When the team of Sharif Al-Amin, managing partner Tim Faiola, sommelier Evan Turner and chef William Wright opened Helen Greek Food & Wine, it brought food to Houston that diners probably didn’t even realize they wanted and needed: seasonal Greek cuisine and one of the largest collections of Greek wine in the United States. Now, Al-Amin, Faiola and Wright are hoping that lightning will strike twice. Arthur Ave, in The Heights at 1111 Studewood (in the former Piatto Ristorante space), seeks to re-create the experience of dining at authentic Italian-American restaurants in New York City.
If that means “in the dark,” Arthur Ave has certainly succeeded. (Actually, Turner mentioned to me a few months ago that restaurants in New York are much darker than in Houston — but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.) Foodies, put away your cell phones and go to Arthur Ave prepared simply to enjoy your food and actually talk to your companions. (The horror. This is another good reason to make sure to pick people to dine with whom you actually like.)
All teasing aside, Arthur Ave, with its brown brick walls (evocative, of course, of New York brownstone) and dark wood trim, is in fact quite handsome, the work of interior designer Erin Hicks, who also helped design Helen. Despite being housed in a 3,300-square-foot space, Arthur Ave’s main dining room still seems rather small and cozy, not unlike Helen.
Every once in a great while, a restaurant serves a dish that perfectly captures the heart and soul of what drove someone to want to open it in the first place. At Arthur Avenue, that dish is undeniably the Sunday gravy. Now, Sunday gravy is not gravy at all — at least, not in the way non-Italians think of it. It's a wealth of meats braised in hearty red sauce until tender — short ribs, Italian sausage, meatballs and beef braciole. That infuses meaty juices into the sauce in a way that dropping in a few meatballs after cooking could never do. Imagine jus-infused pasta sauce, and that's a decent approximation.
In New York-Italian families, Sunday gravy is not just food — it is a revered family tradition (one that has somewhat faded as kids grow up, get jobs, move away and get either too health-conscious or too busy to keep up the tradition). There's something about a long-simmering meat sauce that simply makes a person feel cared about — and that is how Arthur Ave’s Sunday gravy is. It costs $32 but there’s a huge platter of it, and a table of three or four should have no problem sharing with a few other dishes alongside. It comes with an entire platter of pasta properly sauced. Not only that, but Arthur Ave really, truly understands how to make pasta al dente, or just slightly firm. It's rather amazing how good dry pasta can be when properly cooked. Best of all, it’s available every day, not just on Sundays.
That was far and away the bright spot at Arthur Ave. Other dishes showed potential but displayed minor flaws emblematic of a restaurant still getting its sea legs.
Scarola, or escarole, greens are fairly bitter. Some light charring can bring out natural sugars, but ours had gone too far, adding a second dimension of acrid bitterness. Otherwise, the scarola salad has potential for glory, bolstered with a spread of sweet Gorgonzola below, a dressing of walnut pancetta vinaigrette above and accented with firm green peas all around.
Similarly, fritto misto, or “mixed fry” of hen of the woods mushrooms and very thin, young asparagus, has the potential to be eminently noshable, if the batter coating didn’t taste ever so slightly burned. Still, the dish led to the revelation that the blissful chewiness of those big, battered mushrooms meant they could easily translate as “vegan sweetbreads.” As for the garlicky, lemony aioli alongside: That’s worth making up excuses to smear it on every single savory food on the table.
There’s a small but interesting and appropriate cocktail menu developed by former Prohibition beverage director Lainey Collum. The execution, though, needs work. The Carbonari, with bonded bourbon and Cappelletti Vino Aperitivo, has Pedro Ximenez sherry and crème de cacao included. The excessive sweetness of the cocktail indicated that perhaps those last two ingredients had not been carefully measured.
So, the official recommendation is give Arthur Ave two weeks to settle in, then by all means go. Oh, unless you’re getting the Sunday gravy, in which case, visit right now. Immediately. Scoot.