Old-School Service and Italian Classics at La Griglia

Ah ... fall. What a great time of year. Time for Houston weather to (finally) cool down, for appetites to perk up, and for chefs across the city to introduce new dishes. If anything, it's definitely a good excuse to dine out and get to know places you've never tried before. I found myself doing just that when I heard that executive chef Luis Rubio had introduced new items on the menu at La Griglia.

A River Oaks institution for many years, La Griglia is at once a neighborhood Italian restaurant as well as a restaurant for Houston's elite. Regulars will wax poetic about how deliciously consistent the food is, which can be traced back to Rubio himself, who worked as a cook at the restaurant in the 1990s and returned as executive chef in 2000. That's thirteen years at the helm of La Griglia, and it shows.

Take his pappardelle alla ragu, for instance. A regular menu item, the fact that my friend called it her dad's go-to dish made it a no-brainer: I had to have it. House-made strands of fat pappardelle pasta were topped with a sauce that displayed a great depth of flavor; the beef, veal and pork braised in the sauce for so long that the shreds of meat making up the meat sauce were almost as fine as the meat in a rillette. Topped with small blobs of fresh mozzarella cheese, the dish was so good that I had to force myself to slow down while eating it. I wanted the experience to last as long as it could. It was by far my favorite dish of the night, though there were nice surprises throughout the dinner as well.

Service was attentive without being intrusive, the servers offering a gallant, old-school style of service that made me feel totally taken care of: my chair was pulled out, my napkin placed on my lap, my water poured and drinks served before we were asked to order.

We wanted to try some of the new dishes, so for our primi, or appetizers, we sampled the roasted-tomato ravioli and the roasted quail. Stuffed with eggplant, sundried tomato and goat cheese, the ravioli were very good, but it was the quail that made the lasting impression. Wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, the plum glaze-roasted quail served with sweet peppers on a four-cheese polenta had a gooey yet crisp, caramelized skin with flavors reminiscent of Chinese barbecue - a joy to savor.

A caprese salad of bufala mozzarella, tomato and basil seemed simple enough, until you bit into one of the small pink spheres sitting on top of the salad and felt them burst with a small gush of dressing - delightful and unexpected.

I've had a thing for whole fish lately, so we ordered the hearth-roasted whole fish, made with a blend of garlic, parsely, lemon, thyme and white wine. It arrived intact at the table so that we could see what it looked like, but then was whisked away by the servers, who made quick work of dismantling the fish. We were each served a full filet with all the bones removed.

A hefty plate of mouthwatering veal osso bucco rounded out the evening's entrees. It was large, and glistened in its juices, and a large bone, full of marrow, protruded from the shank. We were full at this point, but the fall-off-the-bone-tender veal merited several spoonfuls, and I couldn't pass up a chance to scoop the fatty rich essence of the marrow from that bone.

The staff at La Griglia will tempt you with dessert by bringing out a tray laden with several options, from carrot cake to chocolate cake and crème brûlée. Knowing that, we told the server to hold the dessert service lest we were tempted to eat even more. But then we received a surprise from the chef: Freshly whipped zabaglione mixed with berries. A cross between a pudding and a mousse, it was my first time tasting a freshly made version of this Italian classic, but it certainly won't be the last. Old-school Italian at La Griglia is the kind you crave and come back to often, a reason why it's been a River Oaks institution since 1991, and a reason why I will definitely return.

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