The piano was playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” the first time I walked into Hawthorn — all by itself, the keys sinking as if pressed by invisible hands.
That’s an image that won’t leave me when I think of this resolutely posh new restaurant tucked away on Upper Kirby, all dark velvet draperies and polished wood, with pale abstract canvases spotlit so that they glimmer in the sepia light.
If you’re thinking retro, you’re right: Hawthorn feels like a room out of Houston’s past. It’s the kind of place where oil grandees used to take their mistresses back in the booming 1970s. It’s dim and supper-clubby and discreet, a dreamy bit of time travel set to vintage piano music (which, on the weekends, is provided by an actual pianist who takes over from the auto-function, his laptop songbook shining before him, and whose eccentric pop repertoire ranges from Elton John to U2 to Lady Gaga).
But guess what? Despite the curious time-capsule vibe, Hawthorn’s food is mostly terrific. Chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio, whose work I admired at his late, lamented Sabetta, has found a better-capitalized home where he can bring more of his talents to bear. Many of his pastas and meat entrees would do honor to any four-star restaurant in town, and even his desserts — which, like so many chefs must do in these trying times, he creates himself — show the elegant simplicity that marks his work.
Palazzo-Giorgio cooks with classic Italian discipline, keeping the number of ingredients to a minimum and coaxing maximum flavor from them. It’s an approach that is all too rare in this city where less is not generally conceded to be more. His menu at Hawthorn veers into modern American territory in places, but it is Italian in spirit and largely in fact.
Consider the venison saltimbocca from the new fall menu: a coronet of sliced meat rolled around sage leaves and San Daniele prosciutto, resting on a tuffet of luxuriously creamy polenta. Normally I dread venison that’s cooked well-done, but although each of these slices is cooked through, they retain their magic. A glossy topknot of wilted arugula leaves and an equally glossy reduction of winy pan juices bring the flavors alive. It’s a masterpiece — and one big enough for two.
Just as accomplished are the pan-crisped butternut-squash gnocchi gleaming with brown butter and sparked with brittle sage leaves, the small orange cushions resilient and tender at once.
Half-moons of agnolotti pasta stuffed with rabbit have a wonderfully shreddy texture that lets the meat character shine rather than reducing it to the usual dreary paste. The underlying pool of russet ragu is based on rabbit stock and vegetables, and it’s the velvety stuff of dreams.
Plump little quail stuffed with crunchy grains of farro and pine nut fairly popped with juices the night I tried one, set off by neatly balanced notes of sweet (dried cranberry) and bitter (wilted baby kale leaves). Even something as basic as “Seasonal Salad” can wow here, its wedges of red and yellow roasted beet lit up with a tart carrot vinaigrette so ingenious I wish the chef would bottle it for sale, and made luxurious by blobs of whipped ricotta salata, all salted milky savor.
Rosy slices of pan-roasted duck breast get swipes of a lively date purée arrowed across the plate and a green surprise of grilled romaine leaves underneath. Lamb shank done osso buco-style comes braised to a state of utter relaxation, underpinned by saffron risotto poised between creamy softness and resilient chew. Like all of Palazzo-Giorgio’s reductions here, its sauce of natural juices has clarity and authority.
If there’s a purer and more satisfying version of steak tartare than Hawthorn’s, I haven’t tasted it. Here, the silky raw beef is minced small and molded into a generous cylinder, its deep-rose hue encouragingly fresh-looking. You stir in the crowning quail-egg yolk yourself, then season the beef to taste with red onion dice or sea salt, chopped gherkins or garlicked aioli, sea salt or cracked black pepper. By customizing the meat a little at a time, you can run the gamut of possibilities. I would happily call this dinner, sitting at the comfortable bar with a glass of red wine.
In fact, the bar here, manned by a personable staffer, is an underutilized piece of Houston real estate. I can easily imagine ducking in here after a tough day, settling into one of the tufted, high-backed bar chairs, and ordering a salad and a pasta for supper — perhaps the broad, flat ribbons of pappardelle with well-braised shortribs made into an elemental ragu.
My sole disappointments here have come from the seafood realm. Judging from an overcooked, stodgy-textured piece of pan-roasted Gulf grouper and a first course of too-soft baby octopus in a spicy tomato bath, the kitchen is defter with meats than with creatures from the sea.
They’re capable of better. Veal sweetbreads are as tricky to cook as any piece of seafood, yet the version on the fall menu arrives roasted to an exact turn, soft within and crisped without, their richness amplified by a cabernet reduction, roasted cipollini onion and woodsy chanterelle mushrooms, with more of the excellent house polenta underneath.
The tricky part is finding something affordable and appropriate to drink with these splendid dishes. The wine list, presented on an iPad, is long on three-digit prestige bottles of a sort those 1970s oil grandees would have relished. The selection of wines in a more sensible $40 to $75 range is quite limited, and it skews toward the New World when it would seem desirable to include more Italian producers in honor of Palazzo-Giorgio’s food.
It’s almost as if the wine prices match the demographic desired by the former occupant of the space, the ill-fated and ferociously expensive private club Dorsia, which wanted to cater to the Lamborghini crowd. Now that the room has been repurposed for a restaurant, the crowd is sedately River Oaksy, but the excellence of Palazzo-Giorgio’s food and the user-friendliness of the bar seems geared to attract a wider range of diners. The wine list should match.
But once you settle on a wine here, it nearly always comes at cellar temperatures from the impressive glassed-in storage wall, which glows with burnished wood and brass fittings as if it were shelving in an old and distinguished library. That wine vault dominates the room, and I look forward to the day when it contains a fitting range of choices.
As things stand, there is a suitable by the glass white (Pinot Grigio by Tommasi, with some depth and minerality to it), as well as a good Italian red blend by the same producers. Bottles of Henriot grower champagne (too warm, but remedied with an ice bucket), Siduri’s lower-range Pinot Noir and a Le Volte Tuscan red blend have all worked well with the food and been served in good condition. And served dotingly, too. As befits a clubby restaurant, the small staff is solicitous and pointedly charming. That was the case on the visit when I went unrecognized as well as subsequent ones when I didn’t.
You even get to leave Hawthorn on a genuinely sweet note. Desserts, so often a letdown in Houston restaurants, are simple, classic and deeply gratifying here. Palazzo-Giorgio’s warm apple crostata, with its buttery folds of crust, is perfect for fall and the winter to come. Ricotta cheesecake tinted with pumpkin has a delicate texture and tastes like the holidays.
A square of tiramisu is as reserved as some ancient Italian aristocrat. And the smoothest, trembly panna cotta comes basted in a rosemary syrup that adds a welcome resinous twinge to all that milky lushness.
So go now. Bring money. Remember that the Kirby address is deceptive, and you’ll have to take Colquitt or West Main west to Lake Street to find Hawthorn’s entrance, lest you get lost in the black hole of bar parking lots fronting Kirby.
Hawthorn may be easy to book now on weekdays, although the weekends can get pretty full. But if there’s any justice, the restaurant won’t stay a sleeper for long.
Hawthorn ★ ★ ★
3200 Kirby, Suite 106, 713-523-3600
Hours: D: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $12-$20; entrees $18-$38; desserts $10
ReservationsNoise level: quiet
★ 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.