Five years ago, I wasn't sure what to make of Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro. The little restaurant in Oak Forest that had just opened next door to a Kroger in a nondescript strip center was nothing like anything else in the area. Plonk owner Scott Miller, who spent years as the well-respected sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, remembers those early days well. "I had to drive seven miles to spend $100 on a bottle of wine or five miles to spend $50," he says. "And there was no craft beer; those were the days when Petrol Station was still a coffeehouse."
Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro
1214 W. 43rd St.
Miller opened Plonk as a place where his fellow Oak Forest residents could get those expensive bottles of wine, as well as chef-driven pub grub such as deep-fried braised oxtail balls with sharp, tangy mustard or the wine bar's now-famous guanciale burger, which tops a house-ground beef patty with cured pork jowl—a.k.a. guanciale, a.k.a. pig cheek bacon—and Swiss cheese to grand effect. Under the stewardship of executive chef Erin Smith, Plonk's stock as wine bar with killer food only rose. Smith spent nearly three years at Plonk before departing in 2012 for a high-profile gig with the Clumsy Butcher group (Anvil, Blacksmith, et al) and later landing a gig as the exec at the new JW Marriott Main Kitchen downtown. Throughout it all, the bar retained a curiously casual vibe—especially on its inviting side patio—that made it seem like more of a neighborhood watering hole than a dining destination drawing Houstonians from all over, excellent food and wine notwithstanding. But that's exactly how Miller wanted it.
"We have people in flip-flops and bathing suits come sit on the patio and relax but we also have date nights," says Miller of his diverse array of patrons, most of whom are Oak Forest residents both old and new. "We've got million dollar homes and people living in the homes they bought 60 years ago." Miller himself has lived in the area for 15 years, and while both Oak Forest and Plonk have changed drastically in just the last five years, one thing remains the same: "We're getting a lot of people from the Heights these days, but it's still very much a neighborhood spot."
Neighborhood stalwart status aside, a series of additional changes are heading to Plonk over the next few weeks, starting with the most visible aspect of the wine bar: its sign. The place has been infamously sign-less since opening, but Miller gave in to customer requests for a marquee marking the entrance, which will make its debut in a few weeks, though he was "very reluctant," he laughs.
Inside, patrons will notice that nearly everything about the interior has been given a facelift, from the fresh coats of paint and paper on the walls to the ground itself. "Just in the last couple of months, we tore out the floor and installed this beautiful Italian porcelain," says Miller, who's also replaced "every chair and barstool."
But perhaps the most exciting changes are still to come. Miller recently asked chef Casey Thompson of Top Chef fame to come in and help him revamp Plonk's menu. Thompson, whom Miller met several years ago through mutual friends, was keen to take a few weeks away from her Napa Valley home and to accept the challenge of creating a menu that keeps old favorites intact while coming up with a few new creations to complement Miller's massive wine list.
"Our cellar list has expanded and grown considerably here in 2015 but I'm doing a new program with the wine by the glass," says Miller. This new program features three tiers sorted by price: glasses under $10, $11 to $14, and glasses over $15. Within those tiers, wines are grouped from austere selections with more finesse to big, powerful wines—the kind that pair really well with, say, a guanciale burger. Which, it's important to note, is not going anywhere. "The neighborhood would be up in arms," Miller laughs.
Of note on Thompson's new menu: New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp served in a large cataplana. "We call them the dirty dozen," says Miller. "You'll get messy eating them, like eating crawfish, but it's a very New Orleans way to eat shrimp." Additional new dishes will be introduced over the next few weeks, with tweaks being made along the way. "We're always looking to improve," says Miller.
Plonk is celebrating its new look, new food and new wine list this week with a series of free wine tastings starting tonight. From 5 to 7 p.m., Miller will be hosting Philip Staehle from Sonoma winery Enkidu, who'll be pouring samples until they run out (which Miller says is usually early). Tomorrow night, Karen Cakebread, owner of Napa Valley's Ziata Wines, will be meeting with fans and sampling wines between 5 and 7 p.m. And on Thursday, Plonk will be pouring wines from Bethel Heights Vineyard in Oregon.
As for those wondering when a Plonk will open near them, the answer is: not anytime soon. "People are always asking me, 'When are you going to open Plonk 2?'" says Miller. "First, this one has to be right. And you ask yourself, what is it that makes this work? Part of it is this neighborhood; I'm a huge fan of Oak Forest." The enlightened Houstonian knows that there are many things are worth leaving the Loop for, and Plonk is one of them.