In music criticism, there is much discussion of a phenomenon known as “difficult second album syndrome.” In that world, for every Marshall Mathers LP or The Bends, there are several misfires along the lines of Hootie & the Blowfish’s Fairweather Johnson or both of Guns N’ Roses’ overblown Use Your Illusion albums.
The cause is always the same: Following a breakthrough hit, musicians feel pressure to recreate the magic. Perhaps they have a cache of songs left from the cutting room floor that weren’t commercial enough to make it on the first collection, but that the artists believe are their best work. With new clout, the sometimes brilliant, sometimes impenetrable songs finally see the light of day.
The restaurant industry is no different. A success in the cutthroat world of the kitchen often leads to quick expansion in Houston, but it’s not always advisable. Just ask the Treadsack group, which opened five businesses in late 2015 and as of early 2017 had closed two of them.
But some restaurateurs have clearer heads, and greater success. Helen Greek Food & Wine, which earned a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation for best new restaurant in 2016, recently followed up with Arthur Ave, in an attempt to upgrade the old Italian-American osteria model just as Helen raised the bar for village-style Greek cuisine. Not long after, Yunan Yang, who opened Montrose Szechuan eatery Cooking Girl with her sister in 2015, attempted to repeat that restaurant’s unexpected popularity with Pepper Twins on West Gray. (Ed. note: Since this review was published, Cooking Girl has changed its name to Pepper Twins to avoid confusion with another, unrelated Cooking Girl in Sugar Land. That makes one Pepper Twins in Montrose and a second Pepper Twins location in River Oaks.)
Arthur Ave stands as a salute to the red-sauce outposts of the Bronx’s Little Italy, the kind of restaurant where a hit might take place in a Coppola movie. But in the hands of chef William Wright, also of Helen, the Heights restaurant offers far more than just a cinematic setting. The Kentucky boy attended culinary school in Parma and worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sicily, leaving him with a taste for the finer components of Italian cuisine.
The result is delicious to be sure, though it lacks the lustier elements of a downscale pizzeria. Dining there can feel like a date hesitantly asking first before he kisses you. Pizzas, for example, are served slightly more crisp than they would be in New York, just past the point of being foldable. The four-cheese blend is more complex than anything you’re likely to taste in the Bronx, and this is mostly a good thing, unless you’re expecting simple comfort food as advertised. If so, it’s best to order a pie that’s distinctly Wright’s own to escape comparisons. The 187th Street is especially delectable, with its lightly crisped, roasted mushrooms and prosciutto, zippy lemon ricotta, Parmesan and micro arugula.
Wright’s inventiveness also shines in his Caprese salad, which is far from your typical pallid mix of tomato, gummy cheese and basil leaves. Instead, there’s mozzarella that’s hand-pulled to-order, in sunny combination with colorful cherry tomatoes, arugula and aged balsamic all awash in basil oil. Even better is the seasonal insalata scarola, which centers around grill-marked escarole served in a meaty, nutty pancetta-walnut vinaigrette with a smear of salty Gorgonzola dolce and a farm egg languidly oozing its yolk.
But Wright’s opus is his lasagna. We’ve all fought for the crisp corner pieces of Mom’s otherwise mushy casserole. Imagine a version that’s nothing but the best part, and you’ve got an inkling of the chef’s thought process. Of course, unless you’re European, your mother’s lasagna was probably not a Bolognese, which has two sauces, a tomato-based meat one and creamy Béchamel. In Arthur Ave’s case, that Béchamel is made using high-grade, New Haven, Connecticut–made ricotta, incorporating the flavor of the cheese without its sloppy, often granular texture. The al dente, homemade pasta also enfolds an unconventional surprise: Tiny olives that tumble out from the crisp-edged personal-sized brick might seem like one ingredient too many, yet their saline burst just adds another layer of interest.
