It's been well over a year since the last time we ate at Brio Tuscan Grille, but with over 400 restaurants in The Woodlands, it's hard to get around to all of them in any short span of time. Especially when you factor in all the meals we eat at home, meals where we don't pick the restaurant and meals in our favorite restaurants we return to time and time again but don't review again and again.. :) And it's no secret which of the Italian Restaurants in The Woodlands is our favorite, but not every Italian restaurant prepares foods using the same regional style, and we're (almost) always up for experimenting with something new or different. There are two (+) full service, Italian Restaurants at The Woodlands Mall, Brio Italian Restaurant and Carrabba's Italian Restaurant both having been enjoying a lengthy run in The Woodlands Restaurant Scene.
During our recent weeknight dinner at Brio Tuscan Grille, a not-so-much advertised special was available: three courses for $19.95. We thought, why not? Any excuse to have dessert with your meal is a great reason to try it. When we say that the special wasn't advertised we mean simply that it isn't something you will hear via most commercial mediums as the expiration date isn't known to the local venue. We actually found out about it via a friend on Facebook (who got it via a Brio newsletter) and it was posted on a small marquee just outside the front door of the restaurant. The corporate offices at Brio schedule these types of deals seemingly at random times and can end them just as suddenly according to Chad, one of the managers at Brio.
It was an early-evening dinner on a Wednesday night - about 6:30 when we arrived. The restaurant was perhaps only half full, but Brio is a rather large restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating. We were seated at a table which had a view of the beverage station, giving us a running stream of servers doing their thing... or not. One thing I did notice time and time again is a "no-no" action that is a strong pet peeve for me - every single server that arrived at that particular station, after filling a glass, would reach up into the open-top straw container, grab an unwrapped straw and then push it down into the drink, fingertip on top. I know, I know, the illusion of absolute cleanliness in a restaurant is just that, an illusion. But play it up for me, will you? Either use wrapped straws or bring them to the table with you wrapped in a clean napkin and maintain the appearance that the straws are untouched. These waiters (as do most) handle a wide variety of things as they perform their duties, some of these items, money for example, are not clean and I don't know when was the last time his or her hands were washed or sanitized before handling that item which I am about to place into my mouth. [just saying]
Anyway, enough about that. While we perused the menu, we were presented with two types of bread: a wonderful, crusty, hot sourdough and an interesting flatbread that appeared to be topped with rosemary, sesame seeds and Parmesan. The flatbread was cooked to the consistency of a well done cracker and was dark in color, really good stuff if you like flatbread. The sourdough was fresh and fluffy and begged to be eaten with haste. Resistance is futile but we prevailed having only eaten slightly less than 2 loaves before our entree's arrived. I ordered the Bistecca Insalata (or "wedge salad") to start my meal. The salad came nicely presented with a heavy knife for cutting up the lettuce. The tomatoes and lettuce were both very fresh, no signs of wilting and a nice snap to the tomatoes. The dressing was a creamy Parmesan, with a good saltiness to the Gorgonzola which was complemented by the bacon bits. Both of our salads were very large, which forced me to stop long before I'd eaten half of it, for fear I wouldn't have room left for my Chicken Limone.
In hindsight, I should have eaten more of my salad. The Chicken Limone is served with a side of Campanelle Florentine, a pasta with a light sauce. As the chicken was steaming upon arrival, I sampled the pasta first and was delighted. The bow tie pasta was cooked al dente, paired nicely with a mildly-creamy tomato-basil sauce. I loved how fresh it tasted together. I next cut into one of the two large chicken breasts, which appeared to be tender and juicy. The Limone sauce used at Brio is interesting. It is Piccata style with white wine, lemon and capers. Unfortunately, the chicken itself is only egg-washed before being cooked, and the complete lack of traditional seasoning and dredging in flour leaves the chicken bland and honestly, quite tasteless. Even the additional Limone sauce that was offered to me did little to boost the flavor. Once I began to chew, the sauce came away from the meat leaving it dull once more. I would really like to see them update the recipe by adding some seasoning, or maybe even marinate or braise the chicken prior to cooking and serving it.
I started my meal with the Brio Chopped Salad, a selection of chopped greens with tomatoes, olives, onions, cucumber, Feta and red wine vinaigrette. This particular style of chopped salad is a new one to me and I was feeling a little experimental that day, I tried it and found it to be very tasty and as in a familiar fairy tale, "this one was just right." As Lasagna is one of my favorite Italian dishes I ordered the Lasagna Bolognese Al Forno, oven baked and layered with a Bolognese meat sauce, Alfredo, Ricotta and Mozzarella cheeses. Served up in a large boat type dish, the lasagna spread from coast to coast with a little strip of color across the middle. The flavors were wonderful, the melted cheeses and the meat sauce are a great match for each other but I would have liked to have had more of the tomato sauce. This particular dish of lasagna was layered and sectioned to boot - the meat in the middle and the cheeses to either side for the most part. Maybe that's a more traditional way of doing it resulting in a thick middle and thinner ends where that delicious melted cheese resides. For me, I like it with layers of all the good stuff intermixed throughout so I get more of the flavors in every bite. Oh, and did I mention that there wasn't enough tomato sauce?
Regardless of the desserts being petite and only a few bites each, we both had trouble finishing them. The meals had been very generously portioned, (we left doggy bag in hand). But for the sake of writing the review, we had to try them - he had the Carrot Cake and I the Red Velvet. Both of them were delightful, not too rich or too sweet. The carrot cake had a drizzle of caramel on it, which added a nice twist to the traditional cream cheese frosting but the praline bits were the best part. The red velvet was good and chocolatey, with some chocolate sauce added in for good measure.
The service could have been better - straw-touching incident aside, we noticed our server tended to get distracted in conversation with patrons on the patio, leaving us sitting for long stretches of time. It appeared that he had tables both inside and outside of the dining area which left us feeling a bit stranded from time to time. Fortunately, the wait staff does perform as a team and another server with nearby tables was there to assist us from time to time while our server was away. We would suggest on evenings when the patio is being utilized, servers be dedicated to it, even in some sort of rotation, but not be split between indoors and outdoors. The overall atmosphere is nice, with an upscale feel - except for the butcher-paper covering the linen table cloths on the tables. It's an oddity, as the booths go uncovered altogether, but tables get cloths and paper and we found ourselves feeling a bit second class. While we do understand that cleaning bills can be costly, the paper on the tables really doesn't seem to justify the savings; at least offer us some crayons while we wait, LOL... Still, it remains an inviting dining room with comfortable seating and plenty of room between one table and the next. Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Brio Tuscan Grille. Though they are a chain, the quality of their ingredients make for admirably semi-authentic Italian. We would certainly add them to our short list of recommendations for Italian Food in The Woodlands and with three courses for $19.95 you can't go wrong.
Brio Tuscan Grill
California Pizza Kitchen
Crust Pizza Panther Creek
Crust Pizza Company
Crust Pizza Alden Bridge
Luca & Leonardo
Mama Mia Italian
RC's New York Pizza
Russo's New York Pizza
Pizza in The Woodlands
Russo's New York Pizza
Via Emilia Due
Zazza Pizza Cafe