"Everyone has been very receptive," says Ashkinaze diplomatically. That's probably because there aren't a lot of other places to eat over there, I speculate. "Yeah, probably so," he laughs.
Born and raised in New York, Ashkinaze is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He also has trained in France and served as the chef at Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria.
So what's a Bronx-born Russian-American with classical French training doing cooking Italian food in Houston?
"My grandmother was born in Bensonhurst" -- an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn -- "which is technically part of Italy," quips Ashkinaze. "It's on the boot right above Sicily. And my wife is from Calabria, so be careful what you say -- you know those Calabreses."
"So how is the Sicilian-American style of Italian food we have in Houston different from what you were used to in New York?" I ask.
"Not at all," he says. While there's all kinds of Italian food in New York, Ashkinaze says, he's most familiar with the Southern Italian style that's popular on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx near where he grew up. The immigrant culture here came from the south of Italy and the food is very much tomato-based. It's simple Calabrian and Sicilian food, not Northern Italian style like you find in Piedmonte or Tuscany.
"I've had some good pizzas here. Romano's Pizza [1528 West Gray] does a great job, and I love New York Pizzeria," he says. He says the location in Meyerland reminded him of a cafe in Little Italy. But aside from the pizza, he really hasn't had a chance to eat out very often.
The top-selling dish at Trevísio right now is sea scallops with tomato compote, warm asparagus and Parmesan vinaigrette, he says. And although that's not particularly Italian, it's in keeping with the kind of food Ashkinaze wants to be known for. "We're a modern Italian restaurant, not a traditional Italian restaurant. We want to present food in a modern Mediterranean style."
"It sounds healthy. Do you feel any pressure to stick with healthy stuff over there in the Medical Center?" I ask.
"Well, I'm not sure that's so healthy," he says. "But basically we try to have something for everybody. We have filet mignon with potato-corn cake and wilted spinach for the meat-and-potato people. And we have a bone-in New York strip cured in a coffee brine for those who are a little more adventurous. And then we usually have something you've never heard of. Like when we opened we had hapuka fish from Hawaii. But there's salmon, too, if that's what you want. I want to make everybody comfortable by covering the basics. And then I want to offer some adventurous stuff for people who like to experiment."
And what are his other impressions of his first three months in Houston?
"Man, it gets hot down here," he says. Otherwise, he loves the place. "It's such a friendly city, and it's so clean. Such a change from the daily grind in New York. My only problems so far are my allergies."
Anybody know an allergist who will work for food?