I guess they don’t call it The Tasting Room for nothing. While we certainly did taste some wines at the lively City Center location last night, what we tasted mostly was food by executive chef Michael Kramer – a guy Houston first got to know during his tenure at the Hotel Icon’s Voice. For starters, Michael recently returned from an intensive training in pizza conducted by some official-sounding group promoting VPN – Vera Pizza Napolitana. The Real Deal, in other words.
From a far different (and my personal favorite) section of Italy comes carpaccio, allegedly created at Harry’s Bar in Venice. I’ve never actually tasted carpaccio at Harry’s, or even at its elegant offshoot, the Hotel Cipriani in New York. But based on what I have tasted from chefs across America, Michael’s carpaccio served at all three TTR locations is about as good as it gets. Let’s call it Vera Carpaccio Veneziano, shall we?
My dear friend Almost Veggie loves risotto, it turns out. So we were under strict orders to get her some. The result was a super-creamy rendition made with carnaroli rice instead of the more common (in more ways than one, says the chef) arborio. What he made was mushroom risotto, with no cream but definitely enough butter to make up for it. It was, I think, PDR – Paula Deen Risotto.
Having grown up in Louisiana eating rice with anything that didn’t eat me first, I generally prefer pasta to risotto, even to Michael Kramer’s excellent version thereof. Happily, he trouped to our table with an excellent tortellini as well, this one stuffed with butternut squash and delightfully awash in that oh-so-famous trio of butter, fresh sage and parmesan cheese. I want a Mama who’ll make me this.
Potato gnocchi is yet another variation on what the Italians use for starch, a pasta created with potato in the spirit of a Deep South dumpling. And since Chef Michael knows his way around dumplings after six years in South Carolina, he proceeded to Southernize the whole dish with duck confit (cooked in fat, naturally) and duck cracklins. Even the Beverly Hillbillies would like this dish. In fact, especially the Beverly Hillbillies!
Eating a meal at The Tasting Room is one of those Small Plate/Large Plate affairs. Among the large, there are Chef Kramer’s nightly specials – such as this delicate grouper in a not-so-delicate sauce of tomato, olives and capers. I took to calling it Puttanesca Lite, and I was about ready to work the streets myself by the time we’d finished devouring it.
Finally, in a definite departure from Almost Veggie, I realized I couldn’t eat all these Italian flavors without checking out the veal meatballs. For one thing, by being served over very fine-ground polenta mixed with mascarpone, the dish completed our tour of Italian starches – except for the North African couscous beloved around Trapani in Sicily. And since the polenta tasted like cheese grits beneath their bright red blanket of San Marzano tomatoes, it was all I could do not to ask for shrimp instead of meatballs and go all Carolina on this delicious adventure.