Pedigree Counts

Just ask the Freudians: The strongest human urges are the need to eat and the drive to reproduce. It's a textbook case of psychology in action: As soon as a clientele convinces a restaurateur that they just love his or her food, the proprietor starts looking for new venues and ways for the maturing operation to procreate. Sometimes the offspring do the parent company proud; sometimes diners long familiar with the original will visit the new member of a restaurant family and leave shaking their heads sadly, wondering if the progenitors should consider therapy.

Some intervention seems called for in the case of Arcodoro ("golden arch"), scion of a highly successful Dallas operation that includes the eight-year-old Pomodoro, which was named the city's best Italian restaurant this year by the Dallas Observer, and the original Arcodoro, which was founded in 1992. Here in Houston, owners Lori and Efisio Farris opened the doors to their smart 400-seat space in the Centre at Post Oak on August 21, and they immediately began to attract the glitterati.

No wonder. The location is stellar: practically underneath expense-account favorite Morton's of Chicago, just across the way from the Galleria and mere minutes from both River Oaks and Memorial. The interior is beautifully thought out, with settings just right for any mood or occasion. The main dining room is elegant, with white linen and subdued lighting; the tiny wine/cigar room is cozy; the Sardinia room, which is named for Efisio Farris's home, is festive, with a huge, colorful fresco by the owner's high school art teacher; the two outdoor patios are perfect for brunch on fine weekends; and the sunny grill room is fun with its virtually open kitchen and long polished-granite bar at which cooks, facing the audience of diners, practice pizza-making as performance art.

So, if the space is wonderful and the staff attentive, what's the problem?
Simple. It's the food. It just doesn't measure up to Arcodoro's ambition. Don't get me wrong: It isn't dreadful; it isn't even really bad -- it's just disappointing. Call me hopelessly bourgeois, but when one friend and I pay more than $100 for dinner, I expect more than just "acceptable" cuisine. I certainly don't expect to trim the seriously incinerated edges from what would otherwise have been a nice little panino. A burned bread roll is not the end of the world, but it does exemplify what seems like a lack of attention in the kitchen.

The chargrilled gamberoni ($24.50), which could have been wonderful, were so charred that the delicate flavors of the large, plump shrimp were completely overpowered. The substantial osso buco ($23.50), beautifully spiced with traditional lemony gremolada and served on a bed of vegetable couscous, was a much nearer miss. Properly, a dish like this is slow cooked until the meat is just about to fall off the bone, then snatched away from the heat at just the right second before it begins to dry out. The kitchen here was no more than a few seconds off, but the tenderness was disappearing fast. And whatever appeared along with the fish on the plate of a diner across the room caused a minor sensation: "I don't know what that is, but I know it's not supposed to be here," she informed the abashed waiter.

Any place can have off days, and Arcodoro is barely two months old, so don't give up yet. The simple stuff is already working. The insalata Anguria ($5), served at brunch on weekends, is gorgeous. A large country-style bowl holds a bed of pungent greens topped by fine rings of Bermuda onion, scatterings of quartered walnuts, a small bouquet of sprouts and a fan of perfectly ripe, totally seed-free watermelon slices. The cool burst of fruit freshness contrasts beautifully with the sharpness of fresh-shaved Parmesan and the slight bite of an artfully unobtrusive vinaigrette. This is a real winner, as is the very subtle mozzarella pomodoro e basilico ($8.50). It is, as it says, nothing more than cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil, with a bit of oil. The cheese is fresh buffalo mozzarella, whose taste is so imperceptible that people who think gorgonzola mild would do well to order something else. In this dish, though, it provides just the right creamy textural foil for the fresh tomato and pungent basil.

