Most Houston chefs, I'd guess, are familiar with Plato. At least to the extent of having heard of him. But how many are so familiar that they would name a restaurant for one of his major texts? Only one comes to mind: Alberto Baffoni.
As an homage to Plato's Symposium, Baffoni called his restaurant Simposio, a decision that some might consider odd. In ancient Greece, after all, the symposium, ostensibly a gathering at which ideas were exchanged, often turned into a toga party -- an all-night revel at which men got drunk and vomited on one another's sandals. Oh, they talked all right -- usually through their hats.
But Plato's Symposium was different, the chef points out. One of western civilization's great documents, it explores the nature of love. And love -- the rarefied kind -- is something Baffoni takes very seriously. This is man with a generous spirit. An example: Discussing Baffoni with me, one of his employees described the chef, who is diminutive, as "a little, short guy." And added: "I often tease him about it." Baffoni doesn't mind, I asked? "Not at all," I was told. "He thinks it's funny." Which makes him more magnanimous than I am. An employee who made fun of my stature would be given detailed instructions on the fastest way to reach the door.
Everything about Baffoni's restaurant suggests a concern for others. The man is tireless, darting from kitchen to restaurant, from restaurant to kitchen.... At the bar one minute, by the door the next. He's never still: consulting his waiters, greeting people, chatting with diners.... So much energy. You'd think he was a roadrunner. And it's true: He is short of stature, an impression reinforced by his hat. A white, floppy thing, suggesting nothing so much as a failed souffle, it's the kind worn by the Keebler elves.
The first thing you notice about this restaurant is the bonhomie. It's a happy place. The staff is pleasant and gracious, and the service is impeccable. Neither obsequious nor overly assertive, the waiters, one gets the impression, do this work, not because nothing better is available to them, but because they actually enjoy it. Seeing them, I was reminded of another idea familiar to our good friend Plato: No task is menial to those who look on it as a way to foster character.
Occupying one end of a shopping strip, Simposio isn't much to look at from the outside. Nor is the interior especially elaborate. There's a bar here, a series of mock portals, walls painted to look as if they're marbled, some ornately framed mirrors and several small sculptures suggesting the polymorphic forms of Miro. And that's it. In its physical arrangements, Simposio makes no effort to impress. But the food! It would, I don't doubt, have pleased even Plato, who ate little, by most accounts, and who once suggested that cooking be prohibited.
Baffoni, who looks for inspiration to his native Italy, is not a man who clamors for attention, and neither does his food. His effects are subtle; on occasion too much so. Panzerotti al salmone ($11.50) -- ravioli shaped and crimped to look like flowers, and stuffed with salmon -- come generously napped with a delicate vodka cream sauce. But the panzerotti themselves (the word means "full bellies") seemed overly timid. I'm not suggesting that food should roar. But neither should it be made to whisper. Moderation is admirable only as long as it isn't taken to extremes.
Vitello tonnato ($9.95), a classic dish common to both Piedmont and Lombardy, is much more successfully calibrated. The veal is thinly sliced and served with a sauce combining mayonnaise, canned Italian tuna, anchovies, olive oil and lemon juice. It's quite delicious, the whole made nicely tart by the addition of lemon pulp and lots of briny capers.
Strozzapreti all' Emiliana ($13) is nicely assertive, too. Strozzapreti -- the word means "strangled priests" -- are hand-rolled eggless noodles: plump little things with the texture of dumplings. Served with Italian sausage, spinach and roasted peppers, all bound together in a light tomato sauce, the dish is so perfectly proportioned that, were you to alter a single detail, you'd ruin it completely.
Lombatina di maiale alla mostarda ($16) -- pork loin -- was so moist and tender, it made my eyes roll back in my head. It's served on a bed of nicely grilled zucchini and napped with a mustard sauce unusually intense for this chef, but compelling nonetheless.
Costolette d'agnello ($21), lamb chops roasted in the oven, were cooked to perfection. But I question what the menu describes as an "aromatic bread-crumb crust." I found it neither aromatic nor crusty. Indeed, it's hard to say what it was -- except perhaps redundant. Not, though, the shallots. Sweet and redolent of fresh herbs, they nicely undercut the tartness of the spinach.
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Pomodori a fette con mozzarella e melanzane grigliate ($6.50) -- sliced fresh tomatoes with mozzarella and grilled eggplant -- are fragrant with basil and arranged on the plate in the shape of a shamrock. This dish, too, is served with spinach -- a vegetable Baffoni seems to like a lot -- molded into a small ball and looking like a topknot.
The beef carpaccio ($7.50) is marinated in lemon juice and olive oil and topped with Parmesan and diced sauteed mushrooms. I liked everything about this dish, with one major exception. Carpaccio should be paper-thin. This wasn't. But the scaloppa di salmone ($8.50, and only available at lunch) was heavenly. The outside and the inside were a study in contrasts: the one boasting a robust crust; the other, pink and delicate and suggesting satin.
Good desserts, too. The croquembouche ($6) -- profiteroles filled with a whipped cream/pastry cream combination and served with raspberry and caramel sauce -- are excellent. And the tiramisu ($5.50) is the best I've ever tasted. Much tiramisu is heavy to the point of being leaden. Not this one. Baffoni leavens the mascarpone with liberal quantities of whipped cream. The result is sensational.
Simposio, 5591 Richmond, 532-0550.