Print

Restaurant ritzy, relaxed and rewarding

mini-polosPolo's Signature: Restaurant ritzy, relaxed and rewarding

Friday, April 25, 2008

Houston Business Journal - by HBJ Gourmet Special to Houston Business Journal

My first visit to Polo's Signature, located in the posh strip mall next to Lakewood Church, was one of the strangest restaurant experiences I've ever had.

First off, management did its darndest to get me to eat for free. A promotional video was being shot that night, and everything (except drinks) was on the house. But patrons had to choose from a list of supposedly new menu items being tried out (several of them were already part of the regular lineup as-is, or in slightly tweaked versions). When informed of this, I decided to return on a more typical evening. On my way out the door, a staff member literally chased me down to say that the chef would be happy to whip up whatever my party wanted. Because such individualized cookery would hardly indicate the kitchen's customary level of execution, I kept going.

But the complimentary munchies I had devoured before I got the eat-free, limited-menu news suggested a standard of excellence that subsequent visits confirmed.

In all cases, the introduction to Leopoldo "Polo" Becerra's unfussily patrician cuisine began with a small scoop of chopped liver complete with tiny pieces of super-thin toast, plus a basket of breads and muffins and a dish of pesto-scented whipped butter. The breads are baked at the Post Oak Grill, where Becerra worked his way up from sous chef to owner, but are unique to Polo's.

The menu touts "Polo's Famous Crab Cakes with Three Sauces," and they deserve some notoriety. The plump, fluffy patties are judiciously seasoned, and the sauces (a chipotle-pepper remoulade, a black-bean affair and a scallion-chive gravy) complement rather than overpower. Equally delicate was a fat, barrel-shaped pair of seared diver scallops perched atop a roasted shiitake mushroom salad, drizzled with basil oil and framed by strands of barbecued red onion.

Like the other kinds of seafood I ate at Polo's, the scallops leaned toward overcooked rather than approaching-sushi undercooked, but only by a second or two, and the results were always moist and juicy.

The more robust starters I sampled were equally successful. Beef tenderloin tostadas, based on crepe-thin tortillas and enlivened with a smoked jalapeño-avocado sauce, were excellent examples of uptown Tex-Mex.

Perhaps best of all was the dish of braised lamb ravioli in a chunky marinara-like sauce. With the help of the contents of the breadbasket, every last drop got sponged up.

As befits a restaurant that has probably housed its share of power lunches and dinners, Polo's serves lots of hearty entrées and favors substantial portions. But the menu also features less belt-busting fare, as well as plates that strike a compromise.

Big eaters can't go wrong with the meat entrées I sampled. The center-cut prime New York strip with sherry-morel sauce was a superb cut of beef and irresistibly ignored the rule that such a thing should be the size of the palm of your hand. Although potatoes Anna (a sinful layered-potato concoction dripping with butter) were promised on the menu, first-rate herb-flecked mashed spuds were a satisfying substitute. And forget the palm of your hand -- the milk-braised pork chop is as big as your fist. Although almost two inches thick, the fork-tender chop was perfectly cooked through and through, and the thyme-flavored cream sauce was silkily luxurious.

A roasted and lightly lemon-peppered chicken breast made a less massive but equally enjoyable meal, and the sides (sautéed spinach, sweet potatoes) lent tasty rustic and health-food overtones. Touted as Chef Polo's Choice, two slabs of grilled red snapper with sweet slivers of Vidalia onion, chunks of tomato and lumps of crab meat accompanied by some rice pilaf and one giant stalk of not-too-al dente asparagus was both light and filling.

The dish called field & stream is nothing but Polo's version of good old surf and turf. Here, a smaller version of the exemplary steak mentioned earlier is paired with some grilled jumbo shrimp, sprinkled with lump crabmeat and served with mashed potatoes, both white and sweet.

Desserts at Polo's are pretty standard but exemplary. Pistachio-crusted Key lime pie was neither too sweet nor too sour. A triple-layer cake made of white, milk and dark chocolate mousses was pure cocoa harmony. A homey peach tart was perked up by a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. Even though I didn't detect the hint of lavender it supposedly contains, a buttery crème brûlée also hit the spot. And thick banana slices, bits of pineapple and a splash of whisky sauce boosted the flavor quotient of a pillowy hunk of bread pudding.

Despite the elegant and polished atmosphere (unexpected palate-cleansing raspberry or pink grapefruit sorbets precede entrées), the friendly and alert servers aren't punctilious about where to stand when delivering and removing plates. If the roving maitre d' sees an empty sweetener packet on the table, he isn't above picking it up himself.

In short, Polo's Signature manages to be ritzy, relaxed and rewarding all at the same time.

Polo's Signature
  • Location: 3800 Southwest Freeway
  • Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday
  • Phone: 713-626-8100
  • Web site: www.polosignature.com
  • Summing up
  • Rating: Three-and-a-half forks