Review: Goodbye Bella on the River, hello Bella on Houston

Bella on the River, the romantic alcove of a restaurant that opened on the River Walk in 2011, closed in August to make way for a condo project. But with that closing came the promise of reinvention, and Bella has reopened as Bella on Houston, in a much larger space just a few doors down from the Majestic Theatre.

But the new space is more than just a change of address. It’s like stepping from the Old World into the New, with towering windows and sleek shades of lavender and gray and bolts of fabric suspended from the ceiling like coronation banners.

For all the charm people associated with the old River Walk spot, I found its stone walls, tight table layout and low ceilings claustrophobic. The new Bella has twice the seating capacity and room to breathe, even as it incorporates pieces from the old space, including glass vases in lollipop hues, a vintage balcony railing and a polished wooden banquette with lean, Scandinavian lines.

On the menu: Bella on Houston re-creates the River Walk menu almost to the letter. To gauge whether the move tilted the kitchen’s axis, I ordered the same spread as I did in December before the move. Spoiler alert: If you liked the old Bella, the new Bella will feel like home already.

Eggplant Josephine ($12) was a deceptively complex appetizer: a short stack of fried eggplant layered with shrimp, then shrouded like a Cinnabon with mozzarella cheese, hollandaise sauce and a tangy red pepper Diablo sauce. The hollandaise will make you think of eggs Benedict, the mozzarella and eggplant will put you in an Italian mindset, and the Diablo sauce is like a Spanish-Mediterranean accelerator.

Paella with shrimp, clams, mussels, chorizo and chicken ($32) carried over the pros and cons of the River Walk version. The surf and turf elements? Clean and fresh and perfectly cooked. The rice? More like risotto, soft and clumpy with an underdeveloped tomato-pepper character. A paella divided against itself, but still standing.

Bella’s lamb chops delivered a well-seasoned trio of two-bone chops stacked against each other like a carnivoral arsenal. Seared to a sunburned rare with only carrot jus, arugula and a schmear of eggplant puree to back them up, the chops were on their own to carry the plate. At $42, they needed more substantial support.

On ExpressNews.com: Review: Boudro’s on the River Walk is showing its age

I found that support with a separate side of potato croquettes ($12 for three), with shells as crisp and delicate as spun glass over velvety mousseline cores with a contrastingly sharp sun-dried tomato aioli.

More modest in sweep, a fan of rosy-red duck slices laid across sweet potato puree and a bed of lentils brought the night’s best blend of composition, flavor and balance ($28).

Virginia’s Pistachio Cake ($8) is the kind of dessert loyalists swear by. But it’s also part of the way Bella’s adapting to its new downtown market, as part of a $40 three-course pre-theater menu for clients on the move and a restaurant determined to keep up.

How to drink tequila and mezcal like a grown-up

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Patron’s tequila has changed over the years. According to a spokesman for the company, Patron changed distilleries in 2002, but the company has not changed production methods since it launched in 1989, and the tequila has not changed. This version has been updated.

No one bawls “PAAAAARRRTY!” when they see a bottle of Glenlivet.

Is it some dormant memory of Cancun, Mexico vacations past? Did we all come of age in a Texas honky-tonk, where swallowing the worm at the bottom of a bottle was a means to prove we had hair on our chests?

Me, I don’t want hair on my chest. I want to have a good cocktail. I want to sip good spirits. And if you’re offering me a drink that requires me to first salt my palate, knock back a shot with my eyes closed, then suck on a lime to get rid of the taste . . . well, partner, sign me up for a hard pass.

I’ll go drink tequila somewhere they know better.

Tequila, opined a travel writer for the New York Times, “has come a long way in the last 20 years. It is now old hat to drink it ‘neat’ in the old manner – touching the tongue to a pinch of salt and then sucking in the juice from a sliced lemon as you grimace and gulp down the tequila.” He wrote that in 1968. I guess some “old hats” get stuck on heads forever.

I’d long assumed spring-break culture had helped perpetuate the shot-slamming approach to tequila and the lingering bias against it. Many a terrible cheap tequila is consumed in Cancun – or as I call it, Fort Lauderdale South – and consumed in great, sick-making quantities.

But some of the attitude is homegrown, says David Suro, an importer, restaurateur and president of Siembra Azul tequila. During Mexico’s golden age of cinema, he says, movies regularly depicted stars shooting tequila, wincing and reaching for lime and salt. In fact, Suro says, for years Mexican elites didn’t even drink tequila; they looked to European spirits and French wines, dismissing their native spirits as the stuff of peasants. It took the investment and approval of wealthy foreigners to make many Mexicans give agave spirits a deeper look; these days, interest is surging and drinking mezcal is a point of national pride.

Adequately explaining the difference between tequila and mezcal is tricky. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, one that can be made only in the Mexican state of Jalisco and a few other places; it must use only agave tequilana, not other agave species. Mezcal can be made across a wider geographical range of Mexico, from a range of agave species. The differences in ingredients, terroir and production processes result in a bit of a head-scratcher: The mezcal sold as “tequila” doesn’t usually taste like the mezcal sold as “mezcal,” and “mezcals” can taste very different from one another.

Agave spirits break drinkers into camps. There are the haters, who once drank too much tequila and decided the experience was representative and that all tequila sucks.

There are drinkers who have discovered “premium” tequilas. “Premium” is a confusing term, used by the industry to reference more expensive bottles, but often understood by drinkers to mean “better.” Many premium tequilas are beautifully bottled, celebrity-endorsed and brag of their multiple distillations and resulting smoothness.

