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Flipped inside out of its shell, and scored to unfold like a chrysanthemum, the two-pound Australian lobster tail looked as if it were not entirely of this earth. And it wasn't. "It's $69.95," murmured the waiter at Lynn's Steakhouse, presenting his exhibition platter of mountainous raw meats for our inspection. For a startled moment I wondered if I had heard correctly -- could he have meant $16.95? -- and then the enormity of the occasion sank in: I was confronting my first $70 entree.
The lobster tail glistened in the restaurant's dim light; it was the size of a football. I had to have it, for much the same reasons that people climb Mount Everest or kiss the Blarney Stone. "It's enough to feed three people," the waiter reassured me kindly, and it was: sweet and middling-tender from its pass under the broiler, a great deal more satisfying than I would have expected from a creature that at one point in its career had been flash-frozen. Let the guy-guys at The Palm wrestle those whole monster crustaceans to the mat; here at Lynn's, the bourgeoisie puts a delicate fork to nothing but solid, hassle-free lobster flesh.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed this preposterous conversation piece more than the prime steaks on which Lynn's has built its reputation. The restaurant's lofty 26 food rating in Zagat had primed me to expect dazzlement and stupefaction on the order of nearby Brenner's. But the more I ate, the more I longed for my pricey red-meat palace of choice.
955 Dairy Ashford
Houston, TX 77079
It was Brenner's soulfulness that I missed. Lynn's dry-aged beef is fine raw material, cooked to spec and heroically portioned, but to my way of thinking it's unduly austere. I pined for a smidgen of Brenner's-style pan juices or the slightly untamed quality of a spicily seared crust. Lulled by Lynn's mayonnaisey herbed salad dressing and timid blue cheese, I craved the exuberant funk of Brenner's fabled Roquefort. Lynn's potatoes Lyonnaise, an overbrowned, sodden mush against which onions and garlic butter were powerless, only served to remind me of how desperately I love the oniony German fries that Brenner's does. And lifeless onion rings that bore more than a passing resemblance to doughnuts made me nostalgic for the countless blissful rings that I have consumed you-know-where.
Not that I didn't have a good time here. An epic veal rib eye in a sauce that sounded risky -- a port mushroom cream -- turned out to be as fine a dish as eaten by anyone in Houston the night I tried it. Meticulously cooked meat; sauce light and deft and absolutely on point. All as it should be at a price of $28.95, which is on the upper rim of average at Lynn's. For your money, you get a house salad thrown in (ask for the Caesar, a slightly wilty rendition that has some punch). Not to mention a soft, puffy round of bread that has been crisped in the oven, and which probably seemed pretty special back before the Premium Bread Revolution hit town.
The exceptionally nice waiters, crisp themselves in their white dress shirts and black suspenders, dish out some spinach casserole with the compliments of the chef. It is pleasant enough stuff in the American Goop genre, right down to its faintly gluey consistency and its heavy cloak of melted cheese, but as the man who was dining with me lamented, "Why couldn't they just saute some spinach?"
Because it wouldn't fit in with the conservative, retrograde Lynn's aesthetic, that's why. Au gratin potatoes swim in an orangey cheese sea; baked potatoes sally forth in aluminum foil jackets; potently garlicked escargots wear fusty little puff pastry caps that have started to go soggy. Ten bucks' worth of oysters Rockefeller comes nowhere near the vibrance of a similar version at the River Oaks Grill: these sport listless spinach and Hollandaise that do nothing for small, shell-less bivalves that have been sauteed in white wine.
This is one of the city's most expensive restaurants, so forgive my grinchiness in observing that Lynn's could do better -- especially in the appetizer, salad, side dish and dessert segments of its menu. Forget those desserts: the pale attempt at bananas Foster, the melted-strawberry-ice-creamish Romanoff. There's good, puckery lemon sorbet, but some kitchen wit has seen fit to garnish it so that it could be served at breast-mogul John O'Quinn's birthday party. "I've been waiting for a pair like these all my life," joked the man at my elbow, as I snagged a blueberry from the summit of his mounds-o'-lemon.
But. There is a serious international wine list here, devoid of that California tyranny I have come to abhor. There is endearing service. There is politically incorrect veal rib eye, and that stupendous lobster and the ineffable Houston feel of being in a venue where income is being lavishly disposed of. Amid the dark Victorian-Castilian-Medieval woodwork that enfolds this womblike restaurant, a casually clad crowd of loyalists is feeling its oats.
Back in the smoking section, a long table of celebrants lubricated by a magnum of Taittinger's and who knows how many bottles of Cristal is conducting a west-side pep rally of sorts. Shorts are verboten, but many of the men in attendance are taking manifest pleasure in spending money in their shirtsleeves. "It's like the boom never ended," says my companion, and I feel half-inclined to agree.
And I feel favorably disposed toward my lobster leftovers, too. "We're well versed in the ancient doggy-bag rites," a staffer tells me archly; it is one of the best sentences I have ever heard uttered in a restaurant.
It's accurate, too. A chic, hunter-green sack is produced and hung jauntily over the back of a chair. It is worthy of the Galleria. I take it home. The next day, I chop up the prodigious amount of lobster inside and toss it with Michael Cordua's (as in Churrascos and Americas) Amazon Sauce, available at a la-di-da retailer near you. Then I eat it, feeling like a genius.
Lynn's Steakhouse, 955 1/2 Dairy Ashford, 870-0807.
veal rib eye, $28.95;
breathtakingly expensive, market-priced Australian lobster tail, who knows?