Midtown masterpiece

Some 20 years ago, sitting in an Italian restaurant in Texas called Godfather’s, with checkered tablecloths and fine art hanging on the walls, brothers Greg and Tony Barton had an idea. Greg was an artist and Tony could cook.

Why not start their own art-themed restaurant?

It would take nearly two decades for it to happen, and the location turned out to be Midtown Sacramento, not Houston, but that’s precisely what the New York natives did two-and-a-half years ago. Enlisting Greg’s wife Lauren, they opened up Michelangelo’s on I Street near the corner of 18th Street, in the space immediately adjacent to Greg’s gallery. Nowadays, when Second Saturday rolls around, it’s hard to tell which business is busier—Barton Gallery or Michelangelo’s.

Which was the basic idea in the first place.

We arrived at Michelangelo’s at 5:30 p.m. on Second Saturday in February, and people were already thronging out of the restaurant and the gallery. Fortunately, we had reservations, and we were quickly seated in a terra cotta-hued interior that sort of looks like Maximus’ villa in The Gladiator. The tables feature lacquered-over pages cut out of an art book about Michelangelo. Even the floor is a work of art: yellow and red splashes of paint on dark green and off-white checkerboard. “Jackson Pollack studied in Italy,” the Bartons call it. Keeping with the movies-starring-Russell Crowe-the-only-real-man-in-Hollywood theme, our waiter looked just like Guy Pierce—the good cop in L.A. Confidential. He was extraordinarily polite and patient with our many questions, which is why I’m saying such nice things about him.

One of the first questions was in regard to a cup of white beans in clear broth with pesto that had a minty, soothing flavor. Turned out to be a combination of super-fresh basil and rosemary. This is Tony’s thing—he uses the freshest ingredients he can lay his hands on in everything he makes. A cup of homemade New England-style clam chowder was equally compelling, with creamy broth and lots of clam and potatoes.

While the soup was great, the first hint that we were in for a remarkable meal was the baked goat’s cheese salad. An apricot-sized, golden-brown oblate spheroid of cheese topped a fresh pile of mixed greens, accented with sliced pears and walnuts. However, the scintillating secret ingredient turned out to be the balsamic vinegar reduction that was stuck to the bottom of the plate like molasses. You stab a bite of salad and slosh it around until the sticky stuff starts to dissolve—outrageous! It was my first experience with balsamic reduction; hopefully it won’t be my last.

For entrées, we selected chicken scaloppini and, flown in fresh from the East Coast, grouper, both served over pasta. Let’s start with the grouper. We’d had previous experience with this fish while on vacation in Miami, and the 3,500 miles it traveled seemed to have no effect: The white slab of fish meat was just as tender, flaky and delectable here as it was there. It was topped with a seafood ragu consisting of white wine, scallops and fresh-chopped tomatoes, onions, celery and carrots, turning the dish into a stratified bed of tastes and textures discernible by the rate each ingredient melted in the mouth.

Could the chicken scaloppini match it? Incredibly, yes. Tony sautées the sauce for each dish individually—which means he’s hella busy on a Saturday night—and the results speak for themselves: capers, fresh chunks of tomato and chopped olives poured over a couple of medallions of white breast meat sitting atop a mound of perfect al dente pasta.

Putting the exclamation point on the whole affair was a wonderful piece of tiramisu baked on the premises and served on a spiral of liquid fudge. Staring into that spiral, thinking about the excellent meal and service we’d just received, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by this Midtown masterpiece, Michelangelo’s.