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Better By Design

The new design mirrors the shift in Keating's menu -- away from the formal French and toward the more accessible Italian.
Deron Neblett

When the Four Seasons began revamping its restaurant spaces last summer, two standbys of the hotel dining scene closed their doors forever. The popular Terrace Café and the critically acclaimed DeVille were completely gutted and treated to a $3 million reinvention effort. When the dust cleared seven months later, a single sleek eatery stood in their combined spaces. Quattro represents new directions for both the hotel and its renowned executive chef, Tim Keating.

Round-the-clock demands require a hotel restaurant to cater to a range of audiences -- from the fancy-dress evening crowd to the bathrobed breakfast stragglers, from high-dollar corporate clients to conventioneers. Maintaining a fine-dining reputation usually means separating the casual and "white linen" spaces, even if they share a common kitchen. For 19 years, DeVille and the Terrace Café represented the Four Seasons' two sides in the formal/informal equation.

Quattro's open, modular design -- the work of Atlanta-based restaurant architect Bill Johnson -- strikes a stylish middle ground with a combination of sophisticated interior textures: whites contrasting with cherry wood, marble playing off metallic accents. The main room is separated from the split-level marble bar by a snazzy, close-knit curtain of ball-bearing chains; the "wall" makes the space simultaneously intimate and airy. Five private dining areas -- including the red leather Il Rosso and rustic oak chef's table in the kitchen -- provide a choice of ambience under a single roof (the better to accommodate large dining groups and corporate power parties). A glass-paned wall along the main entryway showcases the contents of Quattro's considerable wine cellar.

The new design mirrors the shift in Keating's menu -- away from the formal French and toward the more accessible Italian regional traditions. At the helm of DeVille, Keating attracted national attention for his inventive dishes that fell somewhere between free-form French and eclectic New American, featuring seasonally appropriate organic ingredients. (He also earned DeVille the coveted AAA "Five Diamond" designation and qualified as a finalist in the James Beard Foundation's "Best Chef of the Southwest" competition.) But the Quattro relaunch apparently inspired Keating to embrace the Mediterranean while keeping a fair amount of his French accents intact. An entire section of the dinner menu is dedicated to pasta and risotto, while foie gras and shallot-spiked mussels peacefully coexist with duck "prosciutto" and traditional carpaccio in the appetizer listings.

During a recent Friday-night dinner rush, the restaurant's hip main dining room was at once bustling and intimate. Highly moussed post-business regulars and a rumpled table of twentysomethings in from the West Coast seemed equally at ease. After passing up the yellowfin tartare and house antipasti on the appetizer list, we settled on an herbed goat cheese and cured duck combination and seemingly straightforward crab cakes.

As both plates hit the table, it became clear that Keating subscribes to the minimal-yet-sculptural school of presentation. The paper-thin slices of house-cured duck "prosciutto" were accompanied by rounds of creamy chèvre delicately wrapped in a vivid sheet of roasted red pepper and a mound of crunchy frisée topped with a dollop of flavorful tapenade. The "Quattro crab cake" was a towering cylinder of whole-lump goodness -- crunchy on the outside and accompanied by micro greens and flavorful shellfish aioli.

Happily, the presentation had more purpose than simple prettiness. The sweet tang of the chèvre played well with the saltiness and lemony zest of the tapenade. The almost transparent slices of salty cured duck -- a refined Italian take on a thoroughly French bird -- were made better by the tender crunch of frisée and a hint of herbed olive oil.

It's easy to see why the kitchen was proud enough of the crab cakes to make them a signature. This substantial serving of decadent seafood is a lot more crab than cake. If there was any binder at all, it was barely detectable among the chunks of flaky, tender meat. Its richness was balanced by shavings of crisp marinated fennel and peppery salad greens.

For a lighter second course, we chose two constants on the menu, the house vegetable minestrone and a deeply flavored asparagus risotto. The smooth green risotto was flavored with a puree of early-season asparagus -- a rich, hearty flavor that is usually associated with a crunch rather than a starch. Again, a bit of lemon zest accentuated the springtime edge.

