Dining Blind

We had a letter recently from a reader who dined at Aldo's Dining Con Amore restaurant [219 Westheimer, (713)523-2536] and was taken aback -- to put it mildly -- when the tab was presented at the end of the evening. "Imagine our surprise," she wrote, "at the bill of $150 plus tax, no beverages, just dinner for two."

She'd had no warning, you see, because Aldo's no longer offers a menu.

"We used to have a menu, until about a year and a half ago," explains Pedro Castro, maître d', sommelier and right-hand man to owner/chef Aldo Elsharif. "But our customers know Aldo, originally from Buttarazzi's or from right here. He has his own clientele, and they trust him absolutely to make them something special. Nobody ever used the menus anyway, so we did away with them. Now, I am the menu," he says proudly.

Under the new arrangement, Aldo's dinner customers feast on a prix fixe five-course meal. Guests are greeted with complimentary antipasto and a wine list, and an explanation of the available entrées. "There was very little choice of entrée," groused our correspondent, "and no choice as to appetizer or dessert."

Castro insists that there are at least eight different entrées on offer at Aldo's, based on whatever strikes Elsharif's fancy at the market that day. "We do choose the small dishes for them," Castro agrees. "We might start them with seared scallop with foie gras, followed by crab cakes; the pasta course might be a seafood tortelloni, then a small salad, say, arugula with vinaigrette. But then they do choose their own main course."

Aldo's is known for its selection of wild game, so exotica such as wild boar, elk, red deer or kangaroo are usually available as entrées, with an alternate selection for vegetarians. Dessert is usually a white and dark chocolate soufflé trimmed with fresh berries, in an enormous "table-sized" serving.

"There's a rumor, I know, that we are really expensive. And we really are, but we're reasonable, too, if you look at it. Like our Kobe beef," Castro explains persuasively. "Any other place in town it is very expensive, I promise you. They charge as much as $10 an ounce, so a steak might easily cost more than $100."

The price tag for Aldo's meal is set daily somewhere between $65 and $70, regardless of the entrée the diner chooses. Under the prix fixe plan, a determined set of Kobe beef enthusiasts could conceivably break the bank at Aldo's, Castro readily concedes. Of course, those who order shrimp or lamb make up the difference.

The question is, are diners informed of the cost in advance of the meal? "I never mention the price unless somebody asks me," says Castro firmly. "You just don't do that in a good restaurant. Most people know already anyway."

Everybody knows? "Well, sometimes a table will seem surprised; maybe they're first-timers. Sometimes people, maybe they were looking for a lasagna place," Castro admits. "But you learn to read the customers. I mean, it's not like I'm selling them a $1,000 bottle of wine without saying something." Maybe not a $1,000 bottle of wine, true, but other informants have grumbled about $6 bottles of water.

Sounds like expensive is more than a "rumor" at Aldo's -- it's a fact. But does that mean it's overpriced? Not necessarily. Given a five-course meal composed of high-cost ingredients, the price at Aldo's compares favorably to Tony's or Cafe Annie; and speaking of expensive, Scott Chen's "white glove" five-course prix fixe offering is remarkably similar to Aldo's.

On the other hand, Elsharif's new downtown restaurant, Osteria D'Aldo [301 Main, (713)224-2536], most definitely does have a printed menu, complete with prices.

"Ah, that's a completely different concept, you see," says Castro. "It's about small dishes and tapas, and it is very casual. Pricewise, it's the opposite of here. So there, people expect a menu, and so we give them one."

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