Concura, an elegant Italian restaurant near River Oaks, dares to be different

A first glance at the rigorously tight menu of concura tells you this isn’t your usual Houston Italian restaurant. Cod foie gras, fish stew on homemade chitarini, “bowl of tomato bread”… what’s going on here in the city of endless carbonaras, pizzas and stuffed ravioli?

I’ve maintained for years now that “when in doubt, open an Italian restaurant” is a way to make money in this town. Houstonians seem to have an endless appetite for the comforting truths of cooking as interpreted here. In this uncertain pandemic era, this has been doubly true.

Yet here, in an elegant room and magical patio just west of Highland Village, interior designer Jessica Biondi and chef Angelo Cuppone have imagined something that feels and tastes different. Instead of the usual antique trattoria the decor, dark tones and modern accents immerse guests in the present. The menu evokes the Adriatic coast, originating in Biondi and Cuppone, without being limited to seafood.

It is a valiant effort that dazzles when it succeeds and baffles when it fails. Oh sure, a few sour things like a green citrus and burrata salad dot the menu (it’s notably understated and graceful); or the sea bass crudo which is a must at every turn these days (it’s thin and shiny and forgettable).

4340 Westheimer at Mid Lane, 832-997-4220

But it’s the exciting little shocks that make this seven-month-old restaurant so welcome. A rabbit roulade arrives filled with porchetta in a deeply savory, browned demi-glace. The $65 bottle of Dolcetto recommended by Biondi’s husband, Alessio Ricci, tastes like it costs a lot more. A lemon and white chocolate trompe l’oeil dessert explodes with tangy sweetness.

This cod foie gras? It’s bold stuff, a lobe of pureed pale fish liver that sits in its own mini glass bottle, like a museum specimen. Spread it on a piece of midnight black “Easter Bread” stained with squid ink and savor the sea-like sweetness. Cod liver may not be for everyone, but if you enjoy uni and always opt for monkfish liver at your favorite sushi restaurant, you’ll want to try it.

I still think of that “tomato bread bowl”, as the Pappa al Pomodoro is described on Concura’s menu. Instead of the usual thick soup treat, this concoction of tomato, bread and olive comes in the form of a chilled terrine, all in innocence. It’s so unexpected and so pretty with its airy veils of thin bread chips on top, like a delicate bread salad dressed for a party.

Even more unexpected, but not in a good way, was the harsh, brackish flavor of the fish stew that comes with deliciously thin, square chitarrini. Homemade noodles are cut like the strings of a guitar, or chitarra; and they came cooked to perfection the night I tasted them. I would love to try them with a sauce that doesn’t taste like a mouthful of seawater.

Another beautifully made pasta here is passatelli, short squiggles made with breadcrumbs, Parmesan and egg. They are tender but not without substance; and they are brilliant in a stew of forest mushrooms sprinkled with shavings of black truffle.

Chef Cuppone can be seen working in the open kitchen, and with his dark little ponytail tied at the back of his neck, he really looks like he’s playing in this setting. His last post was at Roma in Rice Village, and he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

The most surprising trick to me was a version of eggplant parmigiana that looked like, as one table companion put it, three little “pizza rolls” that had been browned too aggressively. But their mahogany crusts turned out to be made with eggplant skins that Cupoone had dehydrated and pulverized; and their insides, filled with salty ricotta, had the requisite softened eggplant squash. They worked.

Vitello tonnato comes in a very visual modern form, like a sort of mixed salad made from thin slices of veal with a pink center that have been sprinkled with a tuna emulsion rather than topped with sauce. Julienned capers and blood orange add a tangy thrill.

The so-called “delicate fried fish” that appears on the menu as a main course – or as a smaller, unadvertised first course – could use a few touch-ups. There’s no fish involved right now anyway; just curls of squid and prawns with tails on, respectfully fried in a light, grainy coating. But an aioli-like sauce that came with the dish failed to ignite it. I kept wishing for a touch of acid and lost interest halfway through the plate.

So the deeply interesting and the curiously uninteresting coexist in Concura. Both events command sobering prices. With appetizers ranging from $12 to $18, pastas from $27 to $30, and mains from $32 to $37, dinner here can be an expensive outing. But the service is attentive, the wine list appealing, and when the food delivers, the tab is worth it.

Especially when he sits in the enclosure of the patio, under its lace metal framework hung with white lights, under old holm oaks. With its view of a nearby dog ​​park that functions like the village green of a skyscraper, the space seems a world apart. Heaters are ready in case there is a chill, as well as fur throws that are carried to guests by the armful.

Instead of Rat Pack and opera chestnuts, PA systems offer clubby electronics. It’s another in the series of surprises that sets Concura apart.

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