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The most underrated restaurant in Houston? The new Hawthorn dazzles in old "members-only" spot

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Chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio Photo by Morris Malakoff/Flickr
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The food at Hawthorn is beyond lovely. Photo by Morris Malakoff/Flickr
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Hawthorn Photo by Morris Malakoff
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News_Hawthorn_private tasting_April 2012_chef_Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio
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News_Hawthorn_private tasting_April 2012_Cory Graff
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News_Hawthorn_private tasting_April 2012_bar_light fixtures

That Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio is not a big name in the Houston restaurant scene is evidence that life is not fair. Like Ryan Hildebrand and Bryan Caswell, he's an alum of the Culinary Institute of America, and he's helmed the kitchens at Simposio and his own brief, underappreciated Sabetta before landing first at members-only club Dorsia and now at the reconfigured restaurant concept in the same space, Hawthorn.

Hawthorn is on a busy stretch of Kirby, just south of West Ave and north of the famed funeral bar row, yet it's virtually hidden from the street in the back of a multi-space building that includes Café Express and The Owl bar. Those who never made it to Dorsia might remember it as the original home of Dessert Gallery.

 Palazzo-Giorgio makes virtually everything in house, from the pasta to the cheese to the gelato. It's nothing short of lovely. 

The dining room is intimate but refined, with wood paneling that feels stately but not heavy, plus a large bar and a grand piano in the entry way. Styled like a modern supper club, it functions somewhat like the larger Capitol at St. Germain downtown.

Palazzo-Giorgio makes virtually everything in house, from the pasta to the cheese to the gelato. It's nothing short of lovely. I started with the gnocchi, which was beautifully light and pillowy, drenched in a rich gorgonzola cream sauce. A signature rose-colored ravioli felt a bit too dense, made with beet-infused pasta stuffed with ricotta and topped with chive and a light citrus glaze. An ultra-thin beef carpaccio got a modern update with the addition of lemon, giving the classic Italian dish a nice kick of acid.

A filet of beef over gruyere potatoes and jus was cooked beautifully, with a hint of char around the edges and a bright pink center, so tender I'm struggling to avoid "melts in your mouth" clichés. The asparagus served alongside were perfectly soft and green, so much that I felt compelled to ask Palazzo-Giorgio how he makes them. (He says the secret is olive oil and ultra-fresh produce.)

A jumbo lump crab cake had barely enough breading to hold the cake together. Served with a tomato-butter sauce and microgreens, the flavor was really all about the rich, slightly sweet crab. The indulgently rich risotto that I remember from Sabetta also makes an appearance here, with flavors that change weekly. Ending with a tart ricotta cheese cake and a rich, oozing apple crostata topped with a light dollop of vanilla gelato, I felt more than satisfied.

By chance my dinner at Hawthorn was the night before I attended the Houston pop-up dinner by famed New York restaurant Le Cirque. Both concepts stick to a classic American menu dotted with Italian/Mediterranean influence, and though Palazzo-Giorgio had the advantage of a familiar kitchen and a smaller crowd (the restaurant was open for dinner but my table was the only one occupied), I was still surprised by how thoroughly the experience at Hawthorn trumped the famous name.

I guess fame isn't everything. Hawthorn may not have a big name, but it has pretty much everything else going for it.

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