We're seated near a wall of glass that looks out onto a dense stand of pine trees. The rain has left a fog on the windows, so the greenery is soft and out of focus. The high-ceilinged dining room at Amerigo's Grille in the Grogan's Park complex in The Woodlands is tastefully decorated with oil paintings and sculpted iron railings. The tables are set with crisp white linens. The atmosphere is elegant and restful.
We start off the meal with a classic carpaccio. The paper-thin slices of raw beef tenderloin are drizzled with truffle oil and topped with giant capers. The dish is garnished with arugula and sweet onion shavings and dusted with Pecorino Romano. I drape the buttery raw steak slices over hunks of crusty Italian bread and spread on a few onion bits and hunks of hard cheese with a knife. I've eaten so much fish carpaccio lately, I'd forgotten how much I love the real thing.
My entrée, linguini fra diavolo, takes me back to my first job out of college and the elegant yet homey little Italian restaurants of Franklin Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut. Lobster fra diavolo was the best dish on the menu there, and I ordered it whenever I could afford to. The lobster would arrive on a pile of steaming pasta swimming in spicy marinara and studded with Atlantic clams.
Here at Amerigo's, my seafood diavolo includes lots of big Gulf shrimp, plus clams and mussels. But the zesty marinara, spiked liberally with red pepper flakes, tastes almost exactly like the seafood fra diavolo of my fond memories. I can't get enough of the stuff and practically dive into the bowl.
When I come up for air, I notice that one of my dining companions is eating another seafood pasta dish called pappardelle capesante. The big bowl of slippery, inch-wide noodles and tender jumbo scallops diverts my attention, and I reach across the table for a taste. The scallops have been lightly grilled with garlic and mushrooms, and they float around with the pasta in a delightfully subtle roasted tomato mint sauce.
The two seafood pasta dishes are so good, I'm willing to overlook the kitchen-sink excess of my other dining companion's veal Trapani, which is a scaloppini of veal wrapped around radicchio, hearts of palm and gorgonzola, and topped with baby shrimp and shiitake mushrooms -- all slathered in a peppercorn shallot reduction. The conglomeration is as tiresome to eat as it is to describe.
Nevertheless, I'm so enthusiastic about Amerigo's, I talk an Inner Looper into driving up there to meet me for lunch one day. "It's the best restaurant in The Woodlands," I tell her. She replies with a derisive snort but finally agrees.
When we arrive at Amerigo's, we're seated in a bright and sunny spot near the window. She opts for the wild pasta -- chunks of wild game and mushrooms in what the menu calls an orange chipotle glaze tossed with fresh pasta. After her first bite, she makes a funny face and asks me to try it. The quick-cooked wild boar and venison bits are rubbery, and the sauce is too sweet. When the waiter asks if everything is okay, we ask him about the syrupy sauce. He says it's made with the sweet Italian wine called marsala.
I order a lobster pasta appetizer called lobster mezzaluna. The small plate is fanned with four half-moon-shaped pillows of fresh pasta stuffed with lobster meat and served on top of an ancho cream sauce. The pinwheel arrangement is sprinkled with corn and undercooked black beans. My dining companion loves it. "I'm a sucker for cream sauce," she concedes.
I have to admit, it is quite tasty. But lobster in an ancho cream sauce with a garnish of corn kernels and black beans is practically a signature dish of Southwestern cuisine. How did it end up on an Italian menu?
"Which part of Italy is the chef from?" I ask the waiter.
"He's actually from El Salvador," the server replies.
I also get a tomato tower. It's a stack of velvety roasted eggplant slices, fluffy fresh mozzarella discs and red-and-yellow tomato slices doused with a balsamic vinaigrette. It would have been excellent if the kitchen had gone to the trouble to get some good tomatoes.
It's the time of year when you have your choice of homegrown, vine-ripened or heirloom tomatoes at the grocery store. And yet Amerigo's is serving watery, under-ripe, flavorless tomatoes in their $9 salad. Are they too lazy to shop around for good ingredients? Have they been resting on their "best restaurant in The Woodlands" laurels too long?
You'd think Amerigo's would be on their toes lately, considering they just lost their neighborhood monopoly. Woodlandians are flocking to Brio Tuscan Grille, which opened at the spiffy new Woodlands Mall last May. Brio is based in Columbus, Ohio, where the "The Grumpy Gourmet," who writes for the Columbus Dispatch, raves about the chain's "Tuscan culinary creations."
Brio's menu includes lasagna, pepperoni pizza and Caesar salad (which was invented by chef Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico). The most Tuscan thing I can find on the online menu is a quote from the best-selling book Under the Tuscan Sun. But I thought I'd go check the place out anyway -- that is, until I found out about the moat.
The Woodlands Mall is surrounded by water, and visitors are directed to leave their cars at a remote lot and take a gondola ride to the entrance. I'm sure the mall designers figured this would keep visitors captive. But if you just want to eat lunch, it's a ridiculous waste of time. And besides, from what I've seen, Brio is just like Carrabba's with a trendier interior designer.
Since I had a terrific dinner and a lousy lunch at Amerigo's, I figured I'd give them one more chance -- at dinner time. So on the way back from Dallas one weekend, I picked up an elaborate dinner to go. When I got home, I sampled a big plate of capellini with crawfish, angel hair pasta tossed with spicy sautéed mudbugs and shrimp. It was stellar. So was the snapper Amerigo's, a juicy filet of red snapper fried in a crispy batter and topped with big chunks of lump crabmeat, chopped tomatoes and scallions sautéed in a Chardonnay-butter sauce.
A 14-ounce New York strip with roasted rosemary potatoes and a marsala-spiked au jus was just average. The menu promised Prime aged steaks, but the meat had next to no marbling and tasted dry despite the pool of sauce. Just like last time, this dinner scored two hits and a near miss.
For the hotly contested title of "best restaurant in The Woodlands," the quiet charm and occasional excellence of Amerigo's still wins my sympathies. But if a homegrown restaurant's main advantage over a corporate chain is the ability to take advantage of local seasonal ingredients, then it's definitely time for Amerigo's kitchen staff to wake up and smell the homegrown tomatoes.
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