For as many changes as Houston's dining scene has gone through over the past few years, Montrose remains the undisputed center of the city's restaurant universe. From big names like Underbelly, Uchi and Hugo's to more recent arrivals like BCN and Pax Americana, Montrose remains home to the city's highest-profile, most-talked-about restaurants.
New openings on lower Westheimer are so rare that they're obsessed over from the moment construction begins until the doors open, when they're eagerly dissected by a frenzied mob of foodies.
Except when they're not.
For the last several months, construction has quietly been taking place at 224 Westheimer to convert a former flower shop into an upscale, Italian steakhouse called Bistecca. Beyond a brief mention on Swamplot, no one has added Bistecca to a list of anticipated restaurants or tracked its progress, but, by bringing together Sorrento owner Abbas Hussein with well-regarded Italian chef Alberto Baffoni, the restaurant, which will begin its soft opening this week, features some serious star power.
Hussein tells CultureMap that he isn't concerned about the lack of press. He prefers to avoid attracting too much attention.
"We don’t want people coming in with high expectations and we fall short. I hate when that happens," he says "I’ve been in the restaurant business for 43 years, and the worst thing you can do is create a big hype and fall short."
It will be up to Baffoni and general manager Trey Brezina to get Bistecca off to a good start. As Hussein explains, he's been waiting almost 20 years to work with Baffoni, who's known for his work at Simposio and recently helped Mascalzone refine its menu.
"In 1997, I had the opportunity to meet with Alberto. I tried his risotto. I thought, 'oh my God.' We became friends, because I thought he was one of the best Italian chefs in Houston," Hussein says. "He was in the wrong spot last time. They were paying him well, but it’s not all about money. They had a different concept, pizzas and pastas and that kind of thing. But this guy can make an octopus carpaccio that is out of this world."
Las Vegas inspiration
While Hussein acknowledges that Bistecca takes some of its inspiration from celebrity chef Mario Battali's Las Vegas steakhouse Carnevino, he thinks Bistecca will be a little different. "We might not go all out what they’ve done, just because we are probably one-tenth of the space," he says of the intimate, 100-seat space that features an elegant, Mediterranean-inspired look.
Asked about what makes Bistecca both Italian and a steakhouse, Baffoni explains that his Northern Italian menu will feature his well-regarded handmade pastas, dishes like that octopus carpaccio and homemade burrata, as well as entrees like osso bucco for two and grilled whole branzino. Of course, the signature dish will be the Bistecca Fiorentina, a massive, USDA Prime porterhouse available in 24-ounce, 36-ounce and 60-ounce portions.
"It’s known that Italy’s not just famous for pasta," Baffoni explains. "(Bistecca) is Italian in the way we’re marinating our meat, the garnish that we put on it."
He says the first time he prepared the 60-ounce Fiorentina that it was "exciting cooking that size steak . . . It will be carved tableside. We keep it simply marinated with rosemary, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper."
They're also pricing the steak at a relatively affordable $150, which reflects the restaurant's decision to serve Certified Angus Prime beef, rather than something more exotic like wagyu. That philosophy of delivering good value extends to the whole menu.
"We’re going to keep prices reasonable; because we own the property, the rent is a little lower," Hussein says with a laugh.
Pastas run from $18 to $24, and small plates with four to six ounce portions of meat like lamb T-bone with with eggplant and couscous and grilled salmon with quinoa cost $24 to $28. A la carte sides include the expected steakhouse favorites mashed potatoes and haricot vert as well as Italian-influenced dishes like soft polenta with marscapone cheese.
Plans for lunch
Plans for lunch are currently under development, with Baffoni testing various burger ideas that include ground veal patties and pancetta and provolone instead of bacon and cheddar. Beverage options will include an Italian and Californian-oriented wine list selected by longtime Sorrento employee Pedro Castro, as well as Italian-inspired cocktails from bartender Bro Peters.
Taken together, Bistecca has the pedigree of a restaurant that deserves more attention than it has received. With a well-regarded chef, prime location and elegant design, don't expect it to stay under the radar for long.