The maître d' at Bice, the trendy new Italian restaurant in the Galleria, led us to a choice table despite our appearances. In our ensembles of baggy blue jeans, droopy sweaters, and scruffy jackets, we would have been the first to admit we looked out of place in a sleek dining room full of women in little black dresses and men in designer suits. The maître d' was cool about it, but a woman at the next table sniffed disapprovingly at our crudeness.
I wanted to tell her that it was all a mistake. I meant to wear something chic when I came here for dinner. Honest. Especially after reading Paper City's description of the Bice (pronounced "BEE-chay") location that opened in New York in the 1980s.
"It seemed to channel Giorgio Armani as worn by Richard Gere in American Gigolo," wrote Laurann Claridge of that restaurant's decor. Shucks, that's just what I would have said.
5175 Westheimer, 713-622-2423.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Salmon carpaccio: $19
Spaghetti Bolognese: $19
Short rib ravioli: $21
Gnocchi with crab: $18
Osso buco: $36
The interior of the Houston restaurant is pretty posh in its own right. It has a striking floor of diagonally set hardwood planks that vary in color between blond and chestnut. And the dining room is "awash in the colors of milled flour and flax seed," according to Claridge. I wonder if there is some other kind of flour besides the milled variety. But it sure sounds pretty, doesn't it?
Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Milan are among the other cities lucky enough to have a Bice. The Houston restaurant is number 27 or 28 in the Bice chain. (The waiter said you can never be sure because they keep opening and closing them.) The Galleria location has been open for a little over two months now, and according to Claridge at Paper City, "The fashion flock has discovered Bice in droves."
No doubt "the fashion flock" will also want to join Bice's private club, a members-only lounge on the second floor open to the first 200 Houstonians willing to shell out the initiation fee, which is said to range somewhere between one and five thousand dollars. (Maybe the exact figure depends on what you're wearing when you ask to join.)
We of the baggy blue jeans will content ourselves downstairs. Not that we were trying to make a low-end fashion statement or anything. The truth is, the four of us were supposed to have dinner at Dolce Vita, the casual new pizzeria on Westheimer (see "How Sweet It Is," February 23). But it turns out Dolce Vita is closed on Mondays. A phone call confirmed that Bice was open, so we headed from the 500 block of Westheimer to the 5000 block of Westheimer, and into a different fashion zone.
I wasn't expecting much out of Bice. On a previous visit at lunchtime, I was thoroughly disappointed. An order of calf's liver with sweet onions and "balsamic jus" turned out to be liver chunks coated with bitter-tasting black goo that I suspect was a reduction of cheap balsamic vinegar. And the "homemade baked tortellinis of butternut squash" looked like giant ravioli that had been toasted under the broiler until they got blistered and tough. I figured it was just another clueless Italian kitchen.
Maybe the lousy lunch was a fluke, or maybe the top toques work the late shift; but whatever the reason, the dinner was nothing like the lunch. Our entrées and appetizers that night ranged from very good to absolutely sensational.
I spent New Year's in Bologna. During a five-day stay, I sampled at least four versions of pasta Bolognese. The classic version of the famous ragú requires an elaborate preparation involving cooking beef chunks first in milk and then in white wine until both liquids cook away, then slow-simmering the meat in an earthenware pot for more than three hours. Even the most patient cooks tend to cheat a little on Bolognese sauce.
So when I saw "Spaghetti alla Chitarra alla Moda Bolognese" on the dinner menu, I decided to order it. My intention was to make fun of it. Granted, that was a little "Bice" of me. But based on my crappy lunch, I expected the "spag bol" here to really suck.
Mammacita mia, what a surprise I got. Crumbling chunks of beef tenderness in a thick, slow-cooked ragú that clung to every bite of pasta. And the fresh al dente spaghetti was an even bigger surprise. "Chitarra" means "guitar" in Italian; it also describes a type of pasta maker that cuts sheets of fresh pasta into thin strands by means of a series of wires that look like guitar strings. It makes a unique square-cut pasta that was just right with the sauce. I have to admit, Bice's spaghetti Bolognese rivaled the best I had in Bologna.
But the top entrée had to be big fat ravioli stuffed with a sumptuous mixture of braised beef short rib meat, veal and spinach, swimming in a thick marsala-mushroom sauce. What a knockout! This kind of incredibly rich pasta dish is best in the winter, so hurry up and eat it before it gets hot again.
Another dining companion got potato gnocchi with crab and corn in a parmesan cream sauce. I have never seen gnocchi served with seafood before, but the whiteness of the crabmeat, the potato pasta and the cream sauce made a striking visual, and the flavor was wonderfully light. The gnocchi themselves were among the fluffiest I have tasted. If you hate gnocchi because of past encounters with gummy balls of potato flour, these will change your mind.
The fourth guy at the table got the osso buco, which was served with the classic accompaniment of saffron risotto. It was a center-cut hind shank, not the cheaper fore shank (see "Osso Buco Me? Osso Buco You!" September 16, 2004), and it came with a small spoon planted in the crater in the middle of the bone so you could scoop out the marrow. Everything seemed to be perfect: The saffron risotto was tasty, it was a good cut of veal and it was cooked until it was tender. But somehow it fell flat. The sauce was unremarkable and the meat lacked the unctuous mouth-feel that can make osso buco transcendental.
I gave the entrées three As and a B-plus – but that was on top of the two A-plus crudo appetizers.
Crudo is the Italian version of new-style sashimi. It's actually never been more than a novelty in Italy, but it's the rage in New York right now. It was introduced to New Yorkers at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Esca restaurant several years ago. Two recently opened New York crudo bars, Bar Tonno and Crudo, have made it their main focus.
Bice's brilliant orange-and-yellow plate of silky, citrus-marinated salmon carpaccio topped with a salad of licorice-scented fennel, gobs of lobster and sections of oranges was sensational. The presentation was rooted in the Italian carpaccio tradition, but the lobster, raw fennel and citrus fruit garnish gave a nod to the modern crudo bar. Tuna tartare isn't a new idea either, but the pile of raw minced sushi-grade tuna served at Bice does come with a garnish of capers, red onion and avocado that gives it a slightly modern twist. And the flavor is outstanding.
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Three upscale Italian restaurants have opened recently in Houston: Bice, Dolce Vita and Arturo's Uptown Italiano. Bice is easily the most elegant of the three, but conceptually, it's in the middle of the road. Dolce Vita, which tops one of its pizzas with taleggio, arugula, pears and truffle oil, is obviously exploring the cutting edge of Italian. Meanwhile, the pedestrian menu at Arturo's Uptown Italiano seems to assume that Uptown Park shoppers are too timid to venture far beyond grilled salmon, eggplant Parmigiano and Italian sausage and peppers.
Bice's menu offers both beautifully executed traditional Italian dishes like the spaghetti Bolognese, as well as some modern appetizers like the crudo. But there's also some T.G.I. Friday's Italian food here, like the Caesar salad. (Add grilled chicken breast for just four dollars more!) And the overuse of balsamic vinegar is ruining both salads and entrées at Bice.
If you had to recommend one of these three to a visitor from out of town, I'd send the foodies and hipsters to Dolce Vita, and grandmas and grandpas to Arturo's and the high-power business types and designer-label wearers to Bice.
But that's just until somebody opens Houston's first Italian sashimi restaurant, of course.