Chef Alberto Baffoni has been a bit nomadic over the last few years. His first restaurant in Houston was the acclaimed Simposio, which opened in 1997 and closed well after his departure in 2011.
His follow-up, Sapori, didn’t last quite as long. In 2012, he turned up at Mezzanotte in Cypress, left, then re-emerged at Mascalzone in early 2015 after a stint at The Briar Club. Now, he’s at Bistecca Houston Ristorante, an Italian restaurant that quietly opened in the Montrose across the street from the now-closed Georges Bistro. It’s a new endeavor from Abbas Hussein, who owns another Italian restaurant, Sorrento, which is a scant distance further on Westheimer.
Is this going to be a long engagement? Who knows? No one’s taking bets. In the meantime, though, Baffoni’s signature is quite clear. A blindfolded diner familiar with his work might recognize the risotto by taste and texture alone. Baffoni is one of the few Houston chefs who repeatedly execute an excellent version composed of creamy grains of rice that are firm, but yielding. One rendition is topped with capretto, or young stewed goat. It’s a warm, comforting dish, the kind that shines through a rainy day.
In order to experience the best that Bistecca has to offer, it is important to check out the $28 three-course prix fixe lunch, which is only offered on Fridays. It is such a bargain that it almost seems unfair to take advantage of it. Any pangs of conscience will evaporate and be replaced by pangs of hunger, though, after you take a look at the menu. One recent lunch began with a pear and arugula salad, moved on to a fabulous oven-roasted prime rib with green beans and mashed potatoes, and concluded with a dessert sampler. The little plate of sweets included a square of a respectable three-layer chocolate cake and an indulgent chunk of creamy cheesecake. The prize on the plate, though, was the lemony panna cotta, so stable yet supple that if someone wheeled out a giant version, people would line up and beg to just sink into it as if it were a silken bed.
Of the three courses, the pear and arugula salad was the only one that wasn’t excellent. The red wine-soaked pear slices were soft and the arugula leaves were of the older, more bitter variety. The greens were garnished with triangles of pecorino. The flavors clashed like a Hawaiian shirt paired with tuxedo pants and golf shoes. Nothing seemed to fit.
When the oven-roasted prime rib arrived, though, the salad mishap was easily forgiven. The slab of tender beef was a beautiful shade of red, with the edge baked to a crusty brown. It was tender, with a good balance of fat. A light sauce made with the meat juices pooled to one side of the platter and there was even a little pitcher that held extra sauce. Green spears of haricot vert jutted up over one side of the steak and were cooked to an ideal state of not-too-soft and not-too-hard. The potatoes were whipped into buttery satin.
Most impressively, this slab of beef — only one course in a $28 three-course lunch special — was almost an inch thick. Many steakhouses would have charged at least another $10 just for the prime rib.
That brings us to the main problem at Bistecca. As an Italian steakhouse, they charge typical steakhouse prices at dinner, and the execution does not always validate the cost. It’s easy for two people to rack up a bill that is more than $200 and still be dissatisfied with the food.
In fact, the entrée prices are so expensive that Bistecca has painted itself into a corner. When the price tag for venison chops is $49, nothing but exemplary execution will do.
The venison chops weren’t top notch, though. To have come from such a grand beast, the two-bone rack seemed paltry. It may have weighed six ounces, total. Perhaps Bistecca was serving meat from a younger buck. Older bucks don’t make for good eating. Still, it seemed like a puny serving. The accompanying pear risotto was acceptable, although not as good as the version topped with goat. The extra broccoli rabe ordered on the side was another failure—so bitter and unseasoned that it went uneaten after a test bite. The server noticed and graciously took it off the bill, even though nothing was said about it. The entrées may be inconsistent, but service at Bistecca is outstanding.
The kitchen often sauces meat with an odd, unidentified berry reduction. It’s not listed as part of the description on the menu and it’s an unpleasant surprise when it turns up. As the sauce cools, it takes on a jelly-like consistency. It was on the venison dish and reappeared in disconcerting excess with the herb-crusted beef tenderloin. There should be some kind of warning so diners can avoid this gooey interloper.
The sauce didn’t make an appearance with a $39 duck dish. Unfortunately, that might be the nicest thing that can be said about the meat. It was a breast accompanied by a leg, but the dark meat proved superior thanks to its natural fattiness and dusky flavor. The breast meat was served skin-side down, so instead of being crispy, it was limpid. The sides were better this time around, though. Halves of bok choy, braised and heavily adorned with pecorino, were tender and savory. There was a fine rendition of au gratin potatoes on the side as well.
Bistecca’s grand aspirations as a fine-dining establishment are apparent even in the architecture. The building was constructed on the foundation of a former flower shop. The interior looks like a graceful art gallery, with austere white walls and sweeping high ceilings. There’s a pretty, colorful painting in the entrance as if to acknowledge the resemblance. Inside, abstract shapes with edges painted in bright yellow and pink are mounted high on the walls. Those angular wall mountings are clever as well as artsy, as an observant dining companion realized that they are made of soundproofing material.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough to suffice. Because of the tall walls, hard floors and high ceilings, loud voices bounce from one end of the room to the other. It was hard to have a dinner conversation with a tablemate sitting a mere three feet away.
The one part of the room that seems really out of place is the heavy, black floor-to-ceiling shelving behind the bar area. It weighs down one side of the space like the anchor of a cruise ship. Sometimes, the patrons in front of the bar act a bit like sailors, leaning on each other and filling the dining room with their raucous laughter.
Not every part of the dinner was disappointing, though. The $18 beef tartare service is incredibly fun. The components, which include raw, chopped steak, capers, chopped red onion, Worcestershire sauce and hard-boiled eggs grated to a fine yellow-and-white fluff, are wheeled out on a cart. The server mixes the flavorings into the chopped beef, then hands a tasting spoon to the diner who ordered it. The diner can direct adjustments as needed, such as “extra capers” or “more Worcestershire, please.” So, there’s no blaming the restaurant if the end result isn’t good. The diner is steering the ship.
Bistecca is situated near some of the most well-regarded restaurants in Houston. After receiving their $200 bill, diners will surely wonder what they could have eaten for the same price at Underbelly, Da Marco, Hugo’s or even Sorrento. Flabby duck breast and small, expensive venison chops are not going to steer Bistecca to where it needs to go. For now, diners should immediately check out Bistecca’s prix fixe lunch on Fridays to make their acquaintance with the menu and the wonderful, attentive staff. At dinner, though, treading carefully and selecting just a few dishes for a test run is the way to go for now.
Bistecca Houston Ristorante
224 Westheimer, 832-804-8064
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays.
Broccoli Rabe $10
Beef Tartare $18
Capretto Risotto $26
Three-Course Prix Fixe Lunch (Fridays only) $24
Herb-Crusted Beef Tenderloin (lunch) $28
Duck Breast $36
Venison Chops $49