The space was nearly packed at 6 p.m. on a weeknight, the large dining room full of couples and foursomes lifting cocktails and perusing menus. A few hardy individuals occupied seats on the patio, seemingly paying no mind to the Houston June heat. It was a normal day at Ibiza.
I’d been invited to taste the new menu at the restaurant — it’s somewhat of a Houston mainstay, this Spanish–Mediterranean influenced eatery on Louisiana Street overseen by executive chef and co-owner Charles Clark for years now — and was looking forward to it. My most recent visit to the Clark Cooper Concepts venture had taken place in 2016. I was due for a return.
I began the evening with a Campari and Soda, my preferred apéritif. My dining companion was running late, so I sipped the drink and took in the scene. I view dining rooms as one would a theater stage, looking for a gesture here or there, watching the cast maneuver and negotiate, flirt and sulk and emote. The mood on that evening was light, the conversation fluid. The first act had begun.
Clark looked relaxed behind the tall bar that separates the dining room from the long kitchen; cooks stood at his right and left, quietly finishing orders. A few minutes later, Clark came to my table, bottle of wine in hand. It was something he had, in partnership with Jorge Ordoñez, created for his restaurants. Clark calls it the Dunlavy Cuvée. It’s 100 percent Chardonnay, nothing but stainless steel, so it’s crisp and bright. At $7 a glass a great value.
My guest arrived and took her seat. The chef returned, greeting the newcomer and asking us if he could just send out plates to the table, courses from his new menu. We agreed, and settled in.
First up, a watermelon salad, but with a twist, that being olives, feta, chiles. and sambal vinaigrette. And mint, my favorite watermelon mate. The bright red cubes mingled with the rest of the ingredients and all tasted comforting and risky at the same time, the vinaigrette contributing some spiciness that lingered. Clark’s unoaked Chardonnay was good here.
A party of six took over the table nearest ours, a birthday dinner, we ascertained. By now, all but four or five of the tables in Ibiza hosted diners. Up next for us was hot-smoked salmon, sockeye that was presented with a crème fraîche carrying subtle hints of orange and dill. On top of the delicate fish were small pearls of black caviar. Rich and buttery brioche-like toast squares finished the mix. I predict this item, as long as Clark keeps it on his menu, will prove to be popular. The texture and flavor of the salmon, which you should swipe through the crème fraîche and eat with a piece of the toast, will put you in a good mood. Slightly briny, warm, soulful.
The birthday group was toasting with Champagne, Clark greeted a couple at the front door, and we proceeded to some octopus. It had been grilled La Plancha, and it was crisp and tender, on a plate with chorizo from Spain and green zhug. Are you familiar with zhug? If not, you should get to know it, especially if you like some heat with your parsley and cilantro. All worked well with this course… the bite of the zhug tying it all together.
The Chardonnay was gone, so we ordered a bottle of Clark’s red Dunlavy, 100 percent Garnacha. The timing was ideal, because our next course was presa Ibérica, a succulent few pieces of that magical cut from the shoulder of the animal. You eat this anything other than rare at your own peril. Acorns do wonderful things to these pigs, and we benefit. Clark’s presa was tender, earthy… I added a few flakes of salt and was sated. The wine, full of dark berry and slight spicy notes, paired with confidence.
We were dining leisurely, slowly, talking and observing our fellow guests. Clark seemed to be having fun, stopping at tables and shaking hands, the enthusiasm genuine.
Dessert came — we asked to share whatever Clark wanted to feature — and were brought a deconstructed carrot cake. Cakes had been cut into thin layers, cream cheese frosting spread between each, until a four-layer stack resulted. The carrots and spice are evident, the icing not overly sweet, the whole a success.
We lingered, watching the crowd thin out. It was late. Clark was seated at a table in the rear with two employees, the three of them no doubt discussing tomorrow’s service. As we left, he waved, taking in his theater, another performance over.