There’s an incredibly generous portion of meat on the duck magret at Black & White. The thick duck breast comes from the Moulard, a breed reared for foie gras. That’s a particularly well-fed type of poultry, so the resulting meat is dark and succulent. Even though the entrée was decidedly more rare than the requested medium rare, the dish was still quite enjoyable. Underneath was a fluffy mass of mashed potatoes that possessed every desirable quality — buttery, creamy, ever so slightly chunky and perfect for catching the juices emanating from the slices of duck meat. The sticks of celery and carrot alongside could have been a lot less al dente and were best ignored.
Black & White is the new restaurant that has finally occupied the long-empty spot that used to house Bedford and Stella Sola. Despite opening to almost no fanfare and apparently lost amid a burst of other notable Houston restaurant openings, Black & White is actually more than worth a visit. The name alludes to the two sides of the restaurant. White is the casual side, and Black is supposedly for fine dining.
The concept has been retooled somewhat since the place opened. Originally, each side was going to be treated as a separate restaurant, each with a dedicated menu. The White is a casual seafood spot, and the Black focuses on Mediterranean fare. Apparently, enough customers wanted to order from both menus, so now both are given to diners no matter where they’re sitting.
Unfortunately, there seems to be an assumption that diners know what’s going on. Servers don’t explain. “I don’t understand the concept of the two menus,” complained one dinner companion. There are, in fact a lot of crossovers (both essentially feature Spanish, French and Italian food with a dash of Mexican) and at this point, it makes no sense not to just unify them.
By far, the well-lit, joyful White side is much less dreary than the Black. The Black side is such a sparse setting that there doesn’t seem to be much that’s “fine dining” about it. It would need more interesting flooring than plain concrete, more comfortable, upholstered chairs and some kind of sumptuous decor, like ornate tapestries, to really have a luxurious feel. That said, the Black room is a lot less noisy and tables are not in uncomfortable proximity as they are in some parts of the White room.
As far as the food goes, Black & White is prone to moments of brilliance punctuated by bouts of incompetence. Ordering is like spinning a roulette wheel. The ball may land on a real loser, or on something awesome.
Take, for example, the huevos rotos, a tasty, satisfying and memorable combination that’s like a high-concept “breakfast for dinner.” Two sunny-side up eggs are laid over thinly sliced potatoes fried almost to the point of becoming potato chips. The outer edges are crispy, and the interiors are thick and soft. Laid around the edges of the bowl are thicker slices of a sultry, salty Spanish chorizo. When the egg yolks are broken and spread over the potato bed, the dish becomes a little slice of heaven.
On the other hand, we ordered the bouillabaisse twice and are convinced that no one in the kitchen knows how to make it. Both times the broth was inedibly salty, as if no one accounted for the fact that salt intensifies as the stock cooks down and loses volume. The first time, even the seafood was overcooked, with tough shrimp and mussels shrunken to the size of lima beans. The second time, the seafood arrived intact, but the broth was still as briny as could be.
Back on the side of the angels was the bone-in rib eye steak, an excellent piece of grass-fed, free-range Angus beef properly cooked to the requested medium rare. Some grass-fed beef is too lean to be tender, but that wasn’t the case here.
Alas, the potatoes au gratin the server recommended as a side had not been baked long enough. The cheesy surface was a pretty golden brown, but the underlying potato slices were still hard in places. The other side dish the server recommended, the ratatouille, was overwhelmed by an excess of dried herbs, to the point where the tiny bits of vegetables could hardly be tasted, much less appreciated.
Speaking of server recommendations: That got a little weird on our visit to the Black side. Our server appeared and recited a list of recommendations, but we already had zoned in on a few items. One was the promising-sounding cold brine quail, which is no longer available. We were also interested in the spaghetti porcini arrabbiata. The server tried to steer us away from it and reiterated her recommendation of a different pasta dish, the linguini con gambas. We insisted we really did want to try the arrabbiata. It was weird to be so intently dissuaded from ordering something on the menu.
Perhaps we should have listened, for the arrabbiata had none of the spicy, peppery kick it’s known for. The pasta was limp and the flavors were as tame and pallid as the funereal decor. If a dish is so underwhelming that servers feel the need to steer customers away, why keep it on the menu?
We did take our server’s recommendation for the tuna carpaccio marinated in ponzu and garnished with a light sprinkling of coarse salt. That was wise. The delicate slices were a little cold when they hit the table. After the dish had a chance to warm a bit, the citrusy notes of the ponzu suddenly came alive, which made the tuna beautifully vibrant.
The staff gets extra credit for being observant. More than once, we were asked how unfinished dishes were (specifically the bouillabaisse and a particularly horrid “tuna carnitas.” We decided the name translates to “dry fish nuggets with a side of tortillas and mangled avocado slices”). We answered honestly and, in one case, the offending item was deducted from the check.
Cocktails here are consistently good and very reasonable. The $9 house Manhattan cleverly uses Barolo wine as a Spanish stand-in for sweet red vermouth. The $10 Mediterranean gin and tonic is a competent mix of dry gin and Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic garnished with fragrant rosemary, lemon and a skewer of two green olives.
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There’s a worthy wine list, even if it is strangely dependent on Napa wines for a restaurant so influenced by French, Italian and Spanish sensibilities. A $45 bottle of a sturdy red, E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage from Rhone, was a fitting companion for the sultry duck magret.
Black & White obviously needs to finesse its concept and technique, but there’s a good foundation to build on. It’s good to see that maybe, after all these years, the building that stood empty for so long might just end up with an enduring tenant.
Black & White
1001 Studewood, 346-980-8484. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Huevos rotos $12
Tuna carnitas $12
Spaghetti porcini arrabbiata $12
Tuna carpaccio $13
Duck magret $28
Bone-in rib eye $45
Barolo Manhattan $9
Mediterranean gin and tonic $10