There's such a pell-mell rush to judgment about new restaurants these days, from so many quarters, that I try to hold my peace until a place can gain its equilibrium. But occasionally I just can't keep myself from saying, "Go now."
My first meal at the newborn Concepcion, the upscale pan-Latin seafood-plus concept in the vintage Montrose mansion that housed Oceans, was not without its wobbles. It's so young they didn't even have a sign up yet. No website, either. But the food was so promising, and so memorable, that two weeks later I'm still mulling it over.
I've always admired chef Jonathan Jones's talent for layering flavors so that they leave a deep, shimmering impression of complexity and clarity at once. That's exactly what he accomplishes with the splendid Third Coast Ceviche that's at the heart of his tightly edited menu at Concepcion. Based on a daily Gulf fish (a forceful scarlet grouper the day I sampled it), it's strikingly beautiful, thanks partly to an unusual leche de tigre marinade that adds dried hibiscus to the usual citrus, resulting in a rosy flush of color on the stark white china.
Everything about this ceviche is meticulously considered, from the sweet snap of peeled orange to the bitterish vegetal tinge of baby radish sliced whisper thin, with the odd leaf of mint or shred of Mexican oregano adding an herbal lift to the controlled bloom of chile heat. The whole thing glistens: on the plate and on the palate.
So does a tiradito of raw sliced scallop with a snow-flurry of powdered bacon on top. The bacon flavor steers the sweet sea flavor of the shellfish landward, and the surprise is compounded by the fact that the powder is such an unexpected texture in this context. Although the dish is so rich and satiny it's best shared, Jone's carefully applied touches keep it interesting: blood orange segments shining like tiny jewels; piercing filaments of habanero pepper, as hot and bright as the sun; orange Rorschach blots of annato oil pooling in the pale-yellow citrus marinade. A subtle crunch of sesame hints at the texture of fried bacon.
This is masterful stuff. Combine such dishes with such unexpected treats as a nitro-frozen watermelon agua fresca flavored with mint marigold and served like a first-course slushy; or an earthy Sikil Pak spread of ground pumpkin seeds, billed as the "Yucatecan hummus," and you've got the beginnings of a remarkable menu.
Yes, it's a little confounding for a first-time visitor to assemble a conventional meal from this spare document, which lists just 13 savory dishes and 3 desserts. (It's all about sharing, pretty much.) Some dishes are fixtures, but others change with the market.
I found myself wishing for several more options in each of the two main categories, Cold and Warm — as much for the restaurant's sake as for my own. When lamb heart, beef tongue, and stewed goat birria comprise half of six choices in the Warm column, you're limiting your potential customers. It's daring, but in a restaurant of this size, even a few more gestures to approachability might help win Jones the audience he deserves.
I wished, too, for a better attention to serving temperatures with one of the "Warm" plates, a nervy riff on Peruvian anticuchos involving thin, dense wafers of lamb's heart poised on tepid blobs of celery-root puree, an unpleasant effect. Maybe I would have liked the dish had the puree been hotter, but I wonder, because the celery root seemed overmatched.
What the dish wasn't was dull. And I loved the second meat item I tried, a banana-leaf-wrapped packet of shreddy cochinita pibil ("Buebutt pig," if you please), to wrap up with pickled red onion in sturdy house made corn tortillas that could go up against the city's finest.
I was impressed by both the moderate prices and the suitability of the white wines on the list here, particularly a 2009 Yunquera Albillo that tasted of lime, pear and plenty of minerals. At $23, it's a wonderful bargain. Ask wine guy and general manager Matt McLaughlin, an old pal and colleague of chef Jones who worked with him at Cafe Chiasso and Max's Wine Dive, to steer you in the right direction.
Want a cocktail to sip on Concepcion's lovely patio? The bar makes a creditable margarita with a hit of orange juice to set it apart from the pack, and you can get it shaken and served straight up. Try that with a platter of Sikil Pak, the pumpkin seed spread surrounded by bubbly house-fried tortilla chips, and I'm betting you'll be hooked.
I can't wait to go back. Particularly because I'll never know exactly what the chef has up his sleeve. This week, Jones tells me, he'll be getting in Portuguese octopus and he'll be serving some "great head and shell-on shrimp, salt-toasted with garlic/kumquat mojo." He's expecting some local pomfret fish for ceviche, too.
(Concepcion, 819 West Alabama, 713-520-7744)