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

November 14, 2018

Note: This is a Just a Taste review, which the Express-News does soon after a restaurant or bar opens to give our first impressions.

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.

As Bella owner David Snyder handed over a menu at the new spot this week, I heard him tell a customer, “The only thing that’s changed is the address.” For the food, that’s the absolute truth. It’s the same European and Mediterranean-inspired menu as before, with dishes such as paella, mussels, steak Florentine, lamb chops, duck and that signature stacked appetizer known as Eggplant Josephine.

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.

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.

Location and hours: 204 E. Houston St., 210-404-2355, bellaonhouston.com. 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Mike Sutter is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read more of his stories on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | msutter@express-news.net | Twitter: @fedmanwalking | Instagram: @fedmanwalking

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