Mix and Match
Opening the menu at the Tuscany Grill, I was bemused. This looked like no Italian menu I'd ever encountered. Yes, there appeared an occasional nod to things Tuscan, such as the mention of rosemary, a favorite Tuscan seasoning. And the Italian standards of fontina cheese and prosciutto showed up a few more times than they might on a red-blooded, all-American menu. But what were Thai style frog legs and tequila shrimp with serrano peppers doing there? Just what continent were we on, anyway?
I pondered the juxtapositions as I munched on my Italianate focaccia-like bread sopping with olive oil. I mused on the meaning as I gazed at an amber-hued mural depicting a bacchanal straight out of Renaissance Italy. I finally surmised that the Tuscany Grill, its name notwithstanding, is not trying to be yet another upscale Italian restaurant in Houston's nearly glutted market of same. Instead, this hodgepodge of foods is, by my book, what the so-called New American cuisine is all about: homegrown ingredients prepared so as to pay homage to our Eurasian and American -- North and South -- inspirations.
Take, for example, the very first item on the menu: Tuscan flautas -- toothy, browned pasta sheets are rolled around bands of smoked duck and poblano peppers mushed together with fontina cheese. The whole earthy effect isn't exactly Mexican, and even less Italian. Add the goat cheese cilantro dip with its base of buttermilk -- a rich dairy dressing that somehow manages not to send the whole mix over the top -- and you've got the perfect New American recipe. It's no coincidence that the term "melting pot" is a culinary metaphor.
Smoothed along by facile, congenial service, all these worldly influences blend together into a pleasant, peaceful dining experience. Proprietor Kristi Lemex and her architect, Carlos Castroparedes, have hit on a design that, I'm thankful to be able to report, avoids the jackhammer-level volume that plagues so many of this city's better restaurants, including Lemex's alma mater, Ruggles Grill. This is one meal out that won't send you into a flashback to your high school cafeteria. (I will add the caveat, however, that the place was only about three-quarters full during my visits. I can't vouch for the noise level when it's packed.) True, I initially eyed the jazz combo with misgiving. They were playing within arm's reach of the table where I was about to be seated, but I was reassured by the hostess not to worry. "They're muted," she said to me behind her hand, as though she were divulging some family secret. She was right: though my tablemates could literally reach out and touch one performer's sax, the decibel level was fine. It also helped that the musical genre of choice was unobtrusive jazz-lite, a perfect background for dinner.
Lemex admits that, at first, she was a tad uncomfortable about appropriating such an overtly Italian name as Tuscany for a restaurant with such a covertly Italian menu. In a somewhat puzzling explanation, given the eclectic offerings, Lemex says that she and her partners ultimately decided on the name Tuscany Grill because Tuscan cuisine is renowned worldwide for its high quality. And she makes the point that the restaurant does, after all, serve pastas and pizza. True enough. And I'll add the observation that all the salads -- excuse me, the insalatas -- have Italian names: Insalata Greco, for example.
How loyal is head chef Scott Carpenter to the other culinary inspirations he's borrowed to meld with the Tuscan? Who cares? That's the great thing about being in a melting pot: you don't have to obsess about authenticity. A mere hint of influence will do. In true Asian spirit, the Thai style frog legs are encrusted with a convincingly hot red pepper mash lodged in all the crevices that emits an immediate, lip-singeing burn. And true to the melting pot, they're served with a slaw made of one of our native American tubers: jicama. The Mediterranean shrimp, with its tart capers and artichoke hearts, its kicky peppers and ripe gorgonzola cheese, likewise is a mixed sensation, tasting simultaneously of the sun and the sea. A lunch special of veal sausage lasagna no doubt owes some of its charismatic heat factor to its Texas origins. Spicy enough on its own, it's served in a puddle of even spicier tomato sauce. An amusing cluster of sauteed-till-translucent red, yellow and green pepper ribbons sits on top, looking for all the world like a tangle of fishing lures.
Architectural influences, I noticed, come into play in the presentation of the food. A tall, fat pork chop was casually leaning lengthwise against a huge knoll of mashed potatoes. A tangle of sweetly caramelized onions, a striped-from-the-grill triangle of polenta cake and a pool of smoky rosemary barbecue sauce finish out the display. The pork chop was chewy, and at one point I was tempted to use my teeth to get at the meat closest to the bone (you don't eat pork chops for their tenderness). Two stuffed quail, looking rather dramatically martyred, were spread-eagled upright before their fortification of mashed potatoes, which bore a Christmas tree of rosemary sticking right out the top. The quail's opulent stuffing of sun-dried cherries, walnuts, prosciutto and fontina cheese was mushy and crunchy, sharp and salty: different in every bite. And the perfectly flaky, not-too-fishy blackened salmon fillet was surrounded on its plate by a hurricane of frizzled, jade-colored leeks. The fillet balanced on a mound of zippy, perfectly gummy Spanish rice; topping the whole production off was a precariously piled mountain of crawfish and crab meat.
One salad I sampled, the insalata verde, made for a resoundingly ordinary lunch. It would have been fine as a side dish, perhaps, but couldn't carry the expectations of an entire meal. The spinach and mixed greens were spritzed with a dull veneer of balsamic vinegar, and the clump of goat cheese in its little sweater of fresh herbs looked forlorn and out of place sitting against the plate's rim. It wasn't exactly a flop, but in the company of such imaginative food, it didn't soar, either.
Desserts revealed a painterly hand in construction and presentation, but without the towering heights and out-of-control squiggles that are a contemporary dessert showman's trademark. My favorite was the two-layer, coarse-crumbed lemon cake: all sunshine and sweetness, it was garnished, as was every dessert, with fresh strawberries and a bit of strawberry sauce. The white chocolate carrot cake, dense and sorrel-colored and nutty, was terrific too, as was the schmaltzily named chocolate oblivion: a pair of pasty dark chocolate wedges tumbled around a scoop of cappuccino ice cream. The richness of the chocolate was balanced by the ice cream's bitter edge. My only complaint about the dessert course was that on two different occasions I nearly burned my hand on a cafe latte served in a glass tumbler that was too hot to pick up until after the beverage was too cold to enjoy.
Still, salad and latte woes aside, the Tuscany Grill has created a rainbow coalition that works. Marrying recipes from the Mediterranean with foodstuffs from the American Southwest and techniques from the Pacific Rim only sounds questionable. At the Tuscany Grill, the result is a fascinating culinary mongrel, one that never devolves into the schizoid, and one that's eminently friendlier than some high-strung purebreds I've met.
Tuscany Grill, 3910-C Kirby Drive, 522-4722.
veal sausage lasagna, $7.95
lemon cake, $4.95.
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