Open kitchen in the background, scurrying waiters darting around him, Domenic Laurenzo stood in the middle of his new place, Laurenzo's Grille, 4412 Washington Avenue, trying to make clear what they are and aren't and what they want to be.
First, even though the Rockets game is playing on all the flat-screen TVs and even though pro sports shirts hang on the walls, Laurenzo's is not a sports bar. That's the message Laurenzo and his publicists have been trying to get out, because the crowd they're looking for is something else. The sports shirts are for sale; the proceeds go to charity. There isn't a darts board or a pool table in sight. They're promoting their margaritas, not their beer.
And despite its location, Laurenzo's Grille should be a destination place, not a quick bite place before patrons hit the bars and clubs for which Washington Avenue is renowned, he said.
We were there for a media tasting on a weekday night, which means we have no way of knowing if parking is always this readily accessible (Laurenzo's has its own lot with an option for valet parking) or service always this great or the noise level this non-aggravating.
Domenic is the first of 18 grandchildren of the late great Ninfa Laurenzo (who opened the first Ninfa's in 1973 on Navigation), and his menu shows some of her influences, but really steers away from heavy-on-the-Tex-Mex. Instead there is a blend of American, Italian and Tex-Mex with an emphasis on the prime rib (prices range from $18 to $26 depending on the size), which is smart, because it is excellent.
"Prime rib is my favorite piece of meat when it's done correctly," Laurenzo told us. They've making their own au jus to go with it as well as their own horseradish sauce.
There were burgers, steaks, baby back ribs, seafood and salads to be had, but we opted for the excellent French Dip ($14), which came with the same homemade condiments. The slices of tender beef were piled high, and the sandwich bread was that optimum mixture of crunchy outside, moist interior. The fries that came with it were spicy and good.
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A bit less successful was the chicken breast taco (chicken with pechuga sauce in a flour tortilla, $12.50). Reminiscent of the pechugas de pollo that have been offered at Ninfa's for years, it suffered from being already cut up and rolled. The sauce soaked through the bottom of the tortilla (at Ninfa's it is more of a build-your-own at the table adventure) so you couldn't really pick it up. We ended up cutting it up into pieces and eating it with a fork. Full marks for taste, but don't think the pre-assembly works.
The taco was accompanied by white poblano cheese rice (rice with poblano pepper, white pepper, queso fresco) which looked great and should appeal to diners looking for a slightly spicier version of rice with their meals.
The appetizers ranged from very good to middle-of-the-road. The smoked salmon on dry toast ($11) was very good; but the calamari frita with marinara sauce ($12) and the white queso with beef ($9) weren't particularly distinctive. Our advice: Leave plenty of room for the entrée and the dessert, because that's where you'll get your money's worth and where Laurenzo's shines.
By concentrating on just two desserts, the restaurant is making sure it's doing them right. The key lime pie ($7) was properly tart and not too heavy. The winner, though, if you like chocolate and Kahlua, was the chocolate bread pudding with a Kahlua chocolate sauce and vanilla gelato ($7), which was excellent enough to have us completely ignore counting calories for the night.