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New Seafood Restaurant

New seafood restaurant brings major buzz: One of Houston's best chefs is all aboard

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Slideshow
1 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
Petalos de pescado red snapper tiradito-style served with homemade fried tortillas.  Photo by Eric Sandler
2 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
Ensalada de Pulpo, grilled octopus with red wine sauce, was the highlight of the tasting.  Photo by Eric Sandler
4 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
Chef Daniel Bridges works the wood-fired grill.  Photo by Eric Sandler
5 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
Arroz de la Tumbada is a brothy rice dishes served with a variety of seafood including frogs legs.  Photo by Eric Sandler
8 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
Birria Mascota is a bone-in, mole-rubbed short rib.  Photo by Eric Sandler
9 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
Carmelized bananas with housemade ice cream and fried banana strips for dessert.  Photo by Eric Sandler
1 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
2 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
4 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
5 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
8 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013
9 Caracol tasting with Hugo Ortega December 2013

According to co-owner Tracy Vaught, Caracol, the seafood restaurant she and her husband chef Hugo Ortega will open soon in the BBVA Compass Plaza next to Osteria Mazzantini, has been on their minds for a long time.

"We bought a beach house in 2008 and named it Caracol," Vaught tells CultureMap. Although Vaught seems surprised that restaurant openings now receive coverage on the level of presidential primaries, she understands the high level of interest in the new project from two-time James Beard Award finalist Ortega.

She recalls that when they opened Hugo's they didn't know what to expect, and that an article from then Chronicle food writer Dai Huynh started to help the restaurant build a crowd. Now Hugo's is one of CultureMap's 10 Best Restaurants in Houston, and Caracol will get a much noisier reception.

 Seats have a mesh weave that recalls decks chairs and fish-inspired art adorns the walls.  

On a tour of the space last week, Vaught notes the details designed to enhance the coastal atmosphere, including a light-colored palette and decorations above the bar that are designed to resemble ship's rigging. Seats have a mesh weave that recalls decks chairs and fish-inspired art adorns the walls. The restaurant features a large bar area with adjacent wine room, an 80-seat dining room, two private dining rooms and a patio. All together, Caracol can accommodate over 200 people.

Thankfully, the kitchen is enormous, with a wood-fired grill, massive prep areas and custom-designed seafood storage. As Vaught was finishing the tour, Ortega inquired as to whether I wanted to try some dishes.

Well, it would be rude to see no, wouldn't it? And Ortega is such a gracious host . . .

The First Taste

Alongside executive chef Daniel Bridges, Ortega produced four courses that demonstrate Caracol's seafood-oriented direction. The tasting began with Petalos de Pescado. Inspired by the cuisine of Puerto Vallarta, it's a tiradito-style red snapper dish served with thin slices of orange and jalapeno. Alongside, homemade "capellas" — puffy, "petal-like," Veracruz-style tortillas that are fried on a comal prior to serving.

The mild fish gets a spicy lift from the pepper and a salty crunch from the tortillas for a bite that satisfies the entire palate.

Next up, Ortega brought out Ensalada de Pulpo, grilled octopus with red wine sauce, which was stunning both to look at and taste. He said the technique of flavoring the thick, meaty pieces of octopus with red wine originated with a sea captain but admitted that Mexican food historian Diana Kennedy probably would say the story was nonsense.

So what? It looked great, tasted better and is a must-order. 

Regular CultureMap readers will recall Ortega's ability to prepare delicious short ribs, and Birria Mascota, a mole-rubbed, bone-in version, is another stunner. The combination of the mole and pineapple enhanced the beef's natural flavor, and the presentation looks great, too. 

Vaught was hopeful that Caracol could host an invite only service this weekend ahead of opening next week, but the restaurant still had to pass a final inspection. The restaurant will use Facebook to announce a firm opening day and provide a link to make reservations. 

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