On the Table

Va Va Veuve

You’ve come a long way, Tony’s

By Robb Walsh March 15, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

On a cold night last December, four of us gathered at Tony’s to toast my birthday and the approaching New Year. We watched as the waiter popped the cork on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and poured champagne into each of our thin crystal flutes. Looking around, I felt a little disoriented. If you’d told me 10 years ago that I would someday celebrate my birthday at Tony’s, I would have said you were crazy.

After the champagne, the captain delivered a glass dome filled with white Italian truffles to the table for us to admire. The kitchen waiter arrived with four saucers of risotto, and the captain shaved thin, round slices from a walnut-sized specimen over our steaming rice. 

I leaned into the plate as he shaved the truffles, filling my nose with their intoxicating, fungal perfume and feeling their dizzying, pheromone-like pull. The lively conversation suddenly was replaced by a lot of guttural oohing and aahing as we dug in. A distant memory of a French forest and a truffle hunter flogging a pig that couldn’t be torn away from the truffles it had just unearthed flickered through my mind. 

Next came foie gras two ways, a perfectly seared piece cooked au torchon served alongside a cube of cold foie gras pâté. A lobster bisque with aged sherry was too salty for my wife, so I ate most of hers. My farfalle with little neck clams was a bit of a letdown after the huge flavors of the other dishes, and the pasta bowties were a tad undercooked. But I was impressed by a bite of freshly made, cream-filled burrata cheese served with veal, blistered green beans, and a fried egg that I stole from the plate of one of my dining companions.

The dining room was so dark I needed reading glasses to see the menu. For a second, I felt like an old codger with my cheaters on, but then I chuckled as I glanced around the dining room full of mink-draped octogenarians and elderly guys in suits. 

Change comes slowly to an institution like Tony’s, which is still the favorite restaurant of Houston’s old rich. But hardly anyone under 70 thinks of it as the city’s best restaurant anymore.

The modern look of the Greenway Plaza dining room.

These days, Houston’s top restaurants are run by culinary wunderkinds like chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner at The Pass and chef Justin Yu at Oxheart. You don’t order your dinner—you simply choose the number of courses and then sit back while a parade of exquisite little morsels floats across your table. The ingredients may be familiar, but they’re barely recognizable after the chef’s astonishing transformations. The hollow bones are filled not with marrow, but marrow powder; the okra stands on its head. Each dish is more amazing than the last. 

Eating at these restaurants is the gastronomic equivalent of going to the opera. Asking for a salad would be like screaming out a request for “Freebird” during a tenor’s aria. Twice in the last year, I have attended friends’ birthday dinners at tasting-menu restaurants. And both times I felt like they were being cheated. 

Tasting-menu restaurants are not about you—they’re about the miracles that have been created by the chef. And after the waiter interrupts your dog-walks-into-a bar-joke to reverentially intone a long list of ingredients and descriptions of whatever infusing, powdering, foaming, tea-smoking, or nitrogen-freezing has taken place, you aren’t going to get any laughs.

Chicago celebrity chef Charlie Trotter brought the French-style “degustation” menu to America over 25 years ago. The restaurants in France that inspired Trotter offered multi-course tastings as an option alongside the regular menu, but Trotter offered tastings exclusively. Today, The French Laundry, Per Se, Alinea and most of America’s top restaurants do the same thing, some with as many as 40 courses. Lesser chefs are now going the tasting menu-only route too—it cuts down on food costs. But even in the hands of the world’s best chefs, a four-hour dinner can get tedious. 

The first critic to push back was Pete Wells of the New York Times, who observed that sitting through a tasting-menu dinner, he sometimes felt more like a victim than a guest. “The reservation is hard won, the night is exhausting, the food is cold, the interruptions are frequent,” Wells wrote last fall. “The courses blur, the palate flags and the check stings.”

Vanity Fair’s Corby Kummer wasn’t far behind, lamenting the shift in power from patron to chef in a recent story called “Tyranny—It’s What’s for Dinner” and asking, “How did the diner get demoted from honored guest whose wish was the waiter’s command to quivering hostage in the thrall to the chef’s iron whim?” 

Even a guy I sat next to on a plane recently had an opinion on the subject. Eating a bite of this and a bite of that isn’t everybody’s idea of a great meal, he said, adding, “It’s like a whole lot of foreplay and no sex.”

As for me, I think the opera is swell. But on my birthday, I wanted to clink champagne glasses, overindulge in my favorite foods, and have some fun. And so I booked a table at Tony’s.

A decade ago, I would have told you that Tony’s represented everything that was wrong with the Houston fine-dining scene. It was a throwback to the restaurant culture that Henri Soulé presided over in New York at Le Pavillon in the 1950s—but without Jacques Pépin in the kitchen. Tables were assigned by social station, and obsequious waiters provided lots of bowing and scraping but didn’t know anything about the provenance of the ingredients. 

