Restaurant Reviews

The Search for Bright Spots at Enoteca Rossa

Enoteca Rossa shows up in fits and starts, bits and pieces. Those pieces are scattered across the menu; a starter here, the filling of a pasta there. Connecting those dots, you can piece together a mostly good meal, but they still trace an incomplete picture. Between those dots, those scattered pieces, the menu is broadly populated with bland, under-seasoned and overcooked dishes that make the bright spots seem all the more perplexing.

For starters, many of the brighter points show up among the small plates that top the menu. Dense shavings of beef, rich and slightly metallic, play well against bitter arugula in the bresaola starter. Spread a bit of slightly funky gorgonzola on a slip of toasted bread, add some beef and greens and a few slick, earthy porcini, and you’ve got an interesting DIY riff on bruschetta. The burrata plays similarly, the mild, creamy cheese popped up by the salty punch of prosciutto. There’s arugula here, too, though it feels misplaced. Likewise with the pallid tomatoes. Rather than the thin wisps of crispy bread offered with the bresaola, though, I’d rather a more substantial slice with this one.

Both the arugula and the tostada-like bread crisps seem default modes at Enoteca Rossa, showing up across the menu, even after a menu change that replaced a good two-thirds of dishes between visits. Among the new antipasti (now labeled “starters”), the braised shallots are surprisingly good. The alliums bring their own multifaceted sweetness, complemented by the agrodolce notes of a finishing glaze of vinegar. The shallots benefit from judicious cooking, leaving them pleasantly tender, with just enough structure that they hold together and offer a subtle bite. The accompanying blob of ricotta, studded with chives, reiterates the flavors in a different key, the creamy mild cheese adding a nice, gentle landing for the assertive flavors. As for that default arugula/bread-wafer combo, I’m not sure what it adds to the dish.

Likewise, I’m not sure what a scatter of random grilled vegetables adds to a large, ungainly cylinder of braised and grilled octopus. Devoid of charm or char, the pale octopus needs more flavor, either via cook or components. The vegetables (an unseasoned medley of broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, carrot and eggplant) add absolutely nothing to the dish, sitting off to the side as if even they are uncertain what they’re doing there. As with the arugula/bread combo, these same afterthought vegetables show up again and again, galling in their refusal to show creativity or consideration.
The primi section of the menu is as unbalanced as the starters, with a similar mishmash of well-thought-out and baffling choices, sometimes in the same dish. Far and away the best of them, and sadly no longer on the menu, is an improbable-sounding ravioli stuffed with ricotta and jalapeños. The creamy filling brings a huge chile flavor with only the barest trace of heat. It eats like a refined, translated version of a cream cheese-stuffed jalapeño, and was easily the most straightforwardly tasty thing we ate across multiple visits. If Rossa brought it back, thinning out the pasta just a bit and adding a slightly more generous gilding of sundried tomato basil butter sauce, I’d be a happy man.

I’d be similarly pleased if the kitchen could turn out a fresh fettuccine that didn’t fall apart at the touch of a fork, to better complement its stunning lamb ragù, which thankfully remains on the menu. The thick sauce, generously mined with shreddy lamb, is rich, developed and nuanced. The lamb is ever so slightly gamy, a nice note against the dense flavors and subtle, sweet undergirding from its attendant vegetable base. There’s a deeply savory, nutty, almost lactic note that makes me wonder if the sauce weren’t simmered with parmigiano rinds. I could eat it by the bowlful on its own, but it would be far nicer to twirl it around silky strands of pasta that stand up to their sauce. I’m sure Enoteca Rossa intends the fresh pasta as a value adder, but it would get more bang for its buck here with a nicely al dente dried version than with fresh stuff that falls apart.

