"I could come here just for this," I thought to myself as I sampled the unbelievably tasty ostiones asados, or wood grilled oysters, topped with chipotle butter at Caracol. The first of several dishes I tried during my first visit to Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught's new coastal Mexican seafood restaurant in the BBVA Compass builiding on Post Oak Boulevard, it is without a doubt their signature dish, the one you have to order every time you go.
Not only were they mouthwatering to look at, but the taste and textures were incredible: Each slurp of silky-smooth, molten, hot oyster tasted of mild oceanic salinity that ended with a great crispy, buttery, spicy finish. Parmesan-grilled oysters can be commonly found throughout Latin America -- from Mexico to Peru and Chile -- but Caracol's non-cheesy version is simply outstanding. I polished off six oysters by myself (and could have easily scarfed down a few more).
The food is just one of the reasons that makes Caracol one of my new favorite restaurants to open in Houston this past year. The design of the restaurant is open and airy, with high ceilings, clean, modern lines and a color palette of creams and pale powder blues that evoke a coastal resort feeling. Wall art is understated, depicting sea creatures from fish to the vibrant red squid that dominates the eastern wall. You could easily transpose this restaurant onto a beachside in Mexico and it would fit right in. The lighting is attractive without being too bright or dim, and the noise level is controlled so that you can easily converse with someone sitting across the table. The service staff, wearing ruffled, simple peasant Mexican shirts, are attentive, enthusiastic and friendly.
But back to the food. The menus are arranged so that the small, appetizer-sized plates occupy the two outer columns, with the larger, more substantial entrees in the middle. During my first visit, I didn't make it past the small plates, sampling items like a brilliantly conceived carnitas-style tuna taco, wherein chunks of tuna were prepared to mimic pork carnitas. The meaty flesh of the tuna had a crisp outer sear, and intermingled with bright slivers of red onion and a sriracha-like spicy hot sauce to make one helluva gourmet-tasting fish taco.
A shrimp aguachile looked like a work of art, served on a small plate over rounds of paper-thin cucumber that had been arranged in an overlapping pattern to form the base of the dish. Although there were deep rust-colored dots of a smoky spicy sauce, I wished there had a been a more pronounced acidity, like you'd find in ceviche. Nonetheless, I couldn't quibble with the authenticity of the preparation, because it tasted just like aguachile dishes I'd tried in Mexico.
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A warm octopus salad, in which the octopus had been braised until tender before being finished on the grill, was another standount. Served with a mix of chunky roasted root vegetables, the dish was as vibrant in color as it was smoky and complex.
On a subsequent visit, I came in a group of four, again opting to forego the entrees in favor of ordering several small plates to share. We ended up with what was, in effect, a ten-course tasting by the night's end.
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We started with the aforementioned favorites, along with a plate of fall-off-the bone costillas, or pork ribs; a snapper sashimi appetizer (the least memorable of the night); a fantastic mixed seafood campechana; a delectable chilpachole de jaiba, or softshell crab soup; and the signature ceviche de caracol, or conch ceviche, the sea snail after which the restaurant was named.
Sliced up into thin long rectangle slivers, the conch is placed on the plate in five small mounds, steeped in a marinade of pineapple, red pepper, and ginger. The spice hits you at the onset but disappears immediately, and what you're left with is a kind of spicy sweet and sour taste as you absorb the wonderful textures of the conch itself. Imagine the quick bite of a fresh squid sashimi, the slight elasticity of a clam, and the meaty chewiness of abalone all at the same time -- that is what you experience when you chew on the conch.
On the libation front, Sean Beck -- who oversees the beverage programs at Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, and now Caracol -- has done a superb job creating a wine and cocktail program that effortlessly marries with the food at Caracol. For the ceviches and lighter dishes, he has by-the-glass options and full bottle choices that were chosen to enhance the food experience. This is what happened when he suggested a Jankara Vermentino Italian white from a small producer in Italy. Crisp and dry, with a fruity-floral nose and a light, easy finish, the wine paired well with all of our ceviche and light fish dishes. When our blue crab soup came out, he suggested a slightly effervescent Riesling that was so perfect it had my girlfriend proclaiming, just as I did when I'd tasted the oysters: "I could just come here and have this soup and this wine, and I'd be happy."
It was a mantra that I could apply to the desserts as well. There's a strawberry rhubarb empanada served with a pale pink rose petal ice cream, a modern version of strawberry pie à la mode that is delightful. But the pièce de résistance is this genius creation by pastry chef Ruben Ortega called "El Coco." Yes, I could visit Caracol just for that. A large, six-inch chocolate sphere arrives at the table, complete with a small wooden hammer. When you hammer it open, it breaks apart to reveal layers of meringue, cream, and textured crumble that perfectly captures the taste of a fresh coconut.