Love at First Bite
When I fall in love with a restaurant, I fall hard. I wake up thrilled like a kid on Christmas morning, only my first thought is, "Today I know I'm going to have a great meal." I'm infatuated with the new menu, obsessed by every detail of its dishes. While sitting idly at a traffic light, say, or waiting in an ATM line, I indulge in Technicolor reveries of the flavors and fragrances that captivated me.
At this very moment, I'm visualizing the slender curve of the artichoke alla giudea ($7) I ate as an appetizer at Da Marco. The artichoke's trimmed core was balanced heart-down upon the plate, its tender stem pointing straight up like an exclamation mark. I can taste the fruity olive oil it was fried in, smell the fresh lemon pulp and crinkled mint leaves, feel its firm green-gold flesh yielding under my fork.
I never thought I'd be captivated by an artichoke, much less one that was fried. When a friend told me about Marco Wiles's new restaurant and his fabulous fried artichoke, I formed a mental image of one of those battered and deep-fried bloomin' onions, and I yawned. Da Marco opened last month in the little house on lower Westheimer once occupied by that Ethiopian restaurant, Awash. The exterior was none too promising, painted an eye-popping shade of orange, but hey, at least there was a parking lot.
So I went in expecting little. Indoors it was much less orange, more warm, sunny yellow. A dozen or so tables were arranged on the pale hardwood floors of what must have been the home's former living room, and a fireplace was still in place in one wall. There was a crisp tang of wood smoke in the air, coming not from the cold hearth but from a brick oven behind the bar, the flames inside leaping and crackling. Sunlight streamed through the windows and the French doors opening onto the wooden deck outside.
A waiter brought us a complimentary antipasto of lemon-scented chickpeas sautéed in olive oil, spiked with flakes of dried red pepper and tumbled over slices of grilled bread. I think my love affair began with the luscious carafe of bellinis ($7), made Venetian-style with real white peach puree authentically flecked with tiny specks of pulp and pit, and sparkling Italian Prosecco, not too sweet, not too tart, and icy cold. The waiter gently tipped the syrupy mixture into our waiting pair of frosted martini glasses, and I knew I was lost.
Wiles served me that artichoke himself. He frowned in concentration as he cut the heart and stem into precise quarters, scattering the few soft leaves around the plate with a practiced flick of the wrist. "You have to eat it all, the stem too," he told me. "Or what, I don't get any dessert?" I joked. "No, you can have dessert, why not?" he asked me, dead serious, the tiny pucker between his eyebrows deepening in dismay.
Meanwhile, my friend smiled happily at his plate of San Daniele prosciutto ($9). At first bite I thought the sweet flavor came from the fig jam thickly spread on the split crostini, standing on end tepeelike in the center of the plate; later it dawned on me that this prosciutto itself is sweeter and less salty than the Parma variants I've tasted.
Perhaps I should fast-forward here; nobody really wants to hear the endless besotted particulars of someone else's infatuation. Suffice it to say I was waiting on Da Marco's doorstep for lunch the very next day.
That day the octopus appetizer ($6) I'd also heard about was in; Wiles had run out the night before. It was stunning. Not so much for the little grilled tentacles charmingly curled on the plate, though those were surprisingly tender and delicious, but for the combination of soft chunks of Yukon gold potatoes, slivers of roasted red pepper and shreds of fresh lemon underneath. The whole assemblage was dressed with a tangy, citrusy vinaigrette, and there were garnish details that didn't register fully until I had delved into the dish: thin slices of radish, tiny sprigs of dill -- frills I might ordinarily brush aside, but here merited my undivided attention. I can imagine Wiles in the kitchen, forehead creased thoughtfully, adding and subtracting tiny fragments of flavor and texture until the dish is perfect. He reminds me of a stern filmmaker who tolerates no extraneous detail in any frame. Nothing on these plates is arbitrary; you really must eat it all. Thoughtfully.
We were equally enchanted with the clams veraci ($8), a purple, soupy bowl of littleneck clams and long links of fennel-scented sausage bathed in a fragrant, grapey Lambrusco and topped with crisp garlic bruschetta. We waded into the "primi" courses with relish. The wild asparagus risotto ($14) tasted intensely and marvelously "green" (thanks, I'd guess, to an asparagus broth used to cook the rice), graced with halved stalks of asparagus and swathed with toothsome slices of an excellent smoked salmon. The risotto with porcini ($11) was cooked to a heavenly state of creamy al dente, topped with shavings of aged Parmesan cheese; the mushrooms contributed just the right note of woodsy, nutty flavor without taking over the dish.
Lest you think we lived on appetizers and rice alone -- although I wouldn't mind doing just that -- we had some stunning entrées, too. My initial favorite was the "lamb T-bone" ($28), a pair of tender, inch-thick lamb chops basted with wine, then grilled and topped with salty slivers of green olive. To my surprise, I also loved the finely minced braised cabbage that accompanied the chops. The mint leaves that sparked the artichoke reappeared in the tomato sauce over the tagliatelle with lobster ($20), and it was a stroke of genius. With that delicate touch of mint, the sauce tasted light and incredibly fresh. The lobster was a tender one-pounder from Maine, not one of those dreadful, tough Caribbean numbers, its claws skillfully removed intact in the kitchen, and the tail meat sliced in circlets over the wide ribbons of noodle. (The plate arrived complete with the lobster's head, just to say hello, I suppose.)
While one of my friends marveled at Da Marco's extensive list of Italian regional wines -- "There's stuff here only real connoisseurs will know," he announced, beaming with pleasure -- the rest of us drooled over the dessert choices. We settled on a pear richly stuffed with mascarpone ($6), its flesh sweetly caramelized a glossy brown. We reveled in the cold, silky panna cotta ($6), flanlike in texture but infinitely fresher and creamier in taste. We even tried the multilayered zuppa inglese ($6), a towering wedge of custard, fruit jam and rum-scented sponge cake so rich it made my head spin.
I don't have to tell you I'm already scheming for my next liaison with Da Marco. I must have the sea bass with grilled grapefruit and balsàmico ($19) and the pork shanks zìa Milena ($18). I can't wait to taste the salad of shaved celery, beets and pecorino ($7). As a matter of fact, I probably won't sleep at night until I've tried everything on the menu.
That's how love goes.
Da Marco, 1520 Westheimer, (713)807-8857.
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