Restaurant Reviews

Mix Master

Considering that Pignetti's is still in diapers -- it opened in early July -- this is a place remarkable for its poise. But once in a while, it reveals its inexperience. When three of us lunched there recently, the restaurant was relatively quiet, and the people in the open kitchen, feeling a false sense of security, were shooting the breeze. Big mistake, this, because, not ten minutes later, they were taken short when, without warning, the place filled to overflowing. Vesuvius had popped and, for a moment, those kitchen hands looked as stricken as the denizens of Pompeii.

They recovered fairly quickly, but not before the appetizers we ordered were not the ones brought to the table -- which caused the waiters to do a lot of huddling -- and I was given crostini that had been nowhere near a grill. "Maybe they're supposed to be like that," said one of my friends, and I did consider the possibility, because Richard Pignetti, who owns this place and heads the kitchen, can, when he puts his mind to it, be quirky. But no, it turned out, this was not Mr. Pignetti's antic spirit at work. It was simply the result of an oversight.

I admire Richard Pignetti. A man who taught himself to cook and who, most recently, was the corporate chef at Corelli's, he's someone who has paid his dues, having toiled in kitchens for some 17 years. I also admire his belief that people who eat his food are entitled to see it being prepared -- which is not your license, you should understand, to wander into the kitchen and get in his way. Besides, kitchens are no place for a civilian. What with boiling oil and sharp knives and equipment capable of shearing off a hand, they're extremely dangerous.

I have only one major dissatisfaction with Pignetti's. It's far too noisy. Such are the acoustics here that a conversation taking place 20 feet away was perfectly audible, but when one of my friends spoke -- though seated just across the table -- I had to strain to hear her. To converse at all, we were forced to shout, but all this did was add to the din. In the end, we tired of bellowing and finished the meal in near silence, looking up occasionally to grin at one another. It made for a perfect existential metaphor, though: Here we were, the three of us, surrounded by people, and feeling totally isolated.

At any other place, a situation like that might have been hellish, but Pignetti's offers much in the way of compensation, most notably a pleasant, if sometimes perplexed, wait staff, and a menu that is clever and nicely executed. If I felt any resentment at all eating Mr. Pignetti's creations, it had to do with his modesty. This Falstaffian man has hidden his talent much too long. He should have opened this restaurant years ago.

The dining room, with its bright red brick peeping through mustard-colored walls, is attractive, and there's a bar specializing in martinis. Several were unfamiliar to me. The Greek martini comes with an olive filled with feta cheese, while the olive in the sushi version is stuffed with tuna. Not being a martini drinker, I didn't sample either. But I do appreciate the humor. Mr. Pignetti clearly has a sense of whimsy. What a pity, then, that it wouldn't have extended to the restaurant's exterior. I have no quarrel with the mansard roof cloaked in terra-cotta tile or the wainscoting fashioned from native Texas stone, but the other elements -- most notably the truncated pillars flanking the main entrance -- are less successful. It's hard to know what to make of those pillars. They may draw their inspiration from Pharaonic Egypt. Or then again, they may not.

We know what the menu draws on: the culinary traditions of Europe, Asia and the American Southwest. All too often, mergers like this are apt to seem contrived, but because Mr. Pignetti has a light touch, his combinations don't seem forced at all. We enjoyed all the appetizers we sampled, but easily the best was the Gulf shrimp and fire-roasted corn chowder ($4.95). Rich and emphatic and tasting of cilantro and tequila, it was so good, I would happily have bathed in it. The crab cakes ($7.95), though less spectacular, were hugely enjoyable, too. Many crab cakes are dense and stodgy. Not these. And the accompanying lime-avocado cream was nothing short of superb.

The smoked salmon napoleon ($6.50), while more straightforward, looked spectacular. Both the house-cured salmon and the decorative swirl of salmon-flavored cream cheese are served on unleavened crackers, each bigger than a saucer. The crostini ($6.95), once the bread had been grilled, proved just as delectable: smoked chicken, onions and fire-roasted peppers given added heft by a healthy dollop of pesto. (Most of these appetizers, by the way, are served on brightly colored plates shaped like Dorito chips.)

If I have a complaint with the appetizers, it's that they tend to be large. Mr. Pignetti is to be commended for his generosity, but there were moments when I couldn't help thinking that this worthy man was drumming up business for the liposuction industry.

For the most part, we were pleased with our entrees as well. The airline chicken breast ($14.95) -- called such because part of the wing is present -- is served on a bed of orzo so delicious it tastes like a good risotto. But best of all was the exquisite lime-chipotle cream. Eating it, I thought I was kissing God. The pork chops ($18.95) didn't disappoint, either. A variation on what the French call pork Orloff, these chops were great, sturdy things. Dredged in seasoned flour and pan-fried, they come with two cabbages sauteed in apple-cider vinegar.

The only entree not to produce a storm of acclaim was the etouffee of shrimp and andouille sausage. Served, the menu says, with creole vegetables, scallion linguine and roasted-garlic cream, it certainly stirred our interest. But while the flavors in the other dishes had been well delineated, this one tasted a little muddy. Perhaps Mr. Pignetti might consider retooling it. For the moment, it seems slightly out of focus.

Pignetti's, 414 West Gray, 522-8488.

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Eric Lawlor