Marco Wiles has branched out again on Westheimer. This time in the former Café Montrose location near Mandell. In fact, the Café Montrose sign is still on the marquee of this rather run down strip shopping center. Billed as a wine bar with small plates, this place feels more like a restaurant than a bar. And don’t expect the fun vibe of Dolce Vita’s old house. The limited bar area (not much space if there’s a wait for tables) and low ceilings, lend to a low key ambiance. The menu, which requires some translation even for a foodie, is all in Italian, as is the wine list. The prices are reasonable, similar to Dolce Vita. The service was friendly, knowledgeable and prompt (with the exception of refilling the water glasses; note to waiter: it’s not just the bus help’s job).
The menu bears similarities to Dolce Vita in that there’s an array of meats, cheeses, vegetables, fried items, salads, risottos, and pastas. Panini replace the pizza. We particularly like the vegetables at Dolce Vita, but we weren’t as excited with the two we tried here. We wanted to try something new — cardoons — which look like celery, taste similarly bland although they allegedly taste like artichokes, and were poached in what seemed to be cold broth reminiscent of vegetable soup. Not to our liking. The beets were baked in parchment with goat cheese and hazelnuts. Sounds good, but didn’t quite hit the mark for us. Too bland and the hazelnuts were raw.
One of us was intrigued by the risotto with chicken livers although combining with yellow squash seems odd. But we opted for predictability for at least one dish. We ordered the tagliarini in a parmesan cream sauce with bits of pancetta(?). Served in a piping hot dish straight out of the oven (the pastas are listed on the menu under “forno”), the dish was appropriately decadent and delicious. We also enjoyed the panini special which included homemade pork cheek sausage and fontina cheese. We love cured meats and cheese, so we may go more that direction if we return. But only after we first go back to Dolce Vita for our fix of egg truffle toast.
Open only in the evenings, parking is available in front of the restaurant, and we understand there’s a valet on the weekends. We felt for the owner of the adjacent laudromat who stood in the parking lot blocking two spaces for his customers.
UPDATED REVIEW — JULY 2009
Buoyed by the great things we’d heard about Randy Rucker’s arrival as chef at the Rainbow Lodge, we successfully bid at a charity auction for Sunday brunch at this long-time Houston establishment. It does seem somewhat of a culinary oxymoron for Chef Rucker, founder of the short-lived, not quite ready for Houston laidback manor, to have landed at a restaurant with a reputation that is anything but food forward, and that is housed in a very non-trendy log cabin in Northwest Houston. And we don’t mean the developing restaurant row on Washington Avenue.
We took full advantage of our unlimited gift certificate to order from every course. There were many choices and almost everything looked good. We were greeted with a better than average basket of biscuits and muffins. We started with two appetizers — crab croquettes and fried oysters. Both were very nicely done, well sauced, and generously portioned. (Chef Rucker’s penchant for dime sized portions at laidback manor clearly won’t fly at Rainbow Lodge.) We moved on to entrées of shrimp and grits and a mixed game grill and eggs. The shrimp, which were beautifully cooked, were sauced with a bit too much worcestershire for one of our tastes, but the grits were fabulous. The homemade venison sausage was a standout on the mixed grill plate. We even indulged in dessert — croissant bread pudding and chocolate creme brulee. Both were standouts. The creme brulee (more like a mousse) was clearly for chocolate lovers; one of the best chocolate desserts we’ve had in a longtime.
We’ve read mixed comments about the service at Rainbow Lodge, but we had great service. Although the restaurant was not packed, there was a nice crowd enjoying the comfortable, cozy setting. We look forward to returning for dinner. Chef Rucker may have found his element — an opportunity to apply his significant creative juices to classic dishes. It’s a winning combination.
FIRST REVIEWED — NOVEMBER 2007
We didn’t have a chance to sample the fare of the new chef at the Rainbow Lodge before Tillman Fertitta’s inside the Loop Brenner’s steakhouse outpost displaced it from its longtime location on Buffalo Bayou. Although perhaps not as inviting as its former digs, the Rainbow Lodge moved into the former quarters of Tour d’Argent on Ella. A log cabin style, multi-level restaurant overlooking a terraced garden, the location is a very pleasant, if not a somewhat dated venue. Not sure if the dead animals on the walls are new or a vestige of the prior place, but they certainly highlight the game oriented menu. We can’t complain too much as we were given a lovely table by the window in a corner nook.
The appetizer and salad selections didn’t particularly wow us. We started with the wild game sausage/mixed grilled appetizer. The featured buffalo sausage component of the dish was very disappointing. Tiny cubes (for cooks, think medium dice) of sausage swam in an overly sweet barbecue sauce with grapes. All in all, there was probably about a tablespoon of sausage. The other two items on the dish were a very nicely grilled quail (thankfully, not doused with sauce) and buffalo tenderloin slices. But we ordered the dish to try the chef’s homemade sausage and, for $14, we were not happy.
We fared better with our main courses — grilled elk chop and buffalo ribeye. Both were beautifully cooked and quite delicious. Elk is a very lean meat, and the chef managed to nicely sear the chop but retain the juiciness. Buffalo, also a lean meat, was well served by the ribeye, a cut that enjoys some natural marbling. The various sides — sautéed spinach, crispy chili onion rings, roasted potatoes, and green beans were fine.
The wine list was pricey, with mark-ups in the range of 2 1/2 to 3 times retail. Our waiter was pleasant and capable enough, but he seemed to hurry us along. We weren’t seated until almost 9:00, and it was clear he wanted to get us out of there sooner than later.
If you are a fan of game dishes, give this place a try. With game entrée prices in the mid-$30s, this is a special occasion place for many. Be sure to make a reservation as it was hopping on the Saturday we were there. And the only viable option for parking is the complimentary valet. There’s a parking lot across Ella, but a reviewer on Houston Citysearch reported that his car was vandalized in that lot.
2011 Ella (just inside Loop 610 North)