Osteria il Muro: Fancy, but Denton Fancy

Osteria il Muro: Fancy, but Denton Fancy
Francobolli (postage stamps), Yukon gold and leek filling, ostera caviar, clam butter, chive oil, snowflake celery leaves

by Rob Curran

My younger daughter went to Cotillion the other day. I still don’t really know what Cotillion is, and I was there with her. Google says it was popular in 18th century England, which suggests to me that things must have been kind of slow in 18th century England. In theory, the stuff she was learning was cool. The waltz! Salsa dancing! I could see her loving those steps. But she’s a Denton girl, happiest when spitting sunflower seeds onto the side of the soccer field ahead of a beer-garden picnic. The Jane Austen-does-Dallas vibe didn’t go over with her at all: she squirmed her way through the “worst 90 minutes of my life.”

Her favorite moment, by her own account was when she threw her woolly glove to me and shocked the Cotillion instructor, who had just been talking about how he was a veteran of a thousand Cotillions and was unshockable.

I was a tiny bit reticent about going to Osteria il Muro. I feared I’d feel like a Denton girl in her woolly gloves at a Cotillion. As it turns out, il Muro is as fancy and gourmet as everyone says, but in the finest Denton way.

The waitress set the tone by complimenting my station wagon. For all its charms, the Camry is not the kind of ride that would turn heads at a Dallas steakhouse, or at least not for the right reasons. When the Camry takes a hill, or even a slightly inclined ramp into a restaurant parking lot, it makes no secret of its distress. It judders and creaks like a five-ton walrus climbing into an old brass bed. If the Camry impressed the waitress, I decided, snootiness was not going to be a problem.

She followed through with a wine recommendation, a sumptuous Venetian red wine. Il Muro is expensive, but the wine seemed like a bargain.

A Denton friend had already insisted I load up on the bread, which is supremely Dentony advice. This bread is so good, it gets its own paragraph. Actually, make that two.

I’m Irish. If you are what you eat, I’m about 49% bread and 49% potato, and maybe 2-2.5% whiskey ice. I might not know how to bake bread, but I know how to eat it. I’ve eaten bread straight off the oven stone and bread out of the leftover pile at the bussing station. I’ve eaten entire bowls of soup without resorting to a spoon once. Open-faced, closed-faced, two-faced, club, roll, sub, flat, borderline moldy, moldered away – I’ve had more bread-based lunches than the Earl of Sandwich. When it comes to freshly made bread, there are two kinds — the restaurant kind that’s almost all crust and is a formidable vehicle for butter conveyance; and the homemade kind, which is generally way too bready. (Restaurants probably skimp on the dough for financial reasons, but it ends up being subtle, kind of a chiaroscuro effect where all the air pockets enhance the fluffy bits in between.) Homemade bread calls too much attention to itself, robbing the humblest starch of its humility. Somehow, il Muro bread is a completely original creation that doesn’t step on the butter. The butter, naturally, was freshly churned and it was a creamy delight. Here was all the fun of generic restaurant bread, with the flair of thoughtful food.

The liver mousse came with more of a typical restaurant bread, toasted, which was perfect for dipping and slathering. Also made in-house, the mousse had the strong flavors you want in a meat spread, without the usual somewhat stale after-taste of pate. I could have stopped after the bread course and been completely bowled over.   

Oxtail is one of my spirit flavors. If you’re not familiar, oxtail is uber beefy, more beefy than Tupac’s last album. I grew up dipping my dad’s batch bread into my dad’s Knorr oxtail soup. (Not my dad’s in the sense that he cooked it – he often didn’t. My dad’s in the sense that he was the one trying to eat it.)

I recently used fresh oxtail from Kroger to make noodle-soup broth and was reminded of its pungent magnificence. It had never occurred to me to use it for a pasta sauce. At il Muro I had tortelli with oxtail ragu – meat sauce, which is usually just ground-beef based. Genius! The sauce is verging on tart in the best possible way. I like a bolognese with a bit of punch and this one punches like Rocky Marciano in his pomp. I’m also a bit of a skeptic about homemade pasta. At least, my own. The tortelli, or square ravioli, is a one-bite, inviolable argument for making your own pasta. It’s got so much more variegation than the store-bought ravioli, which is almost impossible to boil into anything other than a lukewarm cheese clod. The bite on the tortelli has the perfect amount of fight in it. This one is stuffed with a pleasantly light polenta, so that the shell and the filling are almost equally tasty. And, here, I’ll make a confession. I didn’t actually order the tortelli. It was my wife’s tortelli. I still haven’t shaken the habit of eating over other people’s shoulders.

I ordered the risotto. A warning on the risotto: it’s delicious but it’s not the heavy, cream-laden stuff that we’re all used to getting. I found the slightly al dente consistency of the rice and the subtler flavors of the sauce intriguing. I was glad, however, that I had taken my friend’s advice to go to town on the bread.   

The vibe is Denton luxe, or comfy-classy. The building is at the site of the old Seven Mile Café, which always seemed like a large area to me, roughly seven square miles. Whatever way the owners arranged it, the building was back to feeling like one of my old friend’s houses in Denton, one of those cozy clapboard places with a porch swing out front.

The contrarian in me spits out their tater tots whenever I hear the word “organic” or “local food.” I don’t care what neighborhood my coq au vin grew up in, or whether the bed of watercress it’s sitting on was spritzed with nitrogen or cow-poo as a sprig. If it tastes good and didn’t come out of a Sam’s freezer vat, I’m in. At il Muro’s, I finally got it. There’s a cohesiveness to the place. The paint job suits the house, maybe because it was a local painter – or maybe the management themselves. The pate suits the bread, and the bread suits the risotto. It’s an organic experience in the sense that the evening – and the wine – flows in a smooth, natural-feeling fashion. This was one of the best 90 minutes of my Denton life!