Crash Course at Ristorante Cavour
Every meal at Ristorante Cavour begins with an amuse-gueule — literally, an "amusement for the throat," which not only prepares the gustatory tract for the pleasures that are to follow but showcases the cuisine the chef is about to prepare for you. On my first visit, it consisted of a thin slice of crispy toast layered with prosciutto, mozzarella, basil and tomato.
The menu is laid out in typical Italian fashion, with three sections: antipasti, primi (pasta and risotto dishes) and secondi (main dishes). If you want to experience a meal as Italians would, have all three courses, plus dessert and a real espresso. In Italy, portions are more modest than those found in Houston, making it possible to enjoy each course. But we're so used to gargantuan servings here, it's almost impossible to entertain the thought of three courses. My theory about large portion sizes is that, unless we go home with doggie bags, we don't believe we have gotten value for our money. Plus, a huge portion size allows the restaurant to charge more.
As we would learn, Cavour doesn't have this problem, but on that first visit we didn't know that, so instead of going for the traditional three courses, we decided on an antipasto and a primo only. To start, I had the wild mushroom soup, which has an intense mushroom flavor and a smooth, velvety creaminess, thanks to the addition of mascarpone cheese. My dining companion chose the beef tenderloin carpaccio as her appetizer. It had a spectacular presentation: The slices of beef, so thin they're diaphanous, are presented on a clear plate.
I followed my soup with a risotto alla Milanese, which was bright yellow from all its saffron and had obviously been painstakingly made with a good stock. Of all the dishes we sampled here, the risotto was the only dish that was oversalted. My dining companion had the delectable homemade basil gnocchi — I found myself reaching over on more than a couple of occasions to try them. To go with this lighter fare, I decided that a bottle of the Villa Sandi Prosecco would do the trick. This light, fragrant and fruity wine was perfect.
We could easily have sprung for the secondo.
Ristorante Cavour is the dream of developer Giorgio Borlenghi, who built Hotel Granduca in Uptown Park, one of Houston's most exclusive hotels. The name is a tribute to the first prime minister of unified Italy, Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour. The restaurant, which also does room service for the hotel, is currently housed in a small room on the ground floor, just off the main lobby.
Part of Cavour's appeal is the fact that it has just seven tables and can only accommodate 24 people. It is small and very intimate. There has been talk about moving the restaurant to a larger location. In my opinion, this would ruin a large part of its charm. The room is quiet, thanks to heavy drapes, carpeting and comfortable chairs covered in a heavy textile, making conversation possible (what a concept!). The olive-green walls and the wood-beam ceiling lend a comfortable, "old-world" feel to the space. Eating here is truly like eating in someone's home. Borlenghi chose David Denis, chef and owner of Le Mistral, to craft an authentic Italian menu with a huge Provençal accent. Denis's menu calls upon the similarity of the cuisines along the Mediterranean, as well as from the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
Our second visit was no less spectacular than our first, and this time, I knew we would have room to sample all the courses. My antipasto was the cream of tomato soup with pesto. There was no acidity to the soup, but the sharp flavor of the basil pesto did jar the taste buds into submission after a couple of spoonfuls. My dining companion started with the lobster ceviche — a thin slice of cucumber rolled up, filled with lobster and cilantro, and placed on a whipped cheese base. One taste, and I wanted to trade with her. But the look she gave me strongly suggested I shouldn't even try.
She followed this with as simple a dish as there ever was — polenta. The soft polenta is made with coarse cornmeal and lots of butter and parmesan cheese, the two flavors that form the foundation of this dish. Just before serving, the polenta is placed under the broiler, forming a crust on top. For her secondo, she chose the quintessential summer dish, vitello tonnato. Thin slices of veal are served cold under a sauce made from tuna, anchovies, capers and mayonnaise, all blended together. Spectacular. And perfectly executed.
My primo was the portobello ravioli, served with an amazing four-cheese sauce that I can still taste. I am partial to steak tartare and will order it any time I find it on the menu. The tartare here is prepared tableside by the headwaiter, with ingredients placed neatly in small shot glasses before being mixed together with the finely chopped beef. He must have spent at least five minutes mixing everything together. The result was that you never actually tasted any one ingredient, but a glorious blending of all of them together. This is definitely a case of the whole being far more than the sum of its parts. The tableside preparation elicited curious glances from other patrons. Some asked the waiter what he was preparing. When the answer, "tartare of beef," got an even more curious gaze, I couldn't resist blurting out, "It's raw meat with a raw egg; would you like to try some?" I did not receive a reply.
The desserts here should not be missed, no matter how stuffed you may feel. And they're not so large you'll feel guilty about eating them. The tiramisu has a texture that can only come from mascarpone cheese and lots of cream; while I vowed to taste only a spoonful, I found myself going back to it time and again, until there were no more spoonfuls to be had. The other dessert we sampled was the lemon sorbet, which was just tart enough to prove that it had been made with real lemons and smooth enough that it went down effortlessly.
While the food at Ristorante Cavour is the best example of Northern Italian cuisine in the city, the food isn't the only reason to come here. Cavour's classic European-style service is unparalleled in Houston. On both visits, from the moment we were seated until the moment we left, everything — and I mean every minute detail — was executed perfectly. I was astonished to discover this kind of service. Some might call it old-fashioned, but it definitely enhanced both meals. The examples of excellence are too numerous to mention, but I will highlight just a couple. Everything here is done at a leisurely pace, and you'll never feel rushed. When the food is served, it is always done from the right-hand side of the patron. All guests are served at once, meaning that four servers are required at a table of four. Dishes like soups have covers on them, which are removed once the plate is placed in front of the guest, and all at precisely the same moment. On one occasion, my dining companion's purse fell off the back of her chair. A waiter quietly and unobtrusively came over and attached a small device with a hook to our table for hanging the bag.
It's not often that spectacular food is combined with perfect service as it is at Cavour. When you do find it, it reminds you of what you have been missing at so many other places.
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