Keating's emphasis on freshness served him remarkably well in all areas save the minestrone. This traditional Italian soup, usually a long-cooked mélange of vegetables and various beans, got a "fresh" update in a light broth dosed with smoky bacon. The floating vegetables were still crunchy (including the kidneylike barlotti beans), resulting in a soup that ate more like a salad -- possibly a fluke on a rush night, but somewhat off-putting nonetheless.

But the entrée of braised short ribs, currently the darling of chefs across the country, were a beef lover's dream. Slow-cooked slabs of miraculously boneless rib meat were paired with insanely creamy mashed potatoes. The texture of the beef -- fall-apart tender with no gristle -- rivaled that of most steak house filets, but with the long-braised flavor of God's own pot roast.

The requisite tuna variation -- a peppered fillet teamed with oyster mushrooms -- shows Keating looking beyond Europe to the Indian subcontinent for inspiration. A "carrot-curry essence" takes each forkful of the standard in an unexpected direction. But after previous courses of familiar Euro flavors (caramelized onions, basil and the like), the sweet, spicy sauce requires a recalibration of the palate.

A lunchtime visit showed the more casual side of Quattro. Gauzy metallic floor-to-ceiling window treatments filtered out the sun's glare and gave the bar area an inviting glow. Though there's a fair amount of overlap with the dinner menu -- especially among the pastas -- Keating goes out of his way to show his informal side in the early hours. The lunch menu even includes a selection of sandwiches and salads catering to the downtown office crowds.

The antipasti platter was an excellent starter -- an assortment of rich salami, crisp slabs of grilled fennel, plump, salty caper berries and chunks of fine Parmigiano cheese. Teamed with the house breads (onion-studded focaccia and Parmesan sesame crisps), this appetizer was almost enough to make a meal.

Nevertheless, I decided to take advantage of a welcome and innovative lunchtime option: "tasting" portions. Priced only slightly above half the full entrée's cost, this pick-and-choose practice invites an almost tapas-style approach. My plate arrived with substantial portions of vegetarian orecchiette (irregular disks of pasta traditionally referred to as ear-shaped) and tender penne in a silky Trebbiano cream sauce.

The "little ears" were topped with a "lite vegetable ragout" -- a quick-sautéed mixture of julienned carrot, parsnip and zucchini -- and a thinnish "pesto essence." As a combination, the dish worked famously -- light but not gutless, and flavorful, especially when combined with flash-fried shards of green onion garnish. But Quattro is playing fast and loose with accepted menu terms. Calling a sauce an "essence" is one thing, but ragout usually implies a long-cooked, stewed preparation. During our dinner foray, a veal scallopini came with "savoy cabbage and pancetta ragout," which turned out to be a crispy sauté of Italian bacon and equally crispy cabbage. When asked about the term "ragout," our waiter checked with the kitchen and informed us that "ragout was a French term for mixture" -- an unfulfilling explanation at best; at worst, an incorrect one.

The subtle, creamy cheese sauce of the penne was studded with chunks of chicken breast, fennel-scented sausage and tiny rock shrimp, and complemented each of its ingredients surprisingly well. The act of switching from sinful cream to healthful "pesto essence" made for a guilt-free double treat.

Which brings us to the dessert tray and its "tiny bite" approach. Manageable servings of sweets again triggered the tapas reflex and short-circuited any sugar-related guilt. ("They're small enough, so why not have two?") This time, I double-dipped with perfectly portioned servings of a tropical fruit mousse topped with mango cubes and a free-form apple/pear tart accented with a dollop of citrus-infused cream cheese.

Unlike with pastas and pastries, however, when it comes to the Four Seasons, one restaurant seems to be better than two. With its versatile space, crackerjack service and solid yet adventurous menu, Quattro shows that good restaurant design goes well beyond paint colors and wall sconces. And as Keating eases into his new space, the dining experience should only improve.

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Quattro

1300 Lamar St.
Houston, TX 77002

713-276-4700

www.fourseasons.com


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