Restaurant Reviews

Winning Combinations

Fusion continues to gather steam, so much of it that I can see the day when the passion for seeing compatibilities where, very often, none exist, will blow up in the faces of its most enthusiastic practitioners. Fusion can work -- we can all cite examples -- but all too frequently, what look like matches made in heaven turn out to be nothing more than shotgun marriages. The hybrid flying machine in The Land of Oz comes to mind: two sofas, a broom, a clothesline, four palm fronds and the head of a gump. (A gump, L. Frank Baum tells us, looks a lot like an elk, "only the nose is turned upward in a saucy manner.") A pastiche of bits and pieces that works after a fashion, fusion only rarely transcends itself. Most of the time it remains distressingly terrestrial.

The new chef at Dacapo's Cafe is a fusion enthusiast. Named Dwayne Bosse, he comes to Houston after a stint in Galveston, where he had charge of several restaurants (see Dish, "As Dacapo's Turns"). He is an exponent of what he calls Oritalia, which he explains as a blend of Italian and Oriental influences, adding in a press release that it "isn't as far-fetched as it sounds."

As fusionists go, Bosse is ardent, even passionate. But passion doesn't always make for clear-headedness and, quite frankly, his menu inspired some qualms. At Dacapo's, East meets West in all sorts of improbable ways. Pineapple pico de gallo is paired with creme frache; beef is served with lemongrass sauce; and fettuccine is laced with chipotle chiles. The most ordinary-sounding item on the lunch menu is a grilled chicken breast served with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables -- though I can't see it lasting very long. Such is this chef's zeal -- he is still in the process of making his mark -- its days, I would guess, are numbered.

The sauteed chicken ($13.95), also on the lunch menu, struck me as especially preposterous, accompanied as it is by shiitake mushrooms, Thai chiles, scallions, coconut milk, mint and "crispy noodle pancakes." (Even more perplexing, these same accompaniments appear on the dinner menu as well, this time with shrimp and scallops.) My heart sank. But I ordered it anyway. It was important that I know the worst.

Well, was my face red! That darned thing turned out to be delicious. The chicken was woefully overcooked, but that aside, these flavors blended beautifully. The coconut milk, which I expected would be sickeningly sweet, gave the sauce a surprising roundness, and the chiles lent a hint of menace. I should never have doubted Bosse, I realize now. This man knows what he's doing.

The ravioli filled with ricotta and caramelized onions ($6.50), while more conventional, proved no less delicious, and were Dacapo's to serve nothing else, it would be reason enough to go there regularly. The ravioli are served with a topknot of spinach (the vegetable is little more than blanched) and napped with a beurre noisette perfumed with a touch of sage.

The cucumber and onion salad ($6.50) comes with olives, feta cheese and sorrel tossed in champagne vinegar and olive oil. Sounds nice, doesn't it? Sadly, it proved rather dull. And to compound matters, it came with tomato segments that no one had thought to season. The layered pasta ($9.95), though, more than compensated. Filled with fresh vegetables, roasted garlic and two cheeses (mozzarella and Asiago), this take on lasagna comes with wild mushrooms and a beautifully nuanced tomato sauce that, for all its modesty and maidenly blushes, proved quite enchanting.

While the corn-and-poblano chowder ($3.50 a cup) tasted surprisingly mild -- I would have liked a little more intensity -- the grilled portobello mushroom ($8.50) was perfect. A great, fleshy, meaty thing, topped with pesto, it looked for all the world like a slab of liver.

On our second visit, our two entrees consisted of rack of lamb ($25.95) and grilled tuna ($17.95). Both were ravishing. The lamb, beautifully cooked, was garnished with goat cheese, oven-dried tomatoes and a sprig of rosemary several inches tall that put me in mind of a furled umbrella. The tuna was perfectly cooked as well and, being as big as a child's shoe, it was plenty. Keeping the tuna company was a white-bean, grilled-onion and tomato salad that, while certainly nice, struck me as somewhat tame. Dacapo's might consider giving their salads a bit more firepower.

A few quibbles. Because the acoustics aren't great, Dacapo's at times can sound like the Astrodome. And the service at lunch is remarkably slow. Though we arrived at one, half past two had come and gone by the time we left. That said, I should add that there are few Houston restaurants in which I would rather cool my heels. The place is not only lovely, it's generously proportioned. The pictures are large -- in one, an angel is held aloft on wings made of lilies -- the ceilings high, the flowers extravagant, the drapes dramatic, and the chairs eye-popping: What look like antennae rear from their corners, and on their backs are stars and a sliver of moon. The walls are nice, too. They're painted a bright mustard -- a color that, according to my guest, makes people look good. This was gratifying to know. I like to be seen in a good light.

Dacapo's, people tell me, is one of Houston's best-kept secrets. Why that would be so is hard to explain. No restaurant this good should have to languish in obscurity. Give Dacapo's a try. You're almost certain to like it.

Dacapo's Cafe, 3322 D'Amico (off Allen Parkway), 942-9141.

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Eric Lawlor