Oftentimes, restaurant openings are hazardous mad dashes. Interior design needs to be completed, staff needs to be hired and educated, and menus need to be workshopped in truncated timelines to please investors, critics, and diners with little patience and short attention spans.
But at March, a 28-seat restaurant that opened this week in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, the lead-up process has been anything but rushed. Goodnight Hospitality (Rosie Cannonball, Montrose Cheese & Wine, Goodnight Charlie’s) announced the ambitious concept two years ago: a tasting menu-only restaurant that would explore what the Mediterranean means, via its layered histories, cultures and cuisines.
Business partners June Rodil, a master sommelier, and Felipe Riccio, the chef, put in the research, assembled all the pieces to match their grand vision, and prepared to open. Then the pandemic hit. So the doors remained closed, but they didn’t mothball the empty dining room for a year. They kept most of their culinary and service staff in place, including general manager and beverage director Mark Sayre and bar manager Alex Negranza, encouraging them to dive even deeper into their book studies of the region and fine-tune their tasting and hospitality skills.
“While it was heartbreaking to see them work and not be able to share that with the guests, there’s definitely been wonderful, poignant moments,” Rodil said. “It gave them the time to figure out how to maneuver and be nimble, to find that fluidity.”
In addition to the pandemic, the owners have also struggled with navigating new tariffs on European wine imports; a winter storm that ripped through Texas, wiping out many of the hyper-local ingredients they use in the kitchen; and vendor supply issues.
Finally, the wait is over.
March, which is reservation only, opened Wednesday night. The 5,000-square-foot space includes a 700-square-foot welcome lounge, 12-seat private dining room, and 11,000-bottle wine cellar, but sheds the buttoned-up trappings of fine dining (draped white table linens, ostentatiously folded napkins) in lieu of a worldly art collection, warm, textured fabrics and a welcoming open kitchen.
The restaurant’s six- or nine-course tastings, with optional wine pairings, are intended to focus on particular geographic regions and then evolve over time. The lounge, where all dinners begin, offers herby drinks, caviar service and meze snacks like foie gras bastilla with golden plums and schmaltz. This relaxing entryway is inspired by the Levant region—Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon—which the team calls the “gateway into the Mediterranean.”
The opening dinner menu is inspired by the Maghreb region of Northwest Africa—which the team calls the “gateway out of the Mediterranean”—that comprises the Arab countries of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
Dishes include Tuna Ventresca, a play on the Tunisian fricassee sandwich (tuna belly with smoky Cuquillo olives, a roasted pepper sabayon, and crunchy anise bread); couscous made with fennel, sea urchin, and chamomile; and a dessert of beeswax gelato with single-origin turmeric, honey, preserved lemon curd, and candied almonds.
The owners have avoided leaning into the conflict of the region at March, choosing to focus on the overlap instead. (They use the word “march” here to signify cross-cultural territory in borderlands.) More emphasis is placed on the structure of multicultural dishes rather than the rigidity of its preparation in one country or pronunciation in one language; they encourage diners to continue this dialogue with them.
“It’s a delicate balance to make sure we’re honoring dishes rather than translating them incorrectly,” Rodil said. “Whenever you are trying to showcase something layered, where there’s so much culture, so many ingredients, so many skills, it can sound really muddled.”
For example, their savory, stewy tagine of lamb’s heart, leeks, and mint is not served in the traditional earthenware pot, and it includes pig ears, which are haram.
“Having an unctuous and crispy ear on the dish lends so much to it, and I just can’t buy enough goat ears or lamb ears,” Riccio said. “That’s just not a thing here.”
It would have been easy for the partners to start March’s journey in Spain or Italy— Riccio, a native of Mexico, is of Spanish and Italian heritage and he’s worked in Italy (Osteria Francescana under Massimo Bottura), Basque Country (Restaurante Azurmendi) and New York (Blue Hill at Stone Barns under Dan Barber), among other places.
But his wife, Hayley, who was also an industrial designer on March, lived in Mauritania for years, and the couple traveled through the Maghreb together; it’s a region close to Riccio’s heart.
“We’re both immigrants, so it’s very easy [for us] to embrace so many other cultures because that’s the heart of who [we] are,” said Rodil, who was born in the Philippines. “For us, connections are the most important thing.”