Pastas are a mix of dried noodles manufactured in Italy such as penne and fusilli, which Wright says he often prefers, and fresh ones made in-house. Both are fine, though my preference is for the thinner, hand-rolled homemade offerings. Among those, I was most impressed with a special of short-rib-and-Fontina-stuffed ravioli served with chard in uncommonly garlicky Bordelaise sauce.
The spaghetti is just fine, but strangely demure. Served with both the chicken Parmigiana (brined with Parmigiano-Reggiano and fried in an herb breading) and the Sunday Gravy (a $38 sauce spotted with braised pork and beef), the pasta came not tucked beneath the protein as is typical, but on its own plate, fussily rolled into a long spiral and topped with micro basil. Beautiful, yes. Practical, no. It’s about as sensible as charging $38 for spaghetti with meat sauce, no matter how fancy the local, ethical flesh.
But despite my brash New York id shouting, Wha’sa matta you?, I like Arthur Ave. The lasagna is worth all 2,100 pennies it commands, and I have no problem shelling out for innovative salads, pizzas or even the light-as-air chocolate-and-orange-peel-studded cannoli and intensely flavored gelati. But if it’s red-sauce comfort I want, I’ll head to a Romano’s Pizza instead.
Incidentally, Romano’s new across-the-street neighbor, Pepper Twins, is working a similar magic to Arthur Ave, using higher-end ingredients in a cuisine that usually avoids them. Perhaps even more interesting, it’s bringing Szechuan food to River Oaks, a neighborhood whose other Chinese options are decidedly Americanized. And yes, it’s possible to order General Tso’s chicken and beef-and-broccoli here, but that’s beside the point.
The reason to visit Pepper Twins is to have a Chongqing-native waiter guide you through a menu of his childhood comforts, although comfort may be relative. The restaurant’s name comes from a combination of Szechuan peppercorns (they call it nine-leaf pepper on the menu) and explosively hot, tiny chiles that flavor eponymous dishes featuring chicken, frog’s legs and “fish slides.” Ultra-tender Pepper Twins Beef practically vaporizes upon first bite, as if the fusion of numbing spice and heat were searing right through it.
But most of the dishes have less profound an impact. In authentic Szechuan restaurants, the mix of the tingling oblivion for which Szechuan peppercorns are noted, paired with the heat of a variety of chiles, can mimic the sensation (and pleasure) of a root canal for Western diners. As at Cooking Girl, the cooks at Pepper Twins mitigate this by generally focusing on one sensation or the other. Without the pepper-on-pepper assault, it’s also easier to appreciate the other flavors in each dish. Fish Loves Tofu, an oily stew that combines meaty white fish with melting chunks of tofu, blooms with ginger and garlic and has a subtlety not easy to find in the cuisine, courtesy of a slick of chile oil and moderate hand with the peppercorn.
Two noodle dishes, Mountain City Noodle, a native breakfast dish, and Broken Heart Jelly Noodle, lacked character, but were the only hotter dishes I tried that needed something extra. In both cases, a bit of vinegar would have gone a long way. But whether spicy, numbing or soothing, most of what I tried was difficult not to demolish by myself, despite the shareable portion sizes. One or two dishes come with more than enough food for two adults; more than that will result in days of leftovers.
With an emphasis on high-quality meats and organic fare, some of the best plates are nonetheless inexpensive thanks to sparing portions of meat. Sweet-and-sour eggplant, which all but melts in its tangy sauce, uses ground bits of Berkshire pork as little more than a seasoning. The same is true of the pork-studded Princess CiCi, its rounds of silken egg tofu as elegant as the name suggests.
There are no desserts at Pepper Twins, nor is there a long list of drinks sweet enough to fit the bill like the ones on offer at Cooking Girl. But there’s no need—with so wide a range of spicy savories you will want to eat until bursting, sweets would seem a timid end to an audacious meal.
Like Arthur Ave, Pepper Twins avoids the all too common second-album slump, and scores a chart-topping hit in its own right.