On a Friday night at 8 p.m., the small red-and-gold quarters of Arturo Boada Cuisine are so loud that I’m shouting across the table at my two guests. The hectic patterned rug underfoot doesn’t seem to help much in absorbing the sound waves created by 60 diners, a full house, nor do the quilted leatherette bar front and the white tablecloths.
This is Tanglewood and Memorial in full weekend cry, the men prosperous-looking, the women buffed and spa-polished. A sylph who must be Miss Venezuela, or surely one of the runners-up, slinks by as Victor Battista, a veteran service professional who has cosseted diners everywhere from Tony’s to Da Marco and back, excitedly touts a wine that he likes. “It’s just like Amarone!” he insists, and there’s no resisting him.
Such is the world in which chef Arturo Boada now reigns, offering his many regulars a familiar mix of Italian and old-school Gulf Coast Continental dishes, livened by the Latin touches that have been the Colombia native’s trademark throughout much of his long local career.
Boada is the guy who introduced tapas to downtown Houston when he opened Solero with restaurateur Bill Sadler back in 1998. It was a big hit, and it made downtown seem like the coming place.
That didn’t pan out, of course. In the ensuing years, Boada opened the Latin-inflected Beso on Westheimer, swanned around town with glamorous young women on his arm, and eventually opened a surprisingly staid Italian restaurant with Sadler in Uptown Houston, before their partnership famously fractured.
Today, having migrated westward to the monied suburbs, Boada still fumes about the paintings by his mother he says remain back at the Italian spot. But never mind: He has new ones painted by his mom, who happens to be Italian, expressly for the new place. Her fruit and vegetable still-lifes hang on the sponged-gold walls of Boada’s restaurant, which shelters in a low-profile strip center on an unlikely block of Del Monte, and which once housed the Guy family’s Bistro Don Camillo.
Even with his wavy hair slicked back and his patented blarney intact, Boada seems more mature and settled these days, and his menu, too, makes its peace with the neighborhood. A selection of salads and a charred vegetable plate for the ladies; a short list of man-friendly steaks and chops; a handful of pastas that feature chicken and shrimp.
Where Boada lets his personality peek through is in the first-course section, which he dubs “tapas.” Tapas in an Italian/Gulf Coast Continental joint? Well, in Houston 2012, that makes its own kind of hybrid sense. These aren’tmodestly priced little bites we’re talking (the cheapest, a bowl of patatas bravas, costs $10.50, and most hover in the mid-teens.) But the shellfish dishes in particular remain a Boada strength.
Best and most interesting of show are the Camarones Henesy en Hamaca, a sumptuous bowlful of pearly shrimp in a white-winy, soy-gingered broth so good I was tempted to pick up the dish and drink it like soup. Tucked into the mix are marinated hearts of palm, a dice of tomato and cilantro, and the jackpot ingredient: tart-sweet fried plantains, the exotic note that sets off everything else and makes the dish memorable.
For my money, it’s the best thing on the menu. I could eat it for lunch or a light supper all by myself, with a glass of Pecorino or Falanghina, whites from a serviceable wine list that is a little bit better than it has to be.
Almost as fine was one night’s special of shrimp with creamy yellow curry and bronzed bits of coconut on bruschetta, the only combination of shrimp and coconut that has ever struck me as successful.
There are mussels sauteed in various styles, including an oh-so-Houstonian tomatillo-jalapeño-cilantro sauce; and tiny littleneck clams in their shells, sauteed in garlicky olive oil and tomato, with a surprise edge of ginger root and a dramatic long coil of lemon rind on top. I liked those clams; but I kept thinking I would have loved them had that theatrical lemon rind been zested into the bowl, so I could actually taste it.
I wish I had as good a report on those patatas bravas, which had plenty of red-chile and chorizo spunk, dragged down by a discouragingly sodden texture. I think crisped instead of soupy would be the way to revive this dish.
Teeny-tiny fish tacos, bearing diminutive pan-seared wedges of snapper and ribbons of sprightly serrano-garlic cream, looked so forlorn lying flat on their big plate that I felt sorry for them, despite the fact that they tasted OK. They definitely put the “itos” in “taquitos.”
My salad experience here has been less than stellar. One night’s $9.50 house salad, allegedly anchored by Batavia lettuce (a perfectly respectable looseleaf variety), turned out to be iceberg. Hearts of palm, walnuts and a too-mild vinaigrette didn’t save it.
A burrata special on another day proved to be a too-sweet pro forma treatment of this voluptuous, creamy cheese: balsamic drizzles, prosciutto slices, nuts and mixed greens kept the burrata in the background.
Yet the pizzas here are unexpectedly pleasant. They come from the open-to-view wood-burning oven with thin, delicate crusts and lively toppings, whether in a simple tomato-mozzarella-basil Margherita combo, or in a hard-to-pull-off seafood pizza incorporating rings of calamari, shrimp and a few springy octopus tentacles, none of it overcooked in the least.
If you are the sort of diner who makes a special trip to San Antonio to eat at a Neapolitan-certified place, this pizza won’t be for you. But it’s plenty good.
So is the farfalle pasta tossed with olive oil, tomato, basil and soft chunks of fresh mozzarella; oh yes, and gigged with lots of garlic. It’s great to split as a side, although the $18.50 price tag is particularly painful for so simple a dish.
But what was the chef thinking with his Mama Sonia’s Ravioli, their round, crimped packets stuffed with a gummy paste of chicken and porcini mushrooms, their white-wine cream sauce strewn with irrelevant hunks of lump crab? I ordered it on the chance it would be better than it sounded. It wasn’t.
The meat and fish dishes I tried were mostly quite good. A 40-buck veal chop emerged undergrilled, with a deep-rose center, but it was quickly remedied by the very accommodating staff.
A small plate of Beef Blue, a 4-ounce filet mounted on a tomato slice and crowned with blue cheese and fried onion strings, was wildly good — and just the right size to make a light entree rather than a shareable first course.
Redfish filet fra diavolo from the lunch menu wore a spirited, slightly hot tomato sauce and a crab finger or two, although it was slightly overcooked for someone who prefers their fish on the dewy side.
Desserts were a mixed bag of pretty good (tiramisu; apple tart on puff pastry) to puzzlingly bad (bananas cooked in a thick, cardboardy pastry shell).
I say “puzzlingly” because Boada is better than the blips and the bloopers at his latest venture. Maybe he’s grown too comfortable with the neighborhood; maybe he’s not pushing himself after a long run at a conservative Italian establishment.
At his best, though, he’s still got some distinctive Houston magic. That’s why his place is worth a look, even for diners outside his target neighborhoods. If you come on a weekend, though, best bring some earplugs — or people with whom you’d rather not converse.
Arturo Boada Cuisine
6510 Del Monte @ Voss 713-782-3011
Hours: L & D: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; T11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays
Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $5.95-$16.50; entrees $14-$39.50; desserts $6.50 -$7.50
Reservations: highly suggested; necessary on weekends
Noise level: moderate to very loud, when crowded
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.