Rosalie will feature Italian classics with fresh local ingredients. (Photo by ROHE Creative)
Chef Chris Cosentino is bringing a new Italian restaurant to Houston. (Photo by Mark Mediana)
Rosalie hits Downtown Houston this fall. (Photo by ROHE Creative)
Margarita Rosalie Cosentino taught the Italian-American chef everything he knows.
Rosalie's dining room is meant to evoke a family home. (Photo by ROHE Creative)
By Tuesday, it was clear. Chris Shepherd had something hidden up his graphic T-shirt sleeve. Of course, he wouldn’t reveal it for another two days in the employees-only room linking The Hay Merchant to Georgia James.
Members of the media were ushered into the space, all exposed brick and exposed ceiling beams, at 4 pm on the last true work day of this Easter week. All were offered bubbly — either a glass of an Iron Horse cuvée or can of sparkling water.
Some of the reporters wore blazers, others jean jackets. But all wore a curious look. What was the announcement?
Were Shepherd and his friend and chef Nick Wong opening a new restaurant? A bar? Some other kind of concept?
Short answer: no. A new concept is opening, sure — just not theirs. But then, Shepherd is nothing if not an advocate for his friends.
“We’ve got some cool news. You good with this? Right on. Roll the footage,” Shepherd said, sporting jeans and a charcoal gray tee that read: “God brings the meats, the devil brings the cooks.”
Three monitors mounted on the wall lit up with close-up images of New York City, sepia photographs and fresh produce while an anonymous narrator described his relationship with his great-grandmother via voiceover.
“In the basement, my grandmother created kind of her own larder, her own kitchen where she would make dandelion wine, she would grow basil in tomato cans in her window all year. She lived the Italian way in America.”
The video ended, and a little bit of commotion started in the corner of the room. “Here’s the smoke machine — we’re f******* high-tech here,” Shepherd said.
“We’d like to be the first to welcome Chris Cosentino to town.”
Cosentino, a prominent San Francisco based celebrity chef and the owner of that disembodied video voice, stepped out of the smoke and crossed over to the center of the room.
“I’m honored to be coming to this city. I’ve known Chris for many years. I’m really, really looking forward to Rosalie. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Cosentino greeted the crowd.
He pulled up a chair, and Shepherd and Wong followed suit, sitting down on either side. The trio looked like the world’s finest hipster foodie panel.
“I’m a fourth generation Italian-American,” Cosentino said. “And my great-grandmother Margarita Rosalie Cosentino was the anchor of my childhood. Her marinara sauce is what’s going to be in the restaurant. Her meatball recipe is what’s going to be in the restaurant. Her recipes are synonymous with the restaurant.”
Rosalie Italian Soul, named for his great-grandmother, is the new restaurant, slated for a sometime-in-September opening in Downtown’ Houston’s recently revamped DoubleTree, now known as the C. Baldwin Hotel. Cosentino will be responsible for all the hotel’s eats, from grab-n-go to banquets and in-room dining.
Rosalie will be the crown jewel.
“It was a really powerful way to grow up as a little kid, hand-cranking pasta as a little kid, making tomato pie. I’m really building on the history that my grandmother gave me as a little boy. Hopefully I can do her justice,” Cosentino said.
The winner of Top Chef Masters and co-owner of San Francisco’s Cockscomb, Portland’s Jackrabbit and Napa Valley’s Acacia House, cut his teeth on Italian professionally at Incanto in San Francisco..
“We were extruding all our own pasta in-house, everything was whole animal, simple, old-school, elegant. What our goal with Rosalie is really to embrace that Italian-American love of pasta, love of beautiful simple salads and pizza. There’s just something elegant about pasta. There’s something to be said of the simplicity of the food,” Cosentino noted.
“It’s approachable. I don’t need to teach you how to eat it. Simple, straightforward, honest, no BS. Old-school, real food.”
“Sunday gravy nights, whole chicken Milanese pounded out, the whole thing shared. We’re going to do timpanos. How many of you have seen The Big Night? Remember the giant timpano? We’re doing mini timpanos.”
The menu’s still evolving, but it’s sure to feature Blue crab manicotti and crab sauce Americaine, wood-oven Gulf Shrimp Fra Diavolo and eggplant parmesan.
But the latter will have a twist. Instead of the classic — take an eggplant, slice it into rings, salt it, grill it, layer it — Cosentino wood fires the entire eggplant in the wood oven, then peels the skin off, presses it, then cuts incisions and fills them with cheeses, herbs and seasonings, then breads and bakes the whole thing.
“Comfort Italian food can go two ways,” Shepherd jumped in. “Super, super fancy or really, really shitty.” The room erupted in laughter.
“No, I don’t mean it like that. I think if you can find something that’s entertaining and thought-provoking, that’s really cool,” Shepherd explained. The crowd remained suspicious.
“I’ll eat at Spaghetti Western every f******* day. I love Italian nachos. Bring that shit on! That’s me. But there’s focusing on seasonal ingredients, what we’re doing here in the city, bringing that kind of Italian is really special,” Shepherd said.
Cosentino nodded. “It’s Italy done in a region called Houston. We’re taking what you have here and putting it in the Italian vernacular. Instead of a classic, you know, lobster spaghetti, it’s a crawfish spaghetti with a beautiful crawfish sauce.”
When it comes to Italian cooking, less is more. It’s about the product. And Cosentino is confident he can find plenty of high-quality, fresh local ingredients, courtesy of Houston’s diversity.
“I’m enamored with the diversity you have here. It’s so unique. There’s nothing like it,” Cosentino said. “Chris and I spent six hours in the car looking here, looking there. My eyes getting bigger, this is like Candy Land! I can find everything I want and more.”
But the growing seasons might just take some getting used to.
“A lot of things throughout Italy are hyper-regional, that’s what allows a menu to change. You’ve got a growing season here that’s unique,” Cosentino said. “I’m going to have to revisit my winter, spring, summer, fall seasons.
“Peaches! The fact that you guys have killer peaches right now blew my mind.”
Shepherd got up and left the room, sliding the door open and the music from The Hay Merchant got louder.
A Helping Chef
Shepherd was instrumental in Cosentino’s decision to make his Houston dream a reality, from taking him out to epic lunches at Truth BBQ to introducing him to local ranchers.
“Coming down here and spending time with Chris is what made me actually really want to sign the contract and say yes. That was it, being welcomed with open arms,” Cosentino said.
Shepherd came back into the room, the music swelling and falling again, bearing two white plates full of sliced peaches. The chef set them down on either side of the table. The juicy slices were picked up and eaten almost instantly.
“Knopp Branch Farm showed up with these peaches,” Shepherd said. “This just happened today. Last year, that late cold snap, it f***** up all the peaches. I haven’t seen these in two years. I’m so excited. They’re delicious right now, and it’s April 18th. Little things like this — that’s why you move here. That’s why you do things in this city.”
“Can I use the peaches?” Cosentino asked.
“No, you can’t use the peaches,” Shepherd shot back. “Get your own peaches.”