Review: Crunchy-Edged Lasagna and Perfect Pasta Are Among Arthur Ave’s Appeals
Our Grade: A-. Arthur Ave may have stumbled a bit getting out of the gate but it found the footing that it needed to become a Houston mainstay. The staff seems comfortable on the floor now and provides good service. The denizens of The Heights have mightily embraced Arthur Ave on Friday and Saturday nights, so do make a reservation and expect there may be a few minor lags between dishes.
What To Order: Arthur Ave’s brilliant, crispy-layered lasagna is one of the best new dishes to emerge in Houston this year. It relies more on meaty Bolognese and béchamel than tomato. Before dinner, prepare the palate with a Sbagliato, a palate-readying blend of Campari and Vermouth di Torino topped with Prosecco or a Gin & Tonic. Prepared with crushed ice, it’s ideal for nursing through dinner. Alternately, swap over to the appropriately Italian-heavy wine list. Every pasta dish we ordered was perfectly cooked and although the crust could have been a little more browned, both the white clam and the spicy Fra Diavola pizzas have pleasingly chewy crusts.
Skip These: Arthur Ave has many hits but there is still the occasional letdown. The “How You Doin?” cocktail didn’t live up to its threat of Calabrian pepper-driven spiciness, although it was otherwise beautifully balanced. Skip the dry, dense polenta fries altogether. That’s about the extent of our complaints, which should tell you something.
Arthur Ave, 1111 Studewood. Open for dinner and (starting this weekend) brunch.
Reservations:(832) 582-7146 or online via OpenTable
It’s always tough to have an older sibling who seems to do no wrong. The one who everyone loves, always gets straight A’s and looks effortlessly fashionable without ever needing to refer to a magazine.
With chef William Wright heading up the kitchens at both James Beard Award semifinalist Helen Greek Food & Wine and Arthur Ave, comparisons were inevitable. (Helen just got the national Eater nod for Wine List of the Year, too. Show off.)
Not everyone develops at the same pace. The same holds true for restaurants. That doesn’t mean that one that needs a little longer to bloom won’t eventually land the girl, the good job and the Ferrari by the end.
I visited Arthur Ave right after it opened at the end of July and found a restaurant that wasn’t quite ready for prime time but had the structure needed to develop into a special place. At the time, dishes, service and cocktails all seemed a little off-kilter. However, in a plate of hearty Sunday Gravy, a traditional, family-style meat sauce chock full of short ribs, Italian sausage, meatballs and beef braciole, I found the beginnings of a soul.
Since that early visit, Arthur Ave has blossomed with elegance. Although modeled after Brooklyn-style Italian restaurants, handsome brownstone interior and all, it avoids being a cliché. (Arthur Ave’s appealing design is by Erin Hicks, who also did the interiors at Helen.)
Wright’s approach to cuisine is that of a scholar. That’s why Arthur Ave’s lasagna ($21) is not a heavy brick laden with stretchy, flavorless cheese and oodles of tomato sauce. Instead, Wright’s take on it is light, lovely and utterly fascinating. It’s filled with ricotta béchamel and a four meat Bolognese. Best of all, each fresh pasta layer is crisped before the lasagna is built then each is turned 45 degrees to the one below it. That means that there’s a crunchy corner for every diner at the table to steal (and it, like most dishes at Arthur Ave, is big enough to share). It is the most exciting take on lasagna I’ve seen since having the Lasagna Carnivale at Vallone’s last spring. The only downside is that fennel fronds and microgreens are heaped on top in such quantity that they compete rather than complement. The zippy sliced green and black olives are a nice touch, though.
Wright says his take on the dish is inspired by the Emilia-Romagna region, where the Bolognese is “meat held together with a little tomato, not tomato with a little meat.”
