Holiday Food and Drink

HRW: Dinner at Laurenzo's

A discounted three-course meal should hardly be the only reason to go to Laurenzo's, arguably one of the best places in town for a meal of prime rib and margaritas and one of the few establishments in Houston to offer terrific old-school veal parmesan.  If, however, consumption for charity is your thang and you're overwhelmed by the number of restaurants participating in this year's month-long HRW, make life easy for yourself and head to Laurenzo's, whose HRW menu is diverse and prepared with elegance but sans pretension.

At a tasting dinner earlier this month, the Houston Press was given the opportunity to sample the primary, secondary and tertiary HRW dinner courses. This experience sufficiently convinced me that going to Laurenzo's during restaurant weeks with as many people as possible is ideal in order to maximize your chances that everything on the menu will be ordered by at least one member of your party, thus ensuring you get to try as many items as possible.

For the first course, diners have a choice of light and heavy dishes from the garden, farm and sea. My wedge salad with chives, red onions and tomatoes was dressed with just the right amount of blue cheese dressing as to remain refreshing yet flavorful.  Laurenzo's crowns the cross section of lettuce with a single strip of bacon, rather than bacon bits, which can be easily removed (or dipped in dressing and eaten with one's hand).  It's a thoughtful choice for customers who do not eat pork and wish to easily modify the salad. Even just one piece off my partner's plate of coconut shrimp engendered some order envy, for the large prawns had taken on a wonderful sweet, briny flavor thanks to the batter that was well-complemented with piquant citrus notes from a side of orange marmalade. Those looking for even more substantial protein should go for the chili con carne, loaded with enough beans, onions, cheese and beef, which may not sound like exactly what you want to eat in August in Houston but in reality works well in Laurenzo's cool dining room.

The winner of the second course category, though not by a wide margin, was the country-fried pork chops.  Porcine flesh tends to seize up and stiffen in the frying process if it isn't properly marinated or seasoned prior to the breading stage; Laurenzo's clearly has perfected its recipe such that the meat is juicy and amazingly tender. Insider tip: Additional moisture can be had by ladling some of the accompanying mashed potatoes with sausage gravy actually onto the chops. To be sure that the pork chops were really (slightly) superior to the lasagna, I ate almost a full serving of the latter, certainly not an onerous task.  The lasagna at Laurenzo's is a thick square of strata of homemade pasta, rich meat sauce, sausage, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. While other restaurants would finalize this type of dish with additional shreds of mozzarella, Laurenzo's melts an entire slice of provolone on top such that a decadent blanket of dairy and fat envelops the entire thing.

Confession: This reporter is not, like, particularly in love with the flavor of amaretto and therefore is inherently biased against Italian cream cake, one of Laurenzo's options for dessert on the HRW dinner menu. But considering the preparation and execution of the other choices, it's very likely that more objective connoisseurs of cream cake would approve of Laurenzo's version. The apple walnut cobbler is buttery, crumbly and well-balanced by a topping of vanilla ice cream and salty toffee sauce. More supple in texture but just as sweet was the white chocolate bread pudding, an amazing dessert that reminds us all, "When life gives you stale bread, for God's sake, make bread pudding, not croutons."

That's what my Italian grandmother always said. She, BTW, probably would have preferred the lasagna over the pork chops. Get to Laurenzo's and judge for yourself.

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Joanna O'Leary