If salads don't appeal, perhaps the best bet would be to stick with desserts and coffee while Arcodoro works out the kitchen kinks. There are some real hits -- such as the Croesus-rich tiramisu ($7), which uses real mascarpone cheese, sinfully smooth and sweet, to top the espresso and liqueur-soaked pan de spagna -- and even the misses are interesting. Pizza Macedonia ($6.95) tops a thin, still-warm pizza crust with mango puree and sprinkles on tart chopped green apple and kiwi. It's unusual and interesting, though not to everyone's taste. The Mattonella ($6.50) tastes great to anyone who likes chocolate. Layers of dark chocolate cake are separated by clouds of white chocolate mousse, with the whole covered by melted chocolate and shavings and finished with a cloud of confectioners sugar. Chocoholic bliss.

Chocoholics have already found nirvana at Dacapo's bakery. Since the summer of 1994, the little place at the corner of Studemont and 11th Street has been the pride of the Heights. The desserts were legendary, but early on the owners, twin sisters Lisa and Tresa Biggerstaff and their friends Leticia Guzman and Kirk Graham, had branched out into serving homemade soups and salad and sandwiches constructed on the splendid herbed breads, which helped to make the bakeshop's reputation.

Neighbors met for coffee and cake; some adventurous downtown office workers came for lunch; but at no time were more than two dozen people able to sardine themselves into places at the nine tiny marble-topped tables. Even half-empty, the tidy little black-and-white space seemed crowded. Most of the room was taken up with glass cases displaying the twins' cakes, pastries and to-die-for chocolate truffles, to say nothing of giveaway newspapers and local artwork. Heights denizens loved the place, and folks came from far and wide to carry home loaves of the crusty fresh breads. The owners began to collect names for a mailing list, figuring that someday they might expand. And in October, they did -- but nothing in the patisserie's history led anyone to expect the quantum leap from the funk of the Heights to the high style of Dacapo's on the Parkway.

At the back of the 1920's Spanish-colonial-style building on Allen Parkway once known as La Posada, Dacapo's owners found a lovely, high-ceilinged space, which they had decorated by a longtime friend from Austin. With handmade drapes and raku-looking floor tiles from Mexico, to say nothing of the homage to Diego Rivera paintings and flowers everywhere, the interior beautifully frames Dacapo's food.

The small, simple menu relies heavily on the strengths of the bakery (which continues), offering a number of sandwiches built on bakery-made sun-dried tomato herb bread. The Healthy Pollo Supreme sandwich ($5.95) is both hearty and light, with slices of fresh-cooked chicken breast, provolone cheese and lettuce and tomato, complemented by the just-chewy-enough herbed bread. It comes with a side of pasta salad, but with Dacapo's Salad Maison ($3), simple mixed greens in a gorgeous homemade praline creole-mustard vinaigrette, it's a serious meal. Or consider the soup of the day ($2.95/$3.95); it's always interesting. On one recent visit, small new potato quarters, kernels of roasted corn, bits of green onion, red bell pepper and just a hint of cream melded perfectly in a light chicken stock. It was simply splendid.

The new entrees are simple and splendid as well. The Goat Cheese and Spinach Stuffed Packages ($8.95) sounds weird, and even looks a little strange. But trust me on this: It TASTES. The packages are actually sheets of fresh pasta layered with spinach and goat cheese, folded and cut, then rolled in herbed bread crumbs (making the outside a bit dry for my taste), then tied with thready ribbons of green chive and served with a savory sauce of fresh garlic and tomato.

The desserts, as you might expect from Lisa Biggerstaff, who's still in the bakery's pastry kitchen, are world-class. If you want to think you've died and gone to heaven, all you have to do is end your meal with Lisa's croissant pudding ($4.95). Surprising with almond slices and fresh strawberries, sybaritic with buttery melting caramel and whiskey sauce, it is the ne plus ultra of bread puddings.

If you plan to enjoy Dacapo's on a Friday night, however, best make reservations. In the restaurant business, as in Burke's Peerage, pedigree counts. And the fans of Dacapo's original establishment are already telling friends.

Arcodoro, 5000 Westheimer, 621-6888; Dacapo's on the Parkway, 3411 D'amico (at Allen Parkway), 942-9141.


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