The nominal chef was Tony Vallone, but he didn’t do much cooking in his expensive Italian suit. The menu was a train wreck, with pasta on the antipasto menu and parmesan breading on the fish—Italian-food purist Marcella Hazan would have fainted. 

While the food at Tony’s has changed, not everything has. Where they’re seated remains of paramount importance to many of the Tony’s faithful, and the service, while more modern, is what brings them back. It’s not all about the chef here; it’s still all about making the diner feel special.

I discovered the new Tony’s about three years ago, when I happened to end up there for a lunch of luscious, double-cut, grain-fed Elysian Fields lamb chop served over mushy peas. I realized that the young chef, Grant Gordon, was way ahead of the curve in bringing in the pampered Pennsylvania heritage lamb, which is raised on grain and spring water and considered by many chefs, including Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, to be the best in the country. I like local, but I haven’t looked at Texas grass-fed lamb the same way since. 

When did Tony’s start hiring cutting-edge chefs? “When we moved from Post Oak to Greenway Plaza in 2005, we started over,” Tony Vallone told me. “I wanted more than a ‘see and be seen’ restaurant with good food. I wanted a serious restaurant with fabulous food. I started hiring chefs and putting them in the spotlight.” 

Lunch may be the optimal time to head to  Greenway Plaza to eat at Tony’s. The dining room looks best during the daytime, when the earth-tone colors of the rounded walls, elaborate woodwork, and enormous flower arrangement glow in the sunlight. But at any time of day, the water wall entrance and giant sculptures are a little over the top.

Nevertheless, the $21, three-course “Greenway Express” lunch is one of the best deals in the city. Three courses I sampled recently included a creamy bowl of potato-leek soup, a stellar plate of orecchiette pasta in a sauce of simmered tomato and crispy guanciale, and a honking slice of New York cheesecake for dessert. 

For my birthday dinner, I ordered elk, and it was spectacular. A perfect cylinder of wild game was cooked sous vide to rare, then seared so that the meat went from charred on the edge to medium-pink on the outer ring to red-rare in the center of the bull’s eye. As I ripped the meat apart with my steak knife, the rich, gamy taste, bloody juice, and chewy texture summoned my inner wolf.

Beside the meat was a pie pastry cup full of brashly seasoned elk and Dijon mustard chili, a mound of spicy, minced mustard greens topped with a bright-yellow egg yolk sauce, and an artful arc of reduced elk jus spread across the oversized white plate. There were no dainty flavors on this plate.

The current chef at Tony’s, Grant Gordon, started in the kitchen in 2009 at the age of 23. The Memorial High School alum graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and served an externship at Le Toque, a tasting-menu restaurant in the California wine country. He also worked at Café Boulud, part of chef Daniel Boulud’s New York restaurant empire.  

Shaving some cheese over the "Greenway Express" orecchiette pasta special

The elk dish came from the right-hand page of Tony’s menu, which is titled “Tasting Menu & Seasonal Creations.” Underneath those words, there’s a refreshing bit of text: “All items may be ordered a la carte.” 

The opposite page of the menu at Tony’s offers Italian-style appetizers, including the lobster bisque and burrata salad we had, a selection of meats, and another of seafood dishes. There are also house-made pastas and risottos, including the pansotti my wife ordered as her entrée. She loved every bite of the little blimps filled with butternut squash and floating in sage sauce. From the tasting-menu side of the menu, we also sampled a delicate, but unmemorable, halibut dish and a chef’s riff on seared filet mignon pieces with an interesting geometric presentation. 

I’m not anonymous anymore, so I got special treatment. A mutual friend had told manager Scott Sulma it was my birthday, and Tony Vallone sent us the truffle-risotto tasting and a bottle of red wine to mark the occasion. (We still managed to put just south of $500 on my credit card.) After our plates were cleared and the wine was finished, the waiter arrived with the giant chocolate soufflé that served as my birthday cake. There also was a cone of cotton candy with a sparkler for a birthday candle. I made a show of making a wish and trying to blow out the sparkler. 

Ten years ago, I wished that dinosaurs like Tony Vallone would fade into history and a new wave of chef-driven restaurants would give Houston the fine-dining scene it deserved. My wish came true—sort of. 

Today, Houston is one of the most interesting places to eat in the entire country. Brilliant young chefs are turning out remarkable, cutting-edge cuisine in new restaurants that are quickly gaining fame. But I chose Tony’s for my birthday dinner this year. Maybe I’m getting old. Or maybe the old dinosaur has evolved. 

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