Sunday, June 12, 2011

Creme Brulee

When you drive up to the new Arturo Boada Cuisine, it's hard not to compare it to Arturo's Uptown Italiano, the restaurant he abruptly leftbehind to start his new concept.
There are no high ceilings or columns or big patios, and even if there was a patio, there wouldn't be much outside to look at. In a strip on a quiet side street near Westheimer in Tanglewood, Boada greets visitors with a bright dose of red paint and some icicle lights.
Inside just over a dozen tables are tucked into the pocket-sized space, with red and gold on the walls and a bar area in front of the attention-grabbing wood-burning oven. Though space is limited, the touches of class — white tablecloths, a few flowers here and there, friendly and attentive service — make it feel charming instead of cramped. With Arturo himself making periodic tours to talk to diners, it does feel like a true neighborhood spot.
I started with the camarones hennessy en hamaca, a bowl of juicy sauteed shrimp with hearts of palm, tomato and cilantro in a thick soy-ginger sauce over a bed of plantains. I thought the plantains were unnecessary and a bit dissonant, but everything else about the dish was mouthwatering. including the sweet-spicy-acidic sauce that we soaked up with the table bread.
The menu, like Boada himself, is part Italian and part Latin. As a committed Iberophile (that's a lover of all things Spanish), I had to order the papas bravas. The dish was actually nothing like the versions I ate in Barcelona — instead of gloried fries with spicy mayo, Boada's papas bravas are chunks of red potatoes and chorizo in a chunky, spicy, tomato-based sauce. The result was unsurprisingly heavy, but the chorizo was particularly tasty and the spicy flavor was on point.
I did have one other appetizer, a special that was a mix of beef chunks and tomato. I've forgotten the exact name of the dish but I do recall the beef tasting somewhat dry and overcooked.
Though there is plenty of steak and seafood to tempt, I took a chance on the chorizo, one of a quartet on the menu that are made in that wood-burning oven. The crust was floury and thin, but not charred — overall pretty decent — but it's the toppings that set it apart. The carnitas pizza is somewhat like a barbecue chicken pizza, in that the barbecued flavor of the meat permeates every bite. Then there's onion, cilantro and a lime wedge to squeeze on it.
I thought it was a little strange. My date loved it.
In my opinion the most ingenious part of the meal was the surprise dessert — two bites of crème brûlée delivered on spoons. It was the best version of a crème brûlée I've had in Houston (that's not as great a compliment as I'd like it to be) and it was the perfect size. A kiss of sweetness to seal the meal, and done. I don't know why every restaurant doesn't offer something like it — seriously, it's genius.
At Boada the dishes are classics, the flavors are simple (for the most part) and it's all about the cooking and the presentation. It's not extraordinary, but I don't think it's supposed to be. It's solid, good and comfortable, and sometimes that's enough.

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