This week, we chatted with Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio, the executive chef and partner at Hawthorn in Upper Kirby, a restaurant that is literally a hidden gem because its physical location is hidden behind the Cafe Express on Kirby at West Main.
The restaurant itself is intimate and beautifully appointed, with rich brocade wallpaper, dark wood accents, and tufted cream-colored barstools and a polished bar evoking a 1920s-ish Great Gatsby elegance. Come here for a great cocktail or glass of wine, or bring a date here for an exquisite meal prepped and prepared by Palazzo-Giorgio himself.
Unlike larger restaurants where the chef might not work the line, the kitchen is so small that Palazzo-Giorgio is involved in all aspects of food preparation, right down to shopping for the ingredients he uses every night. Dishes are elegant without being too complicated, and where possible, he makes everything from scratch.
For our tasting, we started with a compressed melon and bay scallop salad, gorgeously plated to showcase the vibrant oranges, reds and greens of the cataloupe, honeydew and watermelon that he'd compressed with lime and serrano pepper. Each bite of the melon produced a burst of spicy juice, while the sauce, made of cantaloupe puree, with some orange, lemon and serrano pepper, provided a good seasoning for the bay scallop crudo. Less tangy than a ceviche, the combination of flavors was perfection.
I would have loved to sample his eggplant parmigiana again, so vivid was my memory of how delicious it was, but it is not on the menu at the moment (I'm hoping for its return), so I requested another dish that I'd sampled before, just to see if it lived up to the memory. Palazzo-Giorgio's crab cake, which is literally all jumbo lump crab with just a dusting of panko bread crumbs on top to give it a crispy crust, has got to be one of the best in the city. Served atop a creamy wine butter, smoked tomato and chipotle sauce, it is, quite simply, knock-your-socks-off fantastic. If you're a crab-cake lover, I would encourage you to come here and order it as your entrée -- it's that good.
Palazzo-Giorgio makes all his pastas in-house, prepping the pastas himself every morning. That means that dishes like his gnocchi with gorgonzola cream, tiny pillow pockets of chewy potato, taste like your Italian mother's gnocchi. His pasta platings are simple, without any frills, but they don't need any. His pastas shine from getting plenty of TLC, and a dish like his simply presented cavatelli, served with meatball-like hunks of house-made sausage and rapini, is just a joy to eat.
You won't want to skip dessert at Hawthorn, either. Though his rosemary panna cotta is notable for its fragrance and texture, Palazzo-Giorgio's tarts, which have the benefit of a handmade crust, are utterly delicious. I don't normally care for coconut, but could not stop eating his delectable butter-crusted coconut milk custard dulce de leche tart, which he'd topped with fresh whipped cream and shaved toasted coconut. He says his banana bread is to die for as well, and I believe it.