Two decades after moving to Houston, I still miss autumn. In particular I long for the crisp smell of smoke on cold air: the tangy haze of leafy bonfires, the blue-gray contrails from fireplaces. The next-best thing to a Yankee fall, I've discovered, is to cruise along Kirby with the car windows rolled down. Seems like wood smoke billows from every kitchen on restaurant row, starting at Carrabba's, wafting south from Scottsdale's and the Tuscany Grill, and reaching a mesquite crescendo through Jim Goode-land.
Recently my nose guided me to Prego, where executive chef and partner John Watt has installed a monstrous wood-fired grill. Watt is not just blowing smoke: He and partner Tracy Vaught -- she's also the owner of Backstreet Cafe -- spent more than two years investigating and deliberating grill technology before taking the plunge. "That grill represents a big investment for us," Watt admits. "Not only did it cost about $6,000, it weighs more than 1,200 pounds." In it, Watt is burning apple and pecan wood, and it was that distinctly different aroma, sharper and sweeter than mesquite, that led me sniffing like a hound dog along the Village sidewalks.
"Don't get me wrong," says Watt, "mesquite is fine for barbecue. But it's too harsh for lighter foods. I want the full, clear flavor I can get cooking over wood, but I don't want it to taste like a campout. This is Mediterranean cuisine, not the Wild West."
Mediterranean, maybe; American-influenced, definitely. Watt's new entrees, thoughtfully designed to show off the grill's abilities, include pork chops cured in-house with brown sugar, served with mashed potatoes and green beans ($15.95). Okay, so it's not that simple. A mustard and balsamic vinegar marinade spikes the sugar cure. The potatoes are fluffed with goat cheese, the beans are haricots verts, and the chops are finished with a Marsala-and-mushroom sauce. "But really, what could be more American?" he asks. "I bought an Italian restaurant, true, but I'm firmly rooted in American traditions. After all, you can get mango salsa in France now. If they're not being xenophobic, why should I be?"
Watt revamps his menu about every three months anyway, but the grill has given him a whole new range (ahem) to play on. For example, take his translation of a traditional New England lobster dinner, one of my favorites among his new grilled all-stars. A whole Maine lobster is steamed most of the way to doneness, then the tail is split and briefly laid over the fire. The result is marvelously moist and tender meat, infused with a subtle tang of smoke. The glossy red shell is reassembled over the meat for a postcard-perfect presentation; the roasted corn and scallion butter, and the accompanying potatoes, conjure the brine and breeze of an Atlantic beach feast complete with bonfire. At $54.95, it ain't cheap, but these are big lobsters -- I'd estimate mine at just over two pounds -- so couples can easily order one to split. Sharing never crossed my mind, of course. I ate the whole thing by myself, which is easier than it sounds, since all the cracker and pick work has been done for you.
"It's fun to round out the lobster with clams or oysters," Watt suggests. I agree. To escort your lobster, I highly recommend the tasty, tender broiled oysters gently rolled in corn flour and Parmesan cheese ($6.95) as an appetizer. The towering Tomatoes Caprese ($6.95) also works well with coastal bounty. This salad is a high-intensity, Ybertomato shot of summertime, welcome in the dead of winter: Stacked slabs of red beefsteak tomato alternate with thick slices of fresh mozzarella and quilted green leaves of basil, drenched in olive oil tinted ruby-red by bits of sun-dried tomato.
The lobster doesn't appear on the menu; you have to know to ask for it. As a matter of fact, a number of worthwhile items at Prego are off the menu, so it serves well to pay close attention as the specials are read. These specials can change even between the table and the kitchen: Our recent order for pecan-grilled snapper, placed on the afternoon cusp between lunch and dinner, morphed into a Parmesan-crusted grilled snapper ($21.95). Even better, as it turned out; the crust of grated cheese and bread crumbs was crisp under the light dressing of olive oil "salsa verde." My only complaint, and a faint one at that, was that the filet was just a few seconds past perfectly cooked; fortunately the snapper tasted so good that I could forgive the slight mushiness.
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Another word of advice on Prego's menu: Just keep looking until you hit the food pages. The first six pages of the combined wine list and menu are devoted to wine, which occasionally causes first-time diners to look in vain for a separate roster of entrees. But what a wine list it is: big-- more than 150 selections -- but not horribly expensive, ranging from $20 to $99 per bottle. I was quite pleased with a crisp, dry Comte LaFond '97 Sancerre at $38; Watt's current personal favorites include the buttery, pale gold Duckhorn '95 Sauvignon Blanc ($36) and the hugely aromatic Sokol Blosser "Redland Reserve" '95 Pinot Noir ($75). Last fall Prego's wine list received Wine Spectator magazine's Award of Excellence -- not bad for a first-time entrant.
I appreciate Watt's lightening the traditional Italian palette, subtracting cream and butter and adding more flavor and clarity. But the other award winner in Prego's kitchen is pastry chef Pam Manovich, whose creations double as pinup posters for chocoholics. Her most famous concoction is Prego's signature dessert, Chocolate Vesuvius: a fudgy brownie topped with cinnamon ice cream and crowned with a dainty meringue harboring a hidden freight of hazelnuts. Figuring I'd made enough of a spectacle devouring the lobster, though, on my most recent visit I opted for the lower-profile but equally devastating Chocolate Godiva Cheesecake ($5.95). It's creamy, rich and understated, skillfully wrapped in a layer of rich, semisweet chocolate. A friend opted for the bread pudding ($5.95), and I was prepared to pity him for such a plain-Jane choice; to my surprise, it was every bit as tempting as the sexier chocolate choices, served steaming hot from the oven and loaded with berries.
For years Prego has pleased me as a peaceful corner to sit in, with its cozy mushroom-taupe walls, mahogany pressed-tin ceiling and warm, flattering lighting. I like looking out the long line of windows onto the increasingly frenetic food court that the Village is becoming.I admire Prego's ability to be both a high-end neighborhood cafe and a serious food forum, but most of all I appreciate John Watt's reinventing the menu cleverly and often, rewarding return visits. If you haven't been to Prego recently, it's time to come back.
Prego, 2520 Amherst Street, (713)529-2420.