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Clandestine Cuisine at Damian’s Cucina Italiana

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By Joanna O’Leary

If you want to show off your in-depth knowledge of the Houston culinary scene to your date, your friends, or your in-laws, there are many options. You can treat them to a lavish tasting at one of the city’s hottest new restaurants, hire that local up-and-coming James Beard-nominated chef to cook them lunch at home, or take them to a trendy pop-up dinner. What trumps these admittedly sure-to-amaze experiences? Dining at Damian’s chef table.

Oh sure, chef’s tables, if not ubiquitous, are certainly a common feature in Houston as restaurateurs know ardent foodies are eager and willing to pay extra to be personally served by the master cook. But at Damian’s, your special chef-curated meal doesn’t take place at just a table abreast to the kitchen or in a plain private room, but rather in a time machine…that seats up to eight people. To enter, you must first buy a ticket ($70 per person, beverages not included), then follow your guide (usually the affable owner Johnny Mandola) through the energetic kitchen (whose staff will greet you warmly) into a dimly lit chamber in the back corner decorated in maroon hues and dark wood. Black-and-white images of visitors to the chef’s table over the past decades testify to its ability to impress even those much experienced with luxury, for past clientele include Frank Sinatra, Joe Torres, Steve Tyrell, and Donald Sutherland.

Once seated, your own private waiter is on hand immediately to take your drink order. Although Damian’s has an enviable wine list, their Italian riffs on classic cocktails are delightful, especially the Sicilian Cosmopolitan, made with blood orange-infused vodka, cointreau, and blood orange puree. Whet your appetite in the meantime by nibbling on the complimentary fragrant rosemary focaccia made daily at Damian’s very own in-house bakery. Then, brace yourself for a pleasantly overwhelming onslaught of elegantly crafted dishes boasting bold flavor combinations.

Rosemary Focaccia. Photo: Joanna O'Leary
Rosemary Focaccia. Photo: Joanna O’Leary

While the exact composition of the line-up of courses varies naturally according to whims of the chef, seasonal availability of ingredients, and any dietary restrictions among your party, there is usually an appetizer, salad, pastas (note the plural), a protein main dish, and dessert. Our dinner began with shrimp and potato croquette with fried leeks in a lemon butter sauce, whose intense richness and citrus notes were well balanced by a proceeding romaine salad with spicy tomatoes and feta. What followed was my favorite, yet not the highlight of our meal (more on that, later): a delicate row mushroom ravioli in pesto tomato cream sauce. The blend of botanical sweetness, piquant basil, and earthy fungus resulted in a terrific umami effect that left us craving a second helping.

Shrimp and potato croquette with fried leeks in a lemon butter sauce. Photo: Joanna O'Leary
Shrimp and potato croquette with fried leeks in a lemon butter sauce. Photo: Joanna O’Leary

The most unique aspect of Damian’s Chef’s Table, as well as that which transforms your experience from just interactive to proactive, is your main course, which you (or a member of your party) will partially prepare yourself on the line in the kitchen proper. Never fear if your culinary skills are, to say the least, not the best, for you will be patiently guided by an assistant chef. Heck, even this intrepid albeit klutzy reporter managed to pull an elegant plate of lemon pasta with peas, Chilean sea bass, filet mignon in demi-glaze, and grilled lobster. Back in our private room, we feasted on the succulent bovine and piscine cuts, all cooked perfectly in testimony to the kitchen line staff’s prodigious ability to multitask the different requirements of diverse dishes. The sea bass was moist and flaky; the filet, supple and juicy; and the lobster meat, sweet and tender. A side of spaghetti simply dressed in lemon and olive oil and studded with peas and some asparagus provided a fitting carbohydrate and vegetable complements.

Lemon pasta with peas, Chilean sea bass, filet mignon in demi-glaze, and grilled lobster. Photo: Joanna O'Leary
Lemon pasta with peas, Chilean sea bass, filet mignon in demi-glaze, and grilled lobster. Photo: Joanna O’Leary

And, finally, the dear delicious coda to our meal: crème brûlée and a monstrous slice of triple-berry cheesecake. As I lingered at the chef’s table alternating bites of crunchy burnt caramel and soft dense cheesecake, I was more than satiated but just a little sad that this otherworldly experience was about to conclude. Va bene. I can always come back.

Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.

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Joanna O’Leary

Joanna O’Leary is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine and a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.
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