Upscale Hospital Food
The waterfall has been broken for months. It used to flow over a glass wall in the lobby of Trevísio, the huge and lavish restaurant in the Medical Center. When Trevísio first opened, it was heralded as one of the best new restaurants in town. But that was back when the waterfall worked.
The first problem with Trevísio is its location. It has taken us quite a while to find the John P. McGovern Medical Center Commons, as this parking garage is called. Then we have to park and take an elevator. But all that inconvenience melts away when we emerge on the top floor.
The restaurant's extravagant decorations make you forget you're in a parking garage. The tented light fixtures and blue pendants hanging from the ceiling give the dining rooms, corporate meeting center and banquet halls an I Dream of Jeannie ambiance. It's like entering the executive dining room in a sultan's palace.
We are shown to our table by a gracious hostess. Although it is lunchtime and the restaurant is quite full, the server is extremely attentive. "Of course the service is outstanding; most of the customers are doctors," my dining companion giggles.
Looking around, I try to guess what everybody in the dining room does for a living. There are nurses and therapists wearing name badges, and young residents wearing scrubs. Behind us, a pair of medical students are comparing notes on living in Houston. And the former cheerleaders pulling little rolling suitcases -- those would be the drug reps.
We start off our lunch with an appetizer of "eggplant caponata and goat cheese mousse." I wonder how chef Alan Ashkinaze will make the thick vegetable salad into a mousse. Ashkinaze was recruited to move to Houston from New York to open Trevísio. A CIA (Culinary Institute of America) grad who has cooked in France and at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, he is highly trained in the classical cooking style.
In an interview shortly after the restaurant opened (see "Doctoring Dinner," October 31), Ashkinaze described Trevísio this way: "We're a modern Italian restaurant, not a traditional Italian restaurant. We want to present food in a modern Mediterranean style."
The caponata mousse comes to the table. It is a mound of traditional caponata with a slice of goat cheese and a few snow pea shoots on top. It sits on a plate decoratively painted with orange and black squiggles. This dish is a vivid illustration of what Ashkinaze means by "modern Mediterranean style."
Mousse is a French term meaning "froth" or "foam." It usually describes a preparation made by lightening a puree with beaten egg whites or whipped cream. Here Ashkinaze uses the word as a meaningless embellishment. The kitchen has attempted to "kick it up a notch" with the decorative presentation. But plate painting was already getting old in the late 1990s. The "balsamic glaze" that Ashkinaze uses to paint his black squiggles is such a cliché that Sysco sells squeeze bottles already filled with the stuff. Look for it decorating the meat loaf at better cafeterias everywhere.
There's nothing wrong with Trevísio's traditional caponata. It's the contrived attempt to make it modern that's ridiculous.
I order a chilled Maine lobster salad with avocado mousse for my entrée. Everything about it is exquisite. The small juicy lobster is removed from the shell and served in a pool of tomato-infused olive oil. The guacamole is indeed airy and mousselike. (Maybe it's been lightened with a touch of whipped cream?) I am enjoying the salad immensely when I glance over at my dining companion.
She has ordered a pasta dish listed on the menu as "tacconi tossed with salmon, peas, maple-pepper bacon and dill cream." We are both intrigued by the word tacconi, which neither of us has seen before. The waiter describes it as a lasagna-noodle-like pasta. When it arrives, my companion takes a whiff, scrunches up her face and pushes the dish away.
"What's the matter?" I ask.
"The smell," she says. "I don't know about cheese and salmon."
The ingredient-by-ingredient menu description includes the bacon, which you have to search for, and the dill, which you can't even taste. It doesn't say anything about cheese. I take a tentative sniff. The salmon is pretty aromatic and so, of course, is the Parmesan. Although this combination is absolutely abhorrent to Italians, many Americans love grated Parmesan on their seafood pasta. Fine, let them have Parmesan. But do we all have to eat it that way?
While I try to scrape the topping off the cheesy fish, my lovely lobster salad levitates across the table and comes to rest in front of my companion. She smiles broadly as she mops it up.
We finish our meal with coffee and a shared order of Texas peach cobbler. The strong coffee is served in elegant designer cups, and the cobbler is succulent. The peaches are from Conroe, the waiter tells me.
At the next table, two drug reps are typing on mini-laptops that sit open on the table where their plates are supposed to be. Rather than conducting a luncheon conversation, they jabber with distant parties on their cell phones. We might as well be seated next to a cubicle of telephone solicitors.
Then the check arrives. It's $60 before the tip. Maybe that's reasonable for well-to-do doctors or drug reps on an expense account. But for two lunch menu entrées, a shared appetizer and a shared dessert, it seems a little high. I look over the bill. Iced tea is $3 and so is coffee, so we blew 12 bucks right there. Amazingly, this restaurant located in a parking lot doesn't validate, either. Our bill includes a $3 charge for parking.
Obviously, the lunch at Trevísio is targeted to a Medical Center "captive audience." If you aren't a "captive" in the Medical Center, save your money.
But that's not to say you should never eat at Trevísio.
A few months ago, on my first visit to Trevísio, I enjoyed a fabulous dinner for 12. A friend's family had gathered from all corners of the globe for a reunion. The crowd comprised the young, old and middle-aged. At the last minute on a Saturday night, they wanted to make a reservation at an elegant restaurant with good food. Most important, they wanted a place that was quiet enough for everyone to hear the conversation -- including a few relatives who were a little hard-of-hearing. I suggested Trevísio. It was an ideal choice.
The restaurant is busy at lunch, slow at dinner, and dead on weekend evenings. We had half the enormous dining room to ourselves. And while Trevísio isn't very impressive at modern Italian food, chef Ashkinaze does a brilliant job on standard dinner-house fare. His years at the Waldorf-Astoria have served him well in the crowd-pleasing department. As a fine dining restaurant for affluent, but not particularly adventurous, diners, Trevísio shines.
There is something for everybody. I had a wonderfully rare rack of lamb with sun-dried tomato and Gorgonzola polenta. My friend had an excellent filet mignon with goat cheese mashed potatoes, and her dad had a coffee-cured steak with onion rings. Her mom had grilled fish, and most everyone else ordered veal piccata with asparagus and gnocchi. All of the food came to the table perfectly prepared. Several bottles of Pommard, a truly great Burgundy, made the dinner memorable indeed. The reunion was a great success, and everybody thanked me for my brilliant choice of restaurants.
My idea of great modern Italian food may be Da Marco's poached lamb's tongue with mostarda. But not everyone is interested in that kind of cutting-edge cuisine. It's great to have restaurants like Da Marco, Aries and Boulevard Bistrot in Houston. These are places where you can impress visiting foodies. But it's just as important to have restaurants like Trevísio, which parents, grandparents and visitors from small towns in the Panhandle are going to love -- especially if they're rich and hard-of-hearing.
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