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Collage Cuisine

There are no traditional crostini at Crostini -- and that's good news. It's telling that nobody in the ambitious kitchen of this self-described "contempo Italian" restaurant located near Westheimer on South Shepherd in the old home of Ari's Grenouille is slavishly attempting to replicate the Mediterranean heirloom appetizer that demands a traditional toasted baguette topped with anything from anchovies to carpaccio. Instead, Thai -- yes, as in Thailand -- owner/chef, Sonchai Rapesak, his sous chef Michael Tubbs, the general manager, a 26-year-old University of Houston-trained architect-cum-waitress named Lisa Somera, and a staff of enthusiastic eclectics have created their own crostini involving jalapenos, shrimp and toasted polenta. While this worthy experiment doesn't quite work (on a recent visit it was way too oily) most of the restaurant's unexpected detours from Italian culinary orthodoxy are exuberant successes.

The owner's and staff's varied sensibilities have taken elements from across the culinary spectrum, from the Southwestern United States to Southeast Asia, added them to traditional Italian and come up with something like a "collage cuisine" -- and it works. The crab cake appetizer ($5.75) is a good example. This saucer-sized patty's crust is lightly pan-fried to add just a touch of crispness, and it's garnished with a scatter of tomato cubettes whose clean, garden-fresh taste only enhances the delicate crab flavor. But the dish gets bonus points because it's served atop a warm, celadon-colored green tomatillo/jalapeno/cilantro sauce. The presentation is finished with the deep-green blades of chives that are Rapesak's decorative signature. It's an appetizer as deceptively simple as a Japanese flower arrangement -- and as lovely to look at (though considerably more lovely to eat). The mozzarella fresca ($4.95) is lovely as well. Instead of the usual thick slices served with fresh tomato, Crostini makes a roll by wrapping a thin layer of the fresh cheese around diaphanous slices of aged prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and flavorful fresh basil (grown by Rapesak's wife Pat on their herb farm near Needville). The kitchen then slices the roll into pinwheels, tops four of them with roasted pimentos in sweetened vinaigrette and adds a bonus surprise: whole black peppercorns. When one of these tiny beads of flavor explodes in your mouth, taste -- not heat -- permeates every sense and suddenly it's understandable why Medieval Italians were willing to trade precious gems for small pouches of pepper.

Jalapeno peppers are the basis for another of Rapesak's signature dishes, Crostini Jalapeno ($8.95), and thereby hangs a tale. For more than eight years, the Thai chef labored in the kitchen of Aldo and Ana Catania's La Strada, that hip, California-esque Italian bistro on lower Westheimer. That's where he met most of the core staff who are now with him at Crostini, and that's where the food that La Strada calls Jalapeno Fettuccine, and Crostini calls Crostini Jalapeno, was created.

In both restaurants, the dish consists of pasta made with pureed jalapeno peppers that's topped with grilled chicken, tomatoes, black beans and cilantro. The real differences are negligible. True to Rapesak's sensibility, the Crostini version is lovely to look at as well as interesting to taste. His pasta is lighter, wider and thinner than La Strada's traditional fettuccine, and I think this gives Crostini the flavor advantage, because the clarity of the pepper taste is separate from the solidity of the pasta. Rapesak's current version also has the edge on artful presentation -- pretty with autumnally orange-red tomato chunks, so fresh and clear tasting that their warmth seems to come from the afternoon sun; painterly with the pistachio-green of the startlingly caliente jalapeno pasta; and anchored to the Southwest via a careless handful of artfully al dente black beans strewn across the surface.

But Rapesak's former kitchen gets the nod for the quality of the grilled chicken. At Crostini, I had the feeling that the blandly bisque-colored chicken was barely acquainted with the grill -- the char stripes were just about vestigial -- and there was a hint of toughness that whispered, sotto voce, ... freezer? Still, Crostini Jalapeno's well-considered additions, such as bits of fresh Italian parsley, well measured cilantro and perfectly heated sliverettes of fresh garlic, make up for much. And the juicy, just-picked freshness of the tomatoes does soothe many hard feelings, though this same virtue might make the dish seem a bit soupy to some.

The Frutti di Mare ($10.95) is soothing as well. It's simple as can be, with thready angel hair pasta topped by a generous serving of shrimp, scallops and more than half a dozen mussels, served properly in the shell. All were enhanced by the clean nose of fresh basil and the simple, just-sweet-enough pomodoro sauce. My only qualification -- and it's a small one -- is that the mussels, which simply are chewy, were a bit too much so on one visit.

There's no qualification whatsoever in my praise of the Salmone Griglia ($12.95), however. This is simply splendid. The thick, substantial, salmon fillet is gorgeously grilled: a bit of char, a bit of crunch on the outside and flaky, fork-tender flesh inside. Served atop a duvet of fresh spinach whisked for a nanosecond through a haze of hot olive oil and sauteed fresh garlic shreds; drizzled with an exquisite, pungently sweet, ginger-infused balsamic vinegar; and topped, as if by a toque, with one perfectly grilled petit-four-sized scallop. The praiseworthy side dish of homemade spinach linguini sauced with a simple pomodoro goes almost unnoticed in the face of such richness.

Crostini's desserts, which aren't on the menu, are made by Rapesak himself (who, while in his thirties, went back to school and studied pastry at Houston Community College) with assistance from another La Strada alum, Elia Machuca. They give new meaning to the term lavish. His signature piece, here known as Godiva Cake ($6.95), was created at La Strada, where a version of it is still served under the cute sobriquet of Alexander the Cake. The Crostini version is so luxe de luxe, so totally over the top, that there's no real comparison possible. What can anyone compare to a confection almost a foot high, with three layers of deeply chocolate cake that's soaked in Godiva chocolate liqueur and separated by clouds of white chocolate mousse studded with fresh raspberries and strawberries, then topped by chocolate grenache, drizzled with a warm, white chocolate glaze and presented on a huge white plate decorated with intricate designs made from raspberry, kiwi and mango puree?

After this, everything else on the dessert menu seems tame, even the chocolate bag ($5.95), a dark chocolate tote stuffed with liqueur-soaked sponge cake, rum-marinated walnuts, fresh berries and white chocolate mousse. (A companion, seeing it, noted that it reminded him of Jack's Sack, a dessert served at the old Jack's on Woodway. Hearing this remark, a waiter offered that a number of patrons had noticed the resemblance.)

Dessert or no, the setting, with small patio and its interesting interior -- Roman-senatorial-purple ceiling, high-summer-in-Tuscany walls and Pompeiian-red accents, plus rotating local art (presently, witty variations on a Night of the Lepus theme by Marjorie Moore) -- is enjoyable for cappuccino ($3.50) and conversation. If, that is, you stop by some time other than Friday or Saturday night, when the wait can be up to an hour and a half. In this case, reservations really are essential, even on weeknights. Parking is by valet, because they're the only ones who know how to move the vehicles around like color blocks on a Rubik's Cube and somehow make 75 cars fit into 25 spaces.

Crostini, 2411 South Shepherd, 524-8558.


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