with light pouring in through the huge storefront windows. The colors are natural stone and Tuscan gold, with curved walls and a built-in dining nook in the corner.
Houston, TX 77056
Caesar salad: $9
Penne with pancetta: $17
Mushroom risotto: $19
Osso bucco: $29
Mixed grill: $32
One wall of the dining room is taken up with floor-to-ceiling wine racks. In warm climates like ours, this is never a good idea. But a quick glance at Simposio's wine list, which includes such convenience store faves as Beringer White Zinfandel, put me at ease about the danger of overheating any rare bottles.
Simposio's menu is set up in the classic Italian three-course style — antipasti, pasta and secondi — and so we placed our orders accordingly. We each got an appetizer and an entrée and asked to split a pasta course in between.
The evening was off to a great start with the fabulous vitello tonnato. But after a couple of bites of spinach salad, my dining companion frowned and pushed the plate away.
"The spinach is slimy," she said.
I fished around among the spinach leaves and quickly found four with nasty black edges. One of them had been folded over on a straight line, and part of the leaf was decomposing on the underside. I set the bad spinach along the edge of the plate and showed the waiter. He apologized profusely and whisked the nasty salad away.
Then the waiter returned and said, "The chef told me to tell you that that's the way the spinach reacts to the balsamic dressing."
I could hardly believe my ears. The waiter seemed to know exactly what was wrong with the spinach; so did we, and so would anyone who has ever kept prewashed salad mix in the fridge too long. The waiter had already solved the problem by taking the salad back and not charging us for it. What did the chef hope to accomplish now? Was he asserting his infallibility? Or just trying to insult us?
When we next saw our waiter, he was delivering our fish course. I got jumbo shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce and my dining companion ordered an appetizer of fried scallops, shrimp and calamari as her entrée.
"What happened to the pasta course?" I asked the waiter. He paled a little. Then he said he got confused when I ordered the fish and assumed I no longer wanted the pasta. The Italian three-course thing was evidently new to him.
My shrimp was perfectly cooked, and my dining companion's fried-seafood plate was pleasant enough, but the combination of the chef's arrogance and the service screwup ruined what might have been a nice dinner.
The waiter was extremely professional. He apologized for our "disastrous meal" and gave us a complimentary dessert. We shared a bowl of gelato, but we still left disappointed.
So much for our "big night."
In three visits to Simposio, I had some terrific Italian food. Most of the risottos were spectacular. The lone exception was a lunch special of mushroom risotto topped with chopped veal in an osso bucco-style sauce. The risotto was a tiny bit overcooked, as if it has been made the night before. And while the sauce was tasty, the veal chunks were chewy.
On another dinner visit, we sampled a perfect mushroom risotto. Each grain of Arborio rice in the creamy Portobello mushroom mélange was properly al dente in the center. The risotto was served with a mixed grill of medium-rare venison medallions and tiny, long-boned lamb chops moistened with a mushroom wine sauce. The dish was sensational.
The waiter suggested a $50 Nebbiolo to go with our meal. There weren't a lot of other choices, so we went along with his recommendation. He returned with a completely different wine. They had run out of the first one, he said sheepishly, but this $50 Nebbiolo was just as good as the other one. The wine was so warm, we had to ask for an ice bucket to cool it off — and this is January.
The pastas were delicious, but pricey. Penne Amatriciana on the dinner menu featured quill-shaped pasta with pancetta for $17. It had a nice bacon-and-tomato flavor, but there wasn't much else going on.
On another visit, I ordered the fettuccine Bolognese from the lunch menu and found the sauce a little too tomato-y. It didn't incorporate well with the wide fettuccine noodles, either. I wouldn't be nitpicking if it was a $6 or $7 lunch special, but it cost 12 bucks.
I started with a house salad, which turned out to be a small portion of greens, with mushrooms, fennel and parmesan shavings for $8.50. Add an iced tea, and you're looking at close to $25 for lunch. There are some amazing lunches available in Houston for 25 bucks, and this wasn't one of them.
On my final visit to Simposio, I opted for osso bucco, an off-the-menu special for $29. It came to the table heaped with sauce on a delicious saffron risotto. The waiter delivered the customary marrow spoon, a long utensil designed for excavating the marrow from the shank bone in the middle.
But when I cleared away the sauce that had been heaped on top of the marrow bone, I was surprised to discover a skinny bone with hardly any marrow rather than the wide bone I was expecting. The meat around the bone was quite tough and dried out in places. There was a lot of undissolved connective tissue holding the chewy meat hunks together. As I broke the osso bucco meat away, I discovered a second bone.
I once took a Styrofoam carton containing some questionable osso bucco to Martin Preferred Foods, Houston's biggest veal supplier, to learn more about the cut [see "Osso Bucco Me? Osso Bucco You!" September 16, 2004]. The veal guys explained the difference between top-quality osso bucco cut from the hindshank of the calf and cheaper, tougher foreshank. The meltingly tender meat of classic osso bucco surrounds the one big marrow bone of the hindshank. The tougher foreshank can be identified by the presence of two skinny bones.
I laid the two bones from Simposio's osso bucco next to the uneaten meat on my plate. "Is this a foreshank or a hindshank?" I asked the waiter when he came by.
"Hindshank," he answered. I asked him to take the plate back to the kitchen and ask the chef if it was a foreshank or a hindshank. I already knew what the answer would be.
"The chef says it's a hindshank," the waiter told me when he returned. I asked him to put the leftovers in a to-go box, which he did. The Styrofoam container came back to the table tightly tied in a plastic bag. When I opened up the Styrofoam box after I got home, I found only one bone.
It was a miracle.
I now believe that the chef at Simposio, like the Pope, is infallible. But in the end, it doesn't really matter whether he was cooking foreshank or hindshank, or if that's the way they do it back in Italy. Simposio's osso bucco was horribly, dreadfully, too-tough-to-feed-your-dog awful.
Simposio is a lovely restaurant, and most of the classic Italian food is delightful. It was once among the very best Italian restaurants in Houston. But unfortunately, the high prices left over from Simposio's heyday create an expectation of excellence that the overall dining experience can no longer deliver.