Unpredictable Cinq can dazzle
Hotel restaurant's adventurous menu is pricey but poised to elevate fine-dining experience
At some point, midway through a dish of whole prawns grilled in their shells that had been served to me at Restaurant Cinq in La Colombe D'or Hotel, I realized I was going to eat the entire exoskeleton, down to the last crisped, brittle antenna.
I made sure there were no stray roasted hazelnuts cruising around the plate and swiped up every bit of the tart-sweet quince paste that chef German Mosquera had used to bring the flavors of sea and forest to life. I prized out the last pearly bit of shrimp tail. Then I crunched up the thin-shelled heads, savoring the haunting note of smoke imparted by the grilling process.
That dish and others like it make Cinq the most exciting hotel restaurant in Houston right now. Certainly this comfortable old-school dining room in the grand 1923 Fondren mansion is the costliest, with most entrees in the $40-$50 range, and starters clocking in from $18 to $25.
The restaurant was left treading water last year after chef Jeramie Robison left to take a job at Uchi in Austin. But in a bold move, hotelier Steve Zimmerman scooped up Mosquera after he parted ways with Roots Bistro, where the famously vegan chef had made a mark with an adventurous menu that put vegetables and cheese forward while keeping meats and seafood in the game.
Roots Bistro was uneven but deeply interesting. Such is the case at Cinq, although Mosquera is cooking on a higher plane at the posh hotel. When his ideas click, as they do with such dishes as smoky charred okra in a maple glaze, the pods tender and springy and crisp all at once, they rival the very best restaurants in town - the four-star monsters that can take your breath away.
When they don't, as in the case of a snail appetizer with an ingenious premise but flawed execution, they can leave you wishing you'd placed your $19 bet somewhere else, and speculating how brilliant the dish could be had the technical problems been solved.
More InformationRestaurant Cinq
La Colombe d'Or Hotel, 3410 Montrose; 713-524-7999
Hours: L: 11:30-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; D: 6-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $18-$25; entrees $39-$52; sides $11
Must-orders: Charred Okra and Maple Glaze; Grilled Prawns with smoked eggplant, hazelnuts and membrillo; Summer Sausage of Quail & Beef Marrow with yellow watermelon, charred greens and wild Mustang grapes; Seared Diver Scallops with Sea Urchin Butter, Shishito Pepper and Kimchi Vinaigrette; cedar-smoked Idiazabal cheese with honeycomb and fresh herbs
Noise level: quiet
In this case, it's hard not to admire the pluck of laminating croissant-dough layers with garlic-parsley butter and then tucking the escargots inside. But while the classic flavors were there, and the snails stayed tender, the croissant itself was sodden and insufficiently baked. Croissant-making in a tiny kitchen during a Houston August may be a brave endeavor, but it's risky.
Fortunately, the hits here outnumber the misses - in my recent experience, which includes a crowded Saturday night skewed somewhat by Houston Restaurant Weeks, by a ratio of approximately 2:1. With some evening out, Cinq - abetted by its serene room and its excellent wine service by young French sommelier Sebastien Laval - could be a solid three-star experience with the potential for even more.
I'm still marveling over a bravura crème brûlée infused with fresh corn milk, a rubble of candied corn kernels skittering over its crackly sugar glaze. All it needed for optimal pleasure was a pinch of sea salt from a tabletop dish. I'd be happy eating that inspired side dish for dessert - or for breakfast, for that matter.
There's no time of day I wouldn't welcome Mosquera's plank of cedar-smoked Idiazabal sheep cheese, its sharp salty graininess mellowed both by the woodsmoke and one of the hunks of local honeycomb Mosquera dotes on as sweet punctuation to a savory course. It's great as a prelude to a meal or as a substitute for dessert.
The menu changes seasonally, and July brought a fascinating summer sausage of quail enriched with bone marrow, juicy and subtle against an unexpected backdrop of compressed yellow watermelon and charred greens, with pure-Texas accents of wild Mustang grapes.
Just as surprising, and equally successful, was a beautifully trimmed and grilled buffalo hanger steak set against compressed heirloom cantaloupe. Yes, it worked, somewhat to my amazement, helped along by an electric current of charred grapefruit "elixir," thereby combining two Mosquera predilections, charring and fruit, in one go.
Precisely seared diver scallops in a briny sea urchin butter with charred shishito peppers and kimchi vinaigrette had far more bounce and sass than the usual Houston scallop dish. All the sadder, then, when the same treatment was applied to a Restaurant Weeks offering of seared Gulf snapper that had been overcooked.
I'm still wondering how Mosquera concocted his flattened "cakes" of finely minced veal sweetbreads, pan-seared to a crusty brown edge and topped with a tumble of toasty chanterelle mushrooms. They seemed held together by magic. Yes, the roasted oyster-mushroom chips gracing the summit had lost whatever crisp brio they might once have had, and I'm not sure a chunk of honeycomb and a parchment-thin milk wafer were the best possible foils, but it's been a long time since a sweetbreads dish has really grabbed my interest.
Sometimes Mosquera will come up with a dish that I can't quite get my head around and can't stop thinking about, either. I don't mind when that happens in an expensive restaurant; in a way, those moments are more valuable and interesting to me than any number of conventional, easy-to-love sensations. But as a diner, your mileage may vary, so be warned that befuddlement is always an option when a maverick talent like Mosquera is involved.
What to make of a deeply glazed smoked eggplant dish that's tart to begin with and made even tarter by an ultra-citrusy mayonnaise sauce? Curiously, the acidic sauce acted to tame the eggplant wedges and make them taste almost sweet, a neat trick. My first bite or two threw me. By the last, I was hooked.
A noble pile of long-braised local goat meat - as tender and yielding as the most cosseted barbacoa -arrived with an unexpected bone-in rib that was snappy and vibrant under its fruity glaze. I'm still not sure about the pale drift of garlic foam that surfed over the crest of meat; or the dampened, translucent squash flower that lurked underneath, clasping the meat.
All of these elements intrigued me, and the charisma of the meat was undeniable, but the dish just didn't seem to hang together.
Nor did a lamentable dessert riffing on the cronut craze. I applaud Mosquera for trying his hand at baking complex, layered pastries, but I'm not convinced the results are ready for prime time yet. Until then, make mine the cheese plank.
Bottom line: Cinq is back as a factor in Houston's fine-dining universe. Bring money. Bring a sense of adventure. You will not be bored.