At Artista, the extraordinary new restaurant in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, dinner comes as three discrete elements on a rectangular plate. On the left is a bowl of mascarpone mashed potatoes. In the middle is a hefty chunk of tender churrasco-style steak. And on the right, there's a little pitcher full of a morel mushroom sauce that's been thickened with foie gras.
The potatoes are creamy and comforting. But once I cut into the steak, I forget about them for a while. In fact, I forget about everything for a while. The decadent excess of the rich mushroom and duck liver emulsion dribbled over a bite of butter-soft medium-rare steak sends my appetite into Roman orgy mode.
The truth is, it wasn't the chef who combined these flavors. It was my idea. Artista encourages audience participation with a menu that's set up in three columns titled entrées, accompaniments and sauces. If you read straight across, each entrée is matched with a recommended accompaniment and sauce. But you're free to mix and match, if you prefer. The steak was actually paired with a béarnaise. The morel and foie gras sauce went with a veal chateaubriand. Maybe the combination of foie gras and steak is a little over the top, but I get totally submerged in it.
"Don't you want to taste my salmon?" my neglected tablemate intercedes, shaking my arm to bring me back to reality. The salmon, slightly rare in the middle and crispy on the outside, is served with a piquant citrus-habanero sauce. I'm sure it would be absolutely delicious if my entire mouth weren't coated with beef fat and foie gras.
We started off our meal with Artista's increasingly famous soft-shell crawfish taquitos. The Houston Press Cafe section's Carol Rust said one of these tacos "looks like a centerfold spread of an erotic shellfish magazine" (Hot Plate, April 24). After a description like that, I couldn't wait to try one. The whole deep-fried crawfish is presented on a bed of fuzzy lettuce and cabbage shavings atop a miniature soft tortilla that reminded Rust of a bearskin rug. Zigzags of black hoisin and wisps of white fried bean thread noodles complete the outrageous visual. You roll the soft tortilla around the salads, sauces and crispy crawfish and eat them all together.
A soft-shell crawfish, like a soft-shell crab, is one that has recently molted. The beginnings of the new shell are still rubbery and paper-thin, so you can eat the whole thing. And because you're eating the whole thing, "softshells" have a unique full-throated flavor. Soft-shell crabs have been around forever, but Paul Prudhomme brought soft-shell crawfish to the world's attention only a couple of decades ago. Batter-dipped and deep-fried, they are an incredible spring treat. Artista's taquito is the most dramatic, dare I say "artistic," presentation of a soft-shell crawfish I have ever seen.
Obviously, Artista's location on the second floor of the new performing arts center has inspired everything about the restaurant, from the name to the menu design to the theatricality of the decor. The soaring roofline of the Hobby creates a three-story-high space inside the restaurant. And the enormous windows frame the downtown skyline. Each table is surrounded by overstuffed modern chairs covered in a French vanilla-colored fabric. Dark red oval-shaped booths line the back walls. The shelves behind the romantically lit bar are two stories high. It's a treat just to walk into the place.
Like the restaurant itself, the center's grand ambitions inspire both admiration and eye-rolling -- depending on who you talk to. When the design for the $100 million Hobby Center was first unveiled, its resemblance to an airport terminal earned it the nickname Hobby 2. But after attending a show there, you can't help but be impressed by the remarkable performance space and exceptional acoustics.
With its mix-and-match menu components, its innovative ingredients and its globe-trotting ethnic blend, Artista is a departure from the average dining experience on many levels. And the complicated nature of the concept made for a bumpy takeoff. My first visit was the night of the Patti Smith concert in late March, three weeks after the restaurant opened. To accommodate patrons who want to eat quickly before attending a performance, the restaurant offers a simplified "show menu," which offers two options, appropriately named "choice 1" and "choice 2." We tried one of each.
A potato-leek soup, with basil and a port wine glaze floating on top, was absolutely stunning. But my dining companion's lobster bisque was tepid. So we sent it back to have it heated up. Meanwhile, her medium-rare tenderloin with béarnaise was excellent, but my chicken breast was raw in the middle. So we sent that back, too. The chicken returned cooked through, but the lobster bisque never reappeared. We asked about it at the end of the meal, and it was brought out for dessert -- still lukewarm. The food was brilliantly conceived but badly executed. The manager apologized profusely and insisted we return for dessert on the house. I looked forward to coming back when the bugs were worked out.
Artista's modular menu concept reminds me of Craft, an innovative restaurant on 19th Street near Park Avenue South in New York. There, the food isn't brought to you on a dinner plate. Instead, dishes are set out in the middle of the table on rectangular platters. This presentation allows diners to share their meals or to make up new combinations. I tried the unlikely trio of roasted salmon, spinach and duck prosciutto the last time I was there. Not only did it taste marvelous, I got to congratulate myself for dreaming it up. But for this sort of thing to work, the entire menu has to come from the same family of flavors. At Craft, the culinary underpinnings are Italian.
Artista bills its food as "contemporary American cuisine," but unfortunately that doesn't narrow it down very much. One waiter described the fare as "American cuisine with Asian presentations." Another called it "New World food with a South American accent."
Confusion about the ethnicity of his food follows chef Michael Cordúa wherever he goes. It began, no doubt, with his Churrascos steak restaurants. Food writers, having correctly identified churrasco as a Brazilian word, began referring to the restaurants as South American steak houses. But the best restaurants in Cordúa's native Nicaragua serve churrasco, too.
In Argentina, a churrasco is a long, skinny skirt steak, the cut known hereabouts as fajitas. In Nicaragua, they developed a meat-cutting method whereby a tenderloin was cut into a long, skinny ribbon that looked like the other churrasco but tasted much better. I suspect the tender steaks Cordúa serves at Churrascos and here at Artista are actually inspired by the Nicaraguan rather than the South American version.
But South America sounds more exotic than Nicaragua, so after a while, a restaurateur has to say, Why fight it? The difficulty in explaining the culinary concept behind Américas, which was originally described as an interweaving of flavors from all over the Americas, was similarly resolved when employees there started calling it "South American food" a few years ago. When I asked for specifics, a receptionist at Américas once informed me that Nicaragua was part of South America.
At Artista, where Michael Cordúa is developing his own version of a modular menu, disparate ethnic flavors sometimes blend and sometimes clash. You might stumble onto a delightful marriage like my churrasco steak and morel foie gras sauce. But you can also get some woeful mismatches.
Starting with the juicy, perfectly sautéed shrimp on the lunch menu, for instance, I managed to compose an utter flop. The shrimp are usually served with cheese ravioli and a lime-tabikko (flying fish roe) sauce. Italians never combine fish and cheese; I try to avoid the practice myself. And since the menu was designed with remixing in mind, I asked the waiter to serve my shrimp with a side order of spinach and the citrus-habanero sauce.
It sounded good, but it didn't work. First of all, the kitchen sent out the shrimp with the unordered cheese ravioli underneath it anyway. And then they poured the citrus-habanero sauce on top. The spinach was sautéed in sesame oil and served on the side. Each of the three components tasted fabulous, but my brain had trouble switching gears between the Asian-tasting sesame oil, the Latin citrus and chile sauce, and the Italian cheese ravioli.
My lunch companion had chicken with coconut beurre blanc and basmati rice with rajas (roasted poblano pepper strips). I wondered if the coconut white butter sauce would be a French-Asian hybrid with coconut milk and Thai basil, or more like a Jamaican coconut milk rundown with fresh thyme. I dunked a big chunk of chicken in the creamy sauce and took a bite. It didn't taste Asian or Caribbean. It tasted like coconut cream pie. The sauce was made with lots of coconut extract, which is not a flavoring that goes with just anything. And that's the problem with Artista's mix-and-match menu: The flavors are bold and all over the map.
While New York's Craft has the modular thing down, I can't say I was all that impressed with my meal there. Sure, everything combined perfectly, but only because the dishes were all so utterly simple. In order to make things interchangeable, Michael Cordúa would have to minimize his food. And that would be a mistake.
Michael Cordúa is an artist, but as dishes like his soft-shell crawfish taquitos prove, he's no minimalist. His best dishes are shockingly imaginative combinations of bold flavors presented in wild new ways. You can take a gamble and mix up your own dinner from the columns of entrées, sides and sauces. But you're better off to sit back and put yourself in the hands of the master.
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