Big Flavors, Little Tables

Maybe the tender braised baby octopus in a light brown sauce with cannellini beans and carrot chunks was my favorite dish at Poscol. I had the stew of tiny tentacles and white beans with a Piedmonte Arneis, a white wine made with a rare Italian varietal. The wine was probably a little too delicate for the garlicky seafood. But I loved the pairing anyway, just because it was so offbeat.

Or maybe the best thing I ate at Poscol was the creamy zucchini risotto with piles of fried chicken livers on top. The short grain rice was perfectly cooked so that each grain was al dente, and the chicken livers were so crunchy the batter shattered with every bite. I had a spectacular crisp Friuli white wine made with grapes found only in that Northern Italian region with the awesome risotto. It was the best risotto and wine combination I've ever tasted.

It could be that my favorite dish was the beet squares roasted with hazelnuts and goat cheese served in a parchment paper package, which sent a cloud of aromatic steam up when I tore open the paper. The fried polenta and salami cubes, fun to stab with toothpicks, was also a contender. There are at least a dozen more items on the menu that I'm eager to try. Poscol is an Italian food lover's wine bar.


Vinoteca Poscol

1609 Westheimer, 713-529-2797.

Hours: 5 to10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Salad: $8

Cured meats: $9

Risotto: $9

Fish: $8

Cheese: $5

It's supposed to be a salumeria (Italian for cured-meat shop) as well as an enoteca (Italian for wine bar), so I suppose I need to mention the cured meats. Honestly, I found them underwhelming. A plate of house-cured porchetta — simple, thin-sliced roasted pork loin served cold with a little olive oil — was the best I tried. The house-made pork cheek sausage tasted like a regular pâté. And while I love mortadella, prosciutto and good imported salami, I don't see why I need to pay $9 to have Marco Wiles slice it for me. Wiles cooks the most amazing Italian food in Houston. I can buy Italian cold cuts at Nundini.

I wasn't that interested in the ham, salami and prosciutto panini sandwiches for the same reason. My dining companion did order the pot roast panini with salsa verde and horseradish, which sounded like it might be interesting, especially because she loves spicy sauces. But the sandwich was stuffed with bland, mushy meat and not much else. She remedied the situation by requesting some extra horseradish. And then she dumped all of the freshly grated horseradish the waiter brought her on the sandwich. It was a little better, but it could have used some more pepper sauce.

On my first visit to Poscol, I also sampled the house-made pickles, which were pleasant but nothing special, and a fairly standard arugula salad. The cheese selections were intriguing, so we finished our meal with a plate of three cheeses with condiments.

Cheeses are three for 12 dollars. We picked a bright-white, creamy gorgonzola from the Lombardia region, a full-flavored, firm montasio vecchio from Friuli and a creamy sheep and cow's milk cheese from Piemonte. The portions were small, and the flavors were fabulous. The condiments — honey, quince paste and the delightful mustard-infused fruits called mostarda — cost an extra five dollars.

Yes, most of the food was stunning. But after sharing five tapas-size plates, three cheeses and a couple glasses of wine, I was still hungry. Not that I was surprised. My appetite and the tapas-size portions served at a wine bar are simply mismatched.

Poscol occupies the former location of Café Montrose, the little Belgian joint where we used to eat moules frites and drink potent Belgian beers in goofy-shaped glasses. It's not a very big space, and it's in a run-down shopping center dominated by an aging Laundromat.

"That ought to keep them humble," my dining companion quipped as we walked by the funky coin laundry on our way to dinner.

We were seated near the window on both of our visits, and while we were reasonably comfortable, the interior seemed to be modeled after those restaurants in New York and Paris where everybody is jammed together in too little space. The tables were noticeably smaller than typical Houston restaurant tables, and they were set closer together. There were seven bar stools in the back corner, but there wasn't enough room for people to stand around at the bar.

Which brings up the question: What are you looking for in a wine bar?

If exquisite food and stellar wine are your top priority and you're dining with a date, Poscol is an excellent choice. The atmosphere is perfect for intimate conversation. Some women seem to do fine with this sort of arrangement too. But you probably won't find me in an intimate conversation with one of my male friends here. Hetero guys don't appreciate being forced into guy date mode.

You can't really hang out at Poscol either. Like Dolce Vita, Marco's other restaurant, the service is too good. Part of the problem is the postage stamp-size tables. When our second course arrived, the waitress picked up the plate of baby octopus despite the fact that there were still several left.

"Somebody want these last pieces?" she asked cheerfully. I understand that she needed to set down the plate she was carrying, and there wasn't any room on the table, but it's kind of weird to be told that you have to finish eating immediately or forfeit your appetizer.

It reminded me of Marco's other enoteca, Dolce Vita. When you pick up a slice of pizza to take a bite, the busboy takes away the empty plate. You have to eat the whole slice because there's nowhere to put it down. Supposedly, the waitstaff is "getting things out of your way." But the fact is, they are trying to get as many wallet-padded butts as possible into a limited number of chairs each night.

The food isn't nearly as good at 13 Celsius or Max's Wine Dive, but these are better destinations if you are looking for a wine bar where you can mingle, relax with a glass of wine and hang out for a while.

On my second visit, I started with an assortment of olives and finished with an item from the al forno (from the oven) section of the menu called "tagliolini Harry's Bar." It's a dish of extra-thin strands of pasta tossed with chunks of grilled prosciutto and white sauce, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and baked in the oven.

Harry's Bar in Venice opened in the 1930s and was one of Hemingway's favorite hangouts. In the Harry's Bar Cookbook, the baked tagliolini is described as a lot of Italian ingredients in a French béchamel sauce. A similar béchamel is used in my favorite lasagna recipes — and that's exactly what Poscol's "tagliolini Harry's Bar" will remind you of. How very clever of Marco Wiles to sneak some filling faux lasagna onto Poscol's snacky tapas menu.

Keep the Harry's spaghetti in mind if you are worried about not getting enough to eat at Poscol. By the time I was done with that rich plate of baked pasta, I was so stuffed I didn't have room for cheese or dessert.

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