These Littleneck clams are briny and a bit spicy and are a perfect way to begin a meal at State of Grace.
It was not yet 6 in the evening, but lunch that day had been a banana and I was hungry. I am not in the habit of having dinner that early, but it’s never a bad thing to try something new, and that’s how I found myself accepting an invitation to dine at State of Grace, the purpose being to sample a few of the newer items on Bobby Matos’ menu.
We sat in the oyster bar, my favorite space in the restaurant, and one of my top interiors (culinarily speaking) in Houston. (When you next visit State of Grace, don’t neglect to admire the tile lining the curving seafood/shucking/prep bar.) Though I tend to avoid oysters in June, July, and August, I began the meal with a few Barcats. Smallish and slightly sweet, I ate two of them. (I want the first days of autumn to arrive quickly, because, for one thing, my appetite for oysters will return with gusto.)
What appeared on the table next was a thing of beauty: a tray of Littleneck clams, nestled in ice and topped with paper-thin serrano slices and tomatillo sorbet. If you like a forceful taste of the sea, order some of these. Firm and piquant and fun, they awaken your palate with, first, a bracing salinity, which is quickly followed by the pop of the serrano and the crisp tomatillo.
Time for the main courses, which, as with the oysters, I know I will enjoy much more once the temperature falls. These dishes are big and substantial and hearty: a bowl of squid ink stracci with shrimp Fra Diavolo and bottarga, and a suckling pig porchetta. The pasta was fresh and the fine technique used to incorporate the squid ink shone through. Heat (it’s Fra Diavolo, after all) and umami (the bottarga is a wise addition) are delicate and complex here, and the thick sauce clings to all in a satisfying way. One mouthful is a circus of flavors.
The porchetta, though much less busy on the palate than the pasta dish, would be my ideal Sunday dinner: field peas, blistered shishito peppers, a rich broth made from pig bones, and the suckling pig porchetta, which was stuffed with pork-leg sausage made at the restaurant. I had a memorable porchetta in Italy about six years ago, and this one was equally satisfying.
The broth alone is worth the price, and if you order this I don’t think you’ll want to leave any of it behind. Care (and time) went into it, and that was evident from the first taste, which was salty and deep and rich. (For some reason, chestnuts jumped to my mind.) The peas, which were served at room temperature, perhaps even slightly chilled, were cooked well, neither too soft nor undercooked, and the peppers added piquancy. The main actor in the dish, the porchetta, was moist and formed with aplomb and took me back to that restaurant in Umbria; it spoke with firmness, flavor-wise, but possessed a confident delicacy, one that epitomizes why it’s a pleasure and a privilege to consume food for reasons other than mere sustenance.
State of Grace is a busy pace, and Matos and his team have had success since opening last year. (If you want a table in the main dining room, get a reservation.) I’ve dined there on a number of occasions, and will return, to sit in the oyster bar and celebrate taste.