The opposite problem befalls the spaghetti alla chitarra carbonara, new to the menu. While the pasta itself is lovely, finely textured and yielding in just the right way, the sauce is downright depressing. There is no eggy richness, no graceful and silky texture, no funky spark of pecorino or salty pop of cured pork. Instead, there’s a vaguely dairy-flavored and gloppy glue of stuff binding that lovely pasta to itself, rendering even that unpleasant. There is far too much salt, along with an odd, powdery texture that coats your mouth with every bite. Then there’s the pile of microgreens dumped on top (another odd, repeated trope here), to exactly what end? I’ve often said that carbonara is such a forgiving sauce, so perfect in its basic design, that you can modify and abuse it almost without limit and still wind up with something pretty tasty. Here, I have been proven obviously, woefully wrong.
From a dish I’d previously thought oddly bulletproof, to one that is abused more often than not: risotto. It’s a tricky dish to make in a restaurant setting, with a long prep time and a narrow service window. Too often risotto comes to the table thick and pasty, its rice mushy and its swaddling sauce quickly setting up into a gluey mess. Here, oddly, neither of those things proves true. The rice has a lovely texture, tender but with a gentle bite at the very center. The whole pile flows when you tilt the plate, a sure sign of proper technique. The sauce is glossy and graceful, the grains of rice separate and distinct.

The Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner, suggested as a pairing, actually pairs quite nicely (make sure, when ordering, that you clarify your intent for the wine to accompany the risotto, or you will get it posthaste), its stony profile and cheeky acidity playing well against the very forward flavors of goat cheese. Those flavors dominate, chalky and aggressive. I’d thought the extra, unadorned gob of goat cheese on top (see also: microgreens) would double down, and it does, but in a good way. It takes the flavors from insipid to assertive, but only insomuch as to make them more palatable, not enjoyable. All hi-hat, no kick drum. Overall, the dish tastes thin and insipid rather than rich and complex. It’s a shame to waste that lovely rice with a flavor that renders the stuff nearly inedible, but the cook on the rice was so good that I’d hazard it again in a different version. The current menu available online renders the risotto in a classic Milanese preparation.

The mains (née secondi) can’t even find as much favor as the courses before. Here, the main issue is in basic cooking. Of the handful we sampled, only a quartet of lamb chops came properly cooked, a lovely and rosy medium-rare. For that, though, they needed a harder sear to play off their rosy insides, and a bit of seasoning to boot. The menu calls them out as “gremolada,” but the promised punch of lemon zest and garlic was nowhere to be seen. The chops show up tiled across more of that boring, default grilled vegetable medley, just a few slabs of meat on a white plate. They’re not good enough for such stark presentation. The whole thing feels tossed off. Incomplete. Careless. Unfortunately, those adjectives define the experience at Enoteca Rossa, from service to food and back again.
Elsewhere on the menu, overcooked duck breast swims in far too much porcini sauce that mostly reads as salt and butter. Neither the mushrooms nor the duck stand out, and that should never happen to ingredients like those. Guess what comes alongside the duck. You got it.

The same goes for the filet mignon all’amarone, $32 for a wildly uneven piece of beef I’m not even sure came from the advertised part of the cow. Where the duck misses the requested medium rare mark on the far side, the filet doesn’t even approach the edge of the near side. I’d call it black and blue, but that assumes a level of crusty sear absent here. Instead, a patchy and uneven range of gray to middling brown is the best you’ll get. With that, you get a ramekin of oddly blank and greasy wine-colored sauce, and another maddening pile of lame grilled vegetables.

Ultimately, Enoteca Rossa is unimaginative and uninteresting. When the menu makes you think it won’t be, the kitchen proves you wrong. The problems are manifest, from poor basic technique as simple as a proper sear or an attempt at seasoning, to a plate-by-numbers approach to accompaniments. There are a few tasty elements to be mined out, but far more mines to be avoided.

Enoteca Rossa
4566 Bissonnet, 346-204-4403, Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Braised shallot with buffalo ricotta $9
Octopus $10
Bresaola $18
Burrata pugliese $16
Goat cheese risotto $16
Ravioli with buffalo ricotta and jalapeño $18
Fettuccine with Texas lamb ragù $16
Spaghetti alla chitarra carbonara $14
Duck breast in porcini sauce $30
Lamb chops “gremolada” $30
Filet mignon all’amarone $32
Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner (glass) $12
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall