Not much has changed about the space in Hotel Sorella that used to house Bistro Alex, and that's just fine. With its ceiling of roughly hewn beams cut vertically from tree trunks and its high glass walls, looks were never the issue. In all fairness, Bistro Alex wasn't a bad restaurant except for a tendency to be a bit dull at times.
Radio Milano opened in October of 2014 and specializes in modern Italian cuisine. Chef Jose Hernandez is at the helm, and he's been waiting for quite some time to have a place to call his own. He was supposed to be the executive chef at La Balance in Katy, but a contractual dispute over ownership led to his departure. Before that, he made quite an impression on diners at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, Étoile and Triniti for his masterful desserts.
Like the chef, Radio Milano is poised to make an impression as well, if enough people venture in. At both a weeknight dinner and a weekday lunch, the dining room was nearly empty. While those can be hard time slots for restaurants to fill, Radio Milano deserves to be bustling, if not jam-packed.
There are many tired renditions of beet salad out there, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that perhaps not every fresh take on this restaurant darling has been discovered yet. In Radio Milano's version, the beets are sliced with a special peeler until they're long, like thick spaghetti. The velvety burgundy strands are great fun to twirl up onto a fork. Sure, the requisite balls of goat cheese and toasted walnuts ride alongside, but a scattering of arugula leaves does keep the salad a bit lively and adds some great green color. Perhaps the finest hour of the lowly beet isn't quite over yet.
Radio Milano didn't invent mushroom "cappuccino," but its rendition of the slightly earthy soup is welcome regardless. It comes with a generous foam topping and a crostini "biscotti" on the side. It's called "Cremini Mushroom Cappuccino," but it could have been named "Creamy Mushroom Cappuccino" and that still would have been apt. About the only way to improve on it would be to serve it with refills and a straw.
The burrata is strategically opened to reveal the creamy center that's shot through with glorious rivulets of syrupy balsamic vinegar. The soft ball of housemade cheese rests on a deep green pool of pesto. It's a terrific idea that ensures there's basil flavor with every silken bite. It's surrounded by cherry tomatoes that are first roasted to get rid of the rawness and then chilled. The end result is like biting into little capsules of tomato soup. Along with the burrata, these little babies pack a powerful flavor punch.
Radio Milano makes pastas in-house, including neat, parcel-like fagotelli filled with butternut squash purée and sprinkled with pepitas and fried sage. A crowning touch was a small handful of dried cranberries that were only mildly sweet, unlike the ones normally seen that are sugared to death in some kind of desperate attempt to kill any hint of their natural tartness.
The skin on the salmon entrée is incredibly thick and crunchy, and cracking through it down to the oily pink filet is a simple pleasure. It sits on a bed of creamed Jerusalem artichoke. A dining companion described this seldom-seen vegetable as being "like celery root but with butter."
Radio Milano offers two different cuts of rib eye, depending on the time of day. For lunch it's the cap, an extremely flavorful piece of beef. The fibers run lengthwise, and although that makes it sound as if the meat would not be tender, it's plenty easy to cut with a knife. At a lunch price of $21, it's a steal. It comes with purple and gold cauliflower roasted to dry, crinkled perfection; garlic confit; and translucent, rich bone marrow sauce.
At dinnertime the eye of the rib eye is featured, with the grain running vertically in short strands. It's the cut most American diners are used to. At dinner, it's $39.
There is a bit of misguided ambition here sometimes. A circus tent of huckleberry gelée over big knuckles of lump crab meat in the crab "raviolo" makes an interesting presentation, but the tart, fruity flavor is a jarring distraction. It's like the highbrow version of interspersing bites of fruit leather with a tuna fish sandwich.
Hernandez started his career in pastry, and that's a big hint that dessert is not to be missed at Radio Milano. At least one must be ordered, and hopefully there are enough diners at the table to order more.
The Tartufo is a sphere of pistachio semifreddo (a frozen dessert made of equal parts ice cream and whipped cream) enrobed in deliriously delicate, crunchy layers of cocoa. Tartufo means "truffle" in Italian, and sure enough, before the shell is broken to reveal the pale green confection inside, the big chocolate globe looks like a black truffle. Supporting players to this globe of cool, rich creaminess are a powder of green pistachio, a few maraschino cherries and a gel of the same.
A dose of thick blood orange sauce proved a well-considered foil for a poofy, impossibly rich chocolate soufflé rising merrily out of a single-serving ramekin. The soufflé had so much melted chocolate in it that it nearly crossed over to being a molten chocolate cake. On the other side of the plate, a small dish of cocoa-powdered mousse was milky and silky and had a more restrained dose of chocolate -- the rational side of an equation on the plate and a good counterpoint to the decadent soufflé.
Radio Milano is using Amedei Porcelana in the soufflé. Referred to as "the world's most expensive chocolate," it's made from pale cocoa beans with hulls the color of porcelain, hence the name. At restaurant cost, a pound is $20. Consumers who do an Internet search will find that single bars retail for the same price. Now consider that Radio Milano is selling this soufflé for a mere $14.
For dinner, the five-course prix fixe for $65 allows for a broad experience. The choices vary, but during our visit the beet salad, sweet breads, risotto, veal cheeks with polenta and passion-fruit curd were offered. The tasting-menu portions are smaller than the regular dishes so as not to be overwhelming, but it's still a luxurious, satisfying meal. If you're really hungry, there's a nine-course one for $125.
Service here is thoughtful and kind. They remember little things, like bringing spoons for dishes that come with sauces and refills for coffees. They're also not afraid to have fun and occasionally crack a few jokes with guests. It's nice to be served by people who aren't scripted.
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There's a parking garage at CityCentre, although it's a lot more convenient to use the valet. The spaces on the bottom two levels of the garage are almost all reserved parking, so it can be a bit of a jaunt to get to the restaurant.
Milano Bar, which is just underneath the restaurant on the first floor, specializes in craft cocktails, amaros and infusions. There's even a display on the bar counter of Underberg and special glasses for the medicinal bitters, and one amaro is made in-house. We ordered a Manhattan to test quality. It proved to be perfect: stirred to a chill with a proper deep-burgundy cherry at the bottom, not one of those horrid neon-red abominations that pass for maraschino cherries at the grocery store.
There are many sweet surprises in store at Radio Milano, and not all of them are among the desserts. Between the well-executed savory courses, the thoughtful service and a willingness to venture outside the box (even if doing so is not always successful, as with that huckleberry "ravioli" gelée), Radio Milano is well worth tuning into.
Garden salad $8 Fagotelli $17 (lunch)/$27 (dinner) Cremini cappuccino $10 Burrata $14 Crab salad raviolo $17 Foie gras $20 Rib eye $21 (lunch)/$39 (dinner) Mascarpone panna cotta $9 Tartufo $12 Chocolate soufflé $14 Five-course prix fixe $65 Coffee $4 Grand Manhattan $12