And then there are agave nerds. These days they, too, may express contempt for tequila – but for different reasons. As the tequila business boomed over the past decades, many producers moved away from their rustic roots, getting swallowed up by multinationals and shifting to more industrialized processes to meet volume demands. These shifts have gradually changed tequila. While some great, traditionally made brands still exist, many of the bestsellers have had their flavors smoothed by industrial processes, emerging as what some now scornfully refer to as “aga-vodkas.”

Such “premium” tequilas alienate many in this camp, who gravitate instead to mezcals. Made by small producers working much as they would have 100 years ago, most mezcals are still hyperlocal, beloved by people who value spirits as expressions of the places they came from. While the use of roasted agave makes a smoky taste a common note in the spirit, there are mezcals with flavors as varied as pine, cheese, flowers and leather. That variety and complexity is what enthusiasts enjoy.

In Mexico, beyond limes and salt and margaritas, tequila is often served with sangrita (“little blood”), a nonalcoholic chaser of citrus and chile that’s sometimes part of a “bandera” – shots of lime, blanco tequila and sangrita, three colors echoing the Mexican flag. There are many recipes and commercial mixes – some have Worcestershire sauce, many have tomato juice; more traditional versions lean toward citrus and pomegranate. Another occasional partner is verdita (“little green”), a mix of cilantro, pineapple, jalapeño and mint, which sometimes stands in for the lime juice shot in the bandera.

In most mezcal bars, the spirit is served neat, says Megan Barnes, beverage director at Espita, the mezcaleria in Washington. In the States, she says, it’s most often served in veladoras, small glass votives with a distinctive cross on the base, or in clay bowls called copitas. In Mexico, typically it will be poured into a jicara, a hollowed shell of the fruit from a calabash tree, served sitting on a little woven circlet of grass that keeps the vessel from tipping. Pours are often served with slices of orange and sal de gusano, a powdered blend of salt, chile peppers and dried agave worms (you may decide to call this “nope” powder, but it just tastes like spicy, savory salt).

Trial wraps up in lawsuit against the state by developmentally disabled Texans

A month-long trial alleging the state illegally warehoused more than 3,600 intellectually or developmentally disabled Texans in nursing homes wrapped up Thursday, but a ruling is not expected until the first part of next year.

Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio said it may be “a while” before he decides the matter because he has to pore over the testimony of a multitude of witnesses and evidence presented during the non-jury trial. Following closing arguments Thursday, the judge also ordered additional legal briefings over at least the next month.

“I know the issue is incredibly important,” the judge said. “I will review everything carefully, the briefs. …We will take the necessary time to decide the matter.”

The plaintiffs, disabled persons represented by organizations that include The Arc Texas and the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities, first sued state officials in 2010 alleging the state’s actions violated federal law and kept disabled persons from a better quality of life.

The case was later certified as a class action, and the Justice Department joined the suit as an intervenor in 2012, siding with the disabled plaintiffs.

In 2013, the state and the plaintiffs reached an interim settlement agreement that in part called for Texas to expand community services and create a service team for each disabled person. In return, the suit was put aside for two years, according to testimony. But the agreement was ended in 2015.

“We were on different planets. I think the planets were always far apart,” Elizabeth Brown Fore, deputy chief of the general litigation division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, told the judge in response to a question during her closing arguments. “There was an effort so that an agreement could be made, but…some of the stickier issues were left to the end. The stickier issues should have been handled at the beginning.”

But, she added: “We don’t believe federal law requires what they believe federal law requires, and that’s what it boils down to.”

She further argued that the state is abiding by federal laws and goes beyond what requirements say, but that the actions failed to appease advocates.

“Everyone who has asked to leave a nursing home, or be diverted instead, and who has met the criteria and is safe, according to treatment officials, to be moved into the community and has requested it, has been moved into the community,” Brown Fore said. “It feels like every time we make a step, they say, ‘Ok, but it’s still not quite enough.’”

Trial testimony included expert witnesses dueling it out about what current or best practices are for dealing with the disabled, the varied care in nursing facilities and what federal law or regulations, including amendments over the years, say or mean.

Some of the disabled plaintiffs or their relatives also testified about how the disabled persons suffered setbacks — wearing diapers because they were unable to use the bathroom, gaining weight and developing diabetes from inactivity, for example — when they were placed in nursing homes. A community setting, like being placed in a group home, gave them access to better quality of life, such as being able to get a job, take in a movie, visit with friends and family and attend church services.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the Justice Department said in closing arguments that the state violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, Medicaid rules and other federal laws through a series of shortcomings that included: An inadequate screening process to ensure that people who did not need to go to nursing homes instead got diverted into a community setting, or that if they were placed in a nursing facility, they did not get specialized services and that they were not even given adequate information that they had the option of seeking a community setting. The plaintiffs want the judge to find that the state violated federal law and issue an order instructing officials to comply.

“The crux of our case is what is happening to 3,600 developmentally disabled people who are in nursing homes throughout Texas,” attorney Steven Schwartz with the Center for Public Representation, said in closing arguments. “They should be receiving specialized services while there in the nursing home facility, active treatment and the opportunity to move out into the community.”

Schwartz and attorney Alexandra Schandell with the Justice Department, gave examples of disabled persons who languished in nursing facilities only to flourish when they were moved to a community setting.

Among them was Richard Krause, a disabled 38-year-old man who Schwartz said had no support, rehabilitative treatment or specialized services that were required while he was in a nursing facility from 2001 until 2014.

He went from sitting or lying in his nursing home bed, not being able to use the bathroom on his own and wearing diapers to working, getting around in a wheelchair, and going to the bathroom on his own when he was finally placed in a community-based setting with necessary support.

“It was only because of the advocacy of Disability Rights Texas, (pressure from his father)…and because he was a named plaintiff that his life changed,” Schwartz said. “For the other 3,600 people still in nursing homes, little has changed.”