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The Boom Is Back

At Vallone's: Big hunks of meat and other people's money

Twenty years ago, I arrived in Houston just in time for the oil boom. The late '70s were the best of times: dizzying, exciting; what I imagine the San Francisco Gold Rush must have been like in the late 1840s. Symbols of opulence and excess abounded: a helipad atop every spanking-new skyscraper, a glittering Rolex on every wrist and a breathtakingly expensive steakhouse on every corner. I was thrilled to be inducted into the oil-business fraternity and introduced to the magic of expense-account dining.

At oilfield bastions like Ruth's Chris, Mrs. Brenner's, The Palm and the long-gone Harry's Kenya, the meats were roasted over flames fed by money -- other people's money. There was simply no way one could otherwise afford to enjoy a meal at these places, with their massive slabs of aged prime beef and tiny dishes of country-style vegetables.

No one wants to say it out loud, of course -- instead, we coyly refer to "economic upswings" and "diversification of investments," wink, wink -- but what we have here in the late '90s, folks, is another oil boom.

As evidence, I offer the renaissance of the Houston steakhouse tradition. New or rejuvenated monuments to the carnivorous appetites of oilmen line Houston's major arteries of Westheimer, Richmond and Kirby as surely as cholesterol coats our capillaries. Morton's of Chicago has moved into the Galleria area; Rhode Island has sent us the Capital Grille; and the Pappas brothers, longtime local restaurateurs, operate their own upscale steak venue.

The latest entry in the red-meat rodeo comes from Tony Vallone. It's called simply Vallone's -- need he say more? -- and is located on upper Kirby hard by the Hard Rock Cafe. Perhaps the days when oil execs sipped champagne from their lady friends' slippers in Tony's wine cellar on Post Oak are gone, but the Texas culinary tradition of excellent meat and farmhouse potatoes lives on. And judging by the difficulty in obtaining reservations during the second and third weeks of Vallone's operation, I'd say it's doing quite well, thank you.

On my first visit to Vallone's, I was relieved to find that it is not as oppressively masculine as many of these meat shrines can be. Instead, it provides an atmosphere of understated Town & Country comfort. Brick-lined walls and dark-coffered wood ceilings are gently lit by Frank Lloyd Wright-ish fixtures. Gas logs in a brick fireplace warmed us on a recent chilly evening, and the night's specials were meticulously chalked up on a blackboard near the entrance.

Although I overheard a good bit of grousing in the clinically clean ladies' room about lengthy waits, even with the hard-to-come-by reservations, our party was whisked to a table almost immediately upon our arrival, some 15 minutes ahead of our appointed time. That's when we discovered the decor's most irritating flaw: The tables are so closely packed that you have to watch your elbows. See-and-be-seensters should be delighted with this arrangement: Eavesdropping on fellow diners is not only de rigueur, it's unavoidable.

In no time, we were reviewing the extensive and fairly priced wine list and grazing from a bread basket that included cornbread sticks with nuggets of sweet corn, dark, dense pumpernickel studded with raisins, and chewy nine-grain rounds. Our appetizers were a mixed lot, ranging from sublime to insipid. The stone crab claws were standouts: two enormous precracked claws on ice, containing solid chunks of crabmeat perfectly firm and delicious, accompanied by the best remoulade sauce I've had since Sakowitz's tearoom closed. My companion, who'd ordered the shrimp cocktail -- another nod to Houston's steakhouse tradition -- quickly abandoned his run-of-the-mill red cocktail sauce and instead began dunking shrimp in my horseradish-tangy, creamy remoulade