Come Back to Sorrento

The jumbo lump crab cake (with decadent chocolate cannelloni, left) caused grunts of pleasure.
Troy Fields

Since Houston now has a Museum District and a Theater District, perhaps the stretch of lower Westheimer between Bagby and Shepherd, with its high concentration of good restaurants, should be called the Restaurant District. As the finishing touches are added to the soon-to-be-reopened La Strada, along comes Sorrento, the latest addition to Restaurant Row.

Sorrento has an incredibly sophisticated and unpretentious feel. The white tablecloths give it an understated elegance. The interior is made up of small separate rooms, each with its own charm. Near the entrance is a large inviting, marble-topped bar, in range of a piano player and a beautifully painted mural depicting the Amalfi coast of Italy. On the left, there's an intimate, mahogany-lined wine room. Although the main dining area is relatively small, the tables aren't too close to one another. Soft incandescent lighting supplemented with candles and a beige color scheme set a comfortable mood. Toward the back, there's an even smaller private room with its own fireplace, wood floor and tall ceiling.

The staff at Sorrento hails from some of Houston's finest Italian restaurants. The owner, Abbas Hussein, was the manager of Michelangelo's down the street. Willie Lopez, the executive chef, is from Arcodoro, and Leslie Campbell, the second in command, is from Simposio. While none has even the hint of a vowel at the end of their surnames, they're turning out some of the most exquisite Italian food in the city.

Sorrento has another thing going for it: an ample, well-trained waitstaff that's constantly attentive yet unobtrusive. We were barely seated when the bread basket was delivered along with an olive oil dipping sauce consisting of two colors of oil, one green with pesto, the other red with peppers, forming a sort of yin and yang on the plate. In the middle, a whole head of roasted garlic sat ready to be squeezed into the oils.

The menu has a typical Italian structure in that the antipastois followed by the primo piatto, typically the pasta course, which is followed by the secondo piatto, traditionally the more substantive, often protein-rich, course. The menu required a significant amount of study since it was full of extremely creative dishes. We started out our first visit with the smoked duck prosciutto. Unlike pork prosciutto, which is paper-thin, this was somewhat thicker -- all the better to enjoy its smoky flavor. Despite the thickness of the slices, you simply had to press it against your palate to feel it dissolve. It was served with slices of fig and frisée lettuce with a tart vinaigrette. An even more extravagant appetizer was the jumbo lump crab cake, in which a rim of stone-ground white polenta was stuffed with a mixture of crab, roasted peppers and garlic cream. This dish caused grunts that could be heard a few tables away.

By the pasta course, I was beginning to understand that these chefs weren't content to serve merely outstanding and innovative dishes -- they always had to add something extra. The agnolotto consisted of three half-moon-shaped pieces of pasta stuffed with a mixture of shrimp and leeks. These flavors were married with a citrus butter, pushing the dish over the top. Even more impressive were the tortelloni, which were stuffed with lobster and arugula, giving them an unusual sweet and sour flavor when combined with the lemon-cream sauce. Not satisfied with this perfect pairing, the chef added some jumbo lump crabmeat and a healthy dollop of caviar on top.

Cioppino is a fish stew that originated in the early 1900s among the Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco. As the story goes, someone made the rounds of the fishing boats at the piers calling out for contributions to a communal stew, crying out, "Chip in!" Add an Italian vowel ending, and it's not hard to see how this might be the case. Cioppino is the equivalent of bouillabaisse. The cioppino at Sorrento had shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels, scallops and fish in a spicy tomato sauce -- an abundance of seafood filling every inch of the bowl.

The veal osso buco arrived with the shank standing on its end in a thick saffron risotto, with a rosemary sprig stuck inside the bone marrow like a kind of flagpole. To accompany our meals, we chose a bottle of the 2001 Le Volte Marchese Lodovico, a blended wine made from the Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot varietals. It has lots of body and intensity and a powerful bouquet with strong plummy notes -- a true Tuscan from the Antinori family.

The limoncello panna cotta ("limoncello cooked cream") is an extraordinarily smooth, dense dessert with an almost gelatinous consistency. Its tartness comes from the homemade limoncello, which is made by soaking lemon peel and sugar in vodka for a couple of weeks. A sweet raspberry sauce acts as a counterpoint to the tangy lemon flavor. Limoncello, an after-dinner digestivo, originated in the town of Sorrento and is one of the many uses of lemons popular with the chefs here. The poached pears are yet another example of overindulgence. Most chefs would be content to serve pears simply poached in a sweet wine sauce. Not so at Sorrento. Here they scoop out the center of each side of the pear and fill it with crème brûlée. Chocolate is added to the already rich wine sauce for further decadence. It was like getting two desserts for the price of one. A couple of shots of limoncello to settle the stomach and two well-made espressos were the perfect end to a memorable meal.

Our second visit proved no less unforgettable. I quickly settled on the five-course chef's choice dinner. The first course was the escargot risotto, which had hints of lemon and was particularly creamy. Its snails weren't the least bit chewy. This was followed by a Mediterranean salad -- a mixture of greens with olives and feta -- which suffered from a too-tart, lemony dressing (my only complaint). Then came the panzerotti, a large pillow of pasta stuffed with finely chopped, stewed filet mignon and covered with a rosemary-tomato sauce. As simple as this dish was, it was spectacular. My double lamb chops were balanced on a round bed of herbed pureed potatoes, encircled by a slice of leek. Tiny French beans had been tied together to resemble a small package. The chops, stuffed with goat cheese and herbs, were sumptuous.

Sorrento shines when it comes to presentation. It's evident that each plate is meticulously prepared. My dining companion started out with a salmon tartare, which consisted of finely chopped salmon on a bed of arugula and capers, topped off with fennel and carrot shavings. The sharp, lemon-based dressing almost detracted from the dish; however, the sweet carrots somewhat balanced it out. And her filet mignon arrived with a lobster tail perched on top and some gnocchi bathed in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce with arugula.

The last part of the five-course meal was the dessert sampling platter, which we shared. It came with a poached pear, a delightfully light tiramisu and two decadent chocolate cannelloni, which had a soft, crêpelike shell made from a coffee reduction and a chocolate mousse filling dotted with walnuts. To say that we left stuffed is an understatement, yet there were still other things on the menu I wish I'd tried.

In 1902, Giambattista De Curtis wrote the song "Torna a Surriento" ("Come Back to Sorrento"), which was to become one of the most famous Neapolitan songs ever written. It was written for President Giuseppe Zanardelli, who came to Sorrento on an official visit. "Do you have the courage not to return?" was one of the last lines of this song. There's no need to remind patrons to return to Sorrento the restaurant, since the ambience and the food are hard to forget.

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