That first evening at Convivio, sitting beneath the elegant cylindrical pendant lamps that swayed so gently in the air-conditioned breeze, I sensed that something was amiss.
It wasn’t just that on a cold winter evening, the AC was cranked up so high I was literally shivering. Or that the sweet young fellow waiting on me had no earthly notion how to distinguish among the five different Ribera del Dueros offered on the wine list. That deer-in-the-headlights look? He had it. When I asked to speak to whoever put the list together or was in charge of the wines, he told me that the sommelier only came in on Saturday night.
OK, then. From the awkward-to-read-and-handle list, which is plastered around an over-sized wine bottle, so that one must whirl it about like a gigantic toy top, I chose a Ribera del Duero, flying pretty much blind. After some minutes, I was told that they were out of it. “Bad luck,” I shrugged to myself, and picked another Spanish red, one that I already knew.
But then I discovered that the prized Iberico ham, a centerpiece of the tapas menu, was not available that midweek evening, either. Nor was the next dish I wanted to try instead: a montadito, or sandwich-type snack, containing a chorizo spread called sobrasada along with melted Camembert. Really? I remember thinking. Did somebody just forget to order supplies? Apparently so, because neither of those specialties was available on any of my three visits.
I was puzzled by some of the food that evening, too. Chorizitos (“baby chorizos,” according to the menu) conjured up visions of fat little sausages oozing juices and kicky spice. The reality, housed in a cunning small cast-iron oval pot, was big slices of salty, regulation-size chorizo, cut on the bias, in an apple cider reduction that tasted mainly of sausage grease.
Pulpos a la gallega was a gorgeous flop, its morsels of inert, tepid octopus housed between thin disks of half-raw potato that crunched disconcertingly when bitten. Yes, octopus takes care and time to prepare, and will not be served a la minute, or made to order. But this octopus had no liveliness of texture or even taste; a simple squeeze of lemon would have improved it dramatically.
I’m no chef, but I fantasized briefly about going back to the kitchen and sprucing up the octopus myself, as well as pumping a little acidic life into that bland apple cider reduction in the bottom of my chorizito pot.
I knew the restaurant was four months old, but it felt like they had already given up: on training the younger staff about the Spanish wines so important to their mission; on keeping abreast of inventory and supplies; on executing food that would leap off the plate rather than just sort of lying there.
That made me sad, because Convivio has some real promise. It is there in the handsome room, with its suave lighting and charismatic, monumentally scaled wooden tables and benches running the length of the central aisle in this rectangular space. It is there in that 90 percent Spanish wine list, a rarity in Houston, offering some lovely by-the-glass choices and bargain bottles. It is there, too in some of the food, although not with enough consistency yet.
The montadito of 18-month-old Manchego cheese, melted over thick veins of dark olive tapenade and mashed anchovy, was a spectacularly good open-faced sandwich, each half cut in two again, so it could serve two or four. I could have eaten the entire $7 order myself.
Almost as good was another montadito of satiny Serrano ham looped in curves above a slice of baguette spread with a simple fresh tomato mash, in imitation of the great classic tomato-bread tapa, pa’ amb tomaquet. (I always hope to see the basic tomato-bread tapa in Houston, and I am invariable disappointed by restaurants that think it’s too plain for American audiences.)
Yet on another visit, when I couldn’t help ordering the tapenade-and-anchovy montadito again, it took forever to come out of the kitchen. When it arrived, I realized that the anchovy was missing, that the manchego had been halved and the tapenade tripled, and a ribbon of clashy, hot romesco sauce squiggled down the center. It was dry and miserable — not to mention a completely different dish from one week to the next.
Trying to understand what was going on, I made inquiries, and I learned that the two founding principals of the restaurant, Oscar Aguilar (of the Decorative Center’s Decco Cafe) and his Spanish partner, Marta Vina, had parted company two weeks before, and that the split was not amicable. There was new management in place. They’ll have their work cut out for themselves to get this place on an even keel.
I hope they manage, because I can easily see myself slipping in to sit at the hospitable bar to sip a glass of delicate, mineral-rich Garnacha Blanca, or a juicier Malvasia-Viura white blend with a lively tart freshness. I would want a slice of Convivio’s egg-and-potato tortilla to go along, that cake-shaped Spanish omelet that here is softer and gentler than the usual stolid renditions. With it, I would order a bowlful of perfect small pear tomatoes, sliced in half and dressed with good olive oil, a splash of balsamic, and a spritz of crunchy sea salt and green herbs. That’s the kind of simple, delicious food that you usually can’t get in restaurants, but that I often crave to get in one.
I can imagine, too, coming into Convivio for any of the mushroom dishes that they seem to do consistently well. There’s a deeply savory pan-sauteed tumble of shiitakes sparked with the slight heat of piquillo peppers and a bit of tomato cream. There’s a sprawling mess of roasted portobello topped with sauteed crabmeat in a light, creamy dressing touched with sherry and orange. One night, I found that Convivio’s excellent shiitake and oyster mushroom saute in saffron cream had added fine grilled asparagus lengths to the mix, which worked beautifully.
If only the meat dishes here worked as well. I found the tiny meatballs (albondigas) stiff and unappealing despite their bath of chile-hot tomato sauce. A montadito of solomillo, the USDA prime tenderloin, which finds its way into numerous tapas, arrived with its long chunks of beef grey and cooked through and not a little chewy. They slid off their bread bases, leaving only dabs of the sweet Spanish beer sauce that had sounded so good on paper.
Even my beloved patatas bravas suffered here, having not much textural variation left after a half-hearted frying job and a smothering in pureed red chile sauce. A mixed paella for four didn’t turn out much better: while the special “bomba” rice had an admirably resilient texture and an oceanic thrum of seafood stock, the mussels and clams and bits of beef on top had been cooked to distraction. No bueno.
Desserts? Best not to ask. There were only gelati to be had from the short list (why was I not surprised?), and while the olive oil version had good flavor, it was marred by numerous ice crystals.
All this could be fixed, and I hope it will be. The late Spanish-style hours and the wine list alone could put this place on my rotation list if the food becomes more reliable.
Convivio Tapas Bar + Lounge
700 S. Durham