Speaking of pasta, the dishes we sampled, whether made with fresh or dried noodles, have always been cooked properly. Contrary to popular belief, fresh is not superior to dried. It’s all about picking the right pasta for the job and that’s something Arthur Ave does very well. Fresh layers of pasta are used for the lasagna but the alfredo ($15) is made with fusilli, a dried, corkscrew-shaped pasta that holds the cheese sauce within the tight twists. There’s a noticeable amount of lemon zest added to the sauce, but rather than taking over, it adds a lilt that gives the impression of a lighter dish.
Arthur Ave’s pizzas have slightly chewy crusts—the kind that gives a pleasant tug of resistance when one takes a bite. They tend to be a bit pale and a little more char wouldn’t hurt. Still, the Fra Diavola pizza ($16) enchants with its unabashedly spicy sauce and glistening slices of equally daring salami. Richness comes by way of generous dabs of mozzarella (made in-house, no less) and young sprigs of herbaceous lemon basil on top are a refreshing counterpoint.
Too often, cocktail programs at restaurants seem like an afterthought, but the one at Arthur Ave helmed by bar manager Josh Bearden and beverage director Lainey Collum—who is best known for her previous work at Prohibition Supperclub + Bar—is a cornerstone of the overall program. Collum excels at putting together complementary flavors in such a rock-solid fashion it seems as if the finished product walks on a tightrope. I can’t imagine not starting a meal at Arthur Ave without a Sbagliato, a palate-readying blend of Campari and Vermouth di Torino topped with Prosecco and garnished with a bright orange slice slid right into the glass alongside the ice.
Conversely, the “How You Doin?” cocktail of Calabrian pepper-infused gin, Aperol, lime, grapefruit, tamarind and basil didn’t live up to its threat of being “Spicy and in your face like cousin Tony.” Well, Tony must be maturing or something because the cocktail wasn’t spicy, although it certainly was balanced in all other regards. I was surprised to nibble on one of the peppers used for garnish and discover that it was pickled, salty and not hot at all.
Wine drinkers have much to look forward to at Arthur Ave. The list (amusingly illustrated with gangster-themed comics) has dozens of fine Italian selections. There are seven different sparkling wines to choose from by the glass. These range from brut Prosecco to fizzy Lambrusco and cost between $9 and $18 a glass.
Surprisingly, the godfather of the wine list was not Evan Turner of Helen, but Shepard Ross of Pax Americana. Turner is involved now, but when Arthur Ave opened he was unavailable so Ross did the initial consulting. Ross is a familiar face in The Heights thanks to his long involvement at Glass Wall. “Having an intimate relationship and history in the Heights allowed me to introduce [Arthur Ave] to the core neighborhood clientele and what they like to drink,” says Ross. “It’s a unique neighborhood!” The telltale signs of Ross’s touch include some savvy American selections made with Italian varietals that include Hendry Ranch Block 24 Primitivo from Napa ($60) and the Martinelli “Guiseppe & Luisa” Zinfandel from Russian River Valley ($90).
The cannoli, an inventive take with a crispy, deep-fried shell filled with thick ricotta cream and turned upside down like a fallen ice cream cone, is the most talked-about dessert of Arthur Ave. It’s garnished with curls of high-quality, dark chocolate shavings and plenty of candied orange peel.
It’s probably just a matter of taste, but while I admire the inventiveness and attractive presentation of the cannoli, I just can’t seem to fall in love with it. The shell always seems too thick, and the chocolate and orange additions seem like fancy sprinkles not integral to the dish. All reviewers have their prejudices though, and I confess that the desserts I gravitate to tend to be more of the rich, fruity or chocolaty kind. You’re probably either a cannoli person, or you’re not. I’m probably not.
Arthur Ave has some minor issues. The polenta fries are dry. The pizzas could be toastier. On busy nights, there may be a bit of a wait between courses. However, the lovely atmosphere, compelling dishes, astute wine program and well-balanced cocktails reduce these complaints to no more than nitpicks.
Make no doubt about it: Arthur Ave is one of Houston’s best new restaurants. It just took them a little while to get there.
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Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.