Restaurant Reviews

Semper Fidelis

How do I know if I've enjoyed a restaurant? Very often, my notes tell the story. Here's a breakdown.

Clean notes: awful.
Sloppy punctuation: so-so.
A careless scrawl: moderately good.
A careless scrawl in combination with food stains: worth a second visit.

I must have had an awfully good time at Pasquale's Italian Bar and Grille, because my notes, when I got them home, were barely legible. Butter smudges obscured whole sentences; wine rings obliterated whole words. Crucial words. The problems that caused! I still don't known if the manicotti was "spinach" or "Spanish."

At Pasquale's, the food -- classic Italian -- is first-rate. Which is why it's showcased the way it is. Decor, food and service are a restaurant's major elements, and Pasquale's is no exception. But while the decor here is pleasant, and the service professional, the real star -- the one with its name up in lights -- is the kitchen. Unlike many restaurants, Pasquale's knows its limits and steers clear of innovation. (At Pasquale's, "cutting edge" is a well-honed chef's knife.) But within the modest goals it has set itself, it succeeds splendidly.

In the restaurants I've worked in, waiters have tended to resent it when kitchens get all the attention. That's not the case at Pasquale's. Our waiter stood transfixed when my companion attacked her cheese-filled manicotti napped with a cream/tomato sauce ($10.95). Grunts escaped her and beads of sweat formed on her upper lip, making me worry about the impression she was making. But I needn't have cared. The waiter had tasted this manicotti and knew the effect it had on people. When she polished off the last morsel, he nodded approvingly. "Delicious, isn't it?" he said.

But a moment later, he was the picture of distress. We couldn't have the mussels in white-wine sauce ($7.50) we'd ordered because the supplier had run into difficulties, and the mussels had still to arrive. To see him, you'd have thought that Les Alexander had just sold the Rockets. And then his demeanor changed again. "Look," he said, gesturing toward the window. "It's here, it's here." (This is how Columbus must have sounded when Hispaniola hove into view.) "It" was the supplier's van. The mussels had made it through. "You knew, didn't you?" he said, crediting me with a prescience I don't possess. "You knew all the time."

The mussels, it turned out, were quite delicious: not just perfectly fresh, but perfectly cooked as well. I love the way cooked mussels look: the heliotrope shells slightly agape, and inside -- to see it, it's necessary to peer -- the mussel itself, pert and salmon-colored. The white-wine sauce struck me as overly tart at first. But the more of it I ate, the better it got. It was concentrating right there on the plate. Perfect for mopping, it turned out.

The bruschetta ($6.50) was equally distinguished. Basically, bruschetta is garlic bread -- but garlic bread of an especially ravishing kind. The word derives from bruscare, meaning to roast over coals, which is how the bread would once have been toasted. The bruschetta at Pasquale's is layered with tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and the all-important olive oil. The result, somehow, is wonderfully cleansing. Bruschetta brightens the palate better than any sorbet I know.

Spaghetti alla carbonara ($9.95) -- spaghetti with diced pancetta, eggs and Romano cheese -- is rich beyond belief and should only be eaten in a hospital emergency room or, failing that, in the presence of a medical practitioner. My doctor being unavailable, I consoled myself that Pasquale's is a stone's throw from M.D. Anderson. Not that it mattered very much. When spaghetti alla carbonara is as good as this, a man doesn't hesitate to put his life on the line.

The salmon piccata ($14.95) is served with angel-hair pasta and a lemon-butter sauce dotted with small clusters of capers. I love capers and am at a loss to understand the antipathy they inspire. Is it that they sometimes seem too forthright? But this surely is a reason to cherish them. A caper is honest to a fault -- a quality nowadays that's all too rare.

Peperoni alla griglia ($6.50) -- grilled red peppers dressed with pesto, anchovies and slivers of garlic -- came to the table spread-eagled like those people you see on Cops sometimes. They looked like thick slices of smoked salmon and tasted no less delicious. The grilled quail ($14.95) also arrived spread-eagled. There were two of them and, splayed like that, they looked horribly forlorn. "I can't bring myself to eat them," I said. It was, I thought, one of my finer moments. But my companion refused to be impressed. "Not eating them isn't going to help them very much," she said. "From the look of them, I'd say they were very, very dead." She was right, of course. It was a little late to stand on principle. So I tucked in. And boy, am I glad I did! Delicious, they were: the skin crisp and nicely seasoned; the soft, white flesh running with juice.

Pasquale himself was on the premises the first time we visited. He was looking somewhat flustered. Who knows? Perhaps he'd just had it out with the mussel man. But he did pause long enough to tell us that the restaurant has settled nicely into its new home -- until recently, it occupied premises on University Boulevard -- and that most of his customers at the old location were now customers at the new one. People were loyal, Pasquale was telling us. Though I suspect that an element of self-interest may also have been involved. When food is as good as this, only a masochist would refuse to go that extra mile.

Pasquale's Italian Bar and Grille, 4412 Montrose, (713) 529-2002.

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Eric Lawlor