Just barely two weeks old, Radio Milano, the new new Italian concept taking over the spot that used to house Bistro Alex in the Hotel Sorella at CityCentre, is giving established Italian restaurants in Houston a run for their money.
A lot of it has to do with the restaurant's executive chef, Jose Hernandez. A pastry chef by training, Hernandez is known among foodie circles for his incredible pastries. Cutting his teeth in Mexico City under Viennese master Olivier Lombard at the Hotel Presidente Intercontinental in Mexico City, he moved to New York, where he got his first job under Philippe Schmit. When Schmit moved to Houston to open Bistro Moderne at the Hotel Derek, Hernandez moved with him as pastry chef. His career took him back to Manhattan to work at the one-star Michelin Fiamma under Fabio Trabochhi and the iconic Four Seasons Restaurant, before returning to Houston to head the pastry program of Philippe Restaurant + Lounge.
Leaving Philippe, Hernandez began transitioning to savory as chef de cuisine of the opening team at Triniti (read our chef chat with him Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), before opening a modest, yet well-received bistro named La Balance Cuisine in Katy.
Radio Milano feels like the right place for Hernandez. The sleek, contemporary Italian restaurant, the second by San-Antonio-based special events and catering company The RK Group, which also opened Number 13 in Galveston, also feels right for Hotel Sorella.
The menu, which Hernandez has been working on for several months, is a well-edited one pager with five sections: Aperitivo, Antipasto, Pizza, Primo, Secondo. It also reads extremely well, the descriptions succinct yet tantalizing. I wanted to order almost the entire Aperitivo section. Oh, and there was a wood-burning pizza that looked good, and a pasta I absolutely had to have -- and all this before the main course.
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For starters, we tried the cremini mushroom cappuccino, which came with a lattee foam and crostini biscotti. Served in a white porcelain soup cup, it was creamy without being overly thick, the foam giving a what would have been a staid cream of mushroom a bit of pizzazz. The biscotti, made in-house (as are all the breads and pastries), was excellent.
Also arriving in quick succession was the crab ravioli covered with a thin sheet of deep red huckleberry gelee pasta; the house made burrata with local heirloom tomatoes and pesto; the beet ribbons with goat cheese, arugula and walnuts; and the tuna crudo with avocado, horseradish and ginger.
Cutting up chunks of the single large crab ravioli with a fork, the dish was easy to share, and easily our favorite of the starters. Not only was the presentation and the dish unique to Radio Milano, but it tasted heavenly with intense crab flavors in a creamy base complemented by the slightly tart huckleberry gelee. The beet ribbons were also unique and fun to eat, a good vegetarian dish made of raw beet spiral cut into a bed of noodles well-punctuated with creamy True luck goat cheese and walnuts.
Also very good was the tuna crudo, served with four upright thin crostini on a smear of avocado, the ginger and horseradish gave the dish a bit of Asian flair that was very pleasing. The house-made burrata was the only dish needing improvement that night. It needed to be creamier, coming out firm and more like a mozzarella than a burrata. With small tweaks it will no doubt be a fine dish, because the heirloom cherry tomatoes confit were delightful, soft and gushing with nicely rounded acidity.
The namesake "milano" pizza with freshly made truffle cream (not truffle oil) was so, so right. We had to stop ourselves from eating too much of it, because the combination of truffle cream with san daniele prosciutto and aged balsamic just begged to be eaten right away. "I would come back here just for this pizza," one of my companions said, refusing to let our server clear it from the table so that he could come back to it later.
For pasta, my hand-made tagliatelle with uni cream and lobster was a thing of beauty. Served in a bowl with a whole lobster tail, though its creaminess approached that of an alfredo, the umami savoriness imparted by the uni combined with the plump, perfectly cooked lobster meat was almost my undoing. An italian white lasagna, or vincigrassi, served in a a small rounded cake with layers of veal ragout in a parmesan cream, was also delicious and a small work of art.
By the time our mains arrived, which included a scallop dish with carrots and buttermilk gelee and brown butter power, as well as a Blackhill Ranch pork trio -- both well executed and good dishes in and of themselves -- we were already beyond full, but that's a good thing.
It's not often that a menu makes you want to order like you've been starving for months, but Hernandez's menu does exactly that. Do yourself a favor, and come hungry the first time you visit, preferably with friends so you can order plenty of things to share. I haven't even touched on dessert, a definite highlight at Radio Milano that is not to be missed. If you're a peanut butter lover, get the Valrhona dulcey mousse and thank me later.
Oh, and one last tip. Parking in the CityCentre area is a literal nightmare on Saturday nights, so do the easy thing and just valet at the hotel. Though there wasn't a sign on the night we were there, valet is complimentary when you dine at Radio Milano -- just let them know when you arrive, and they will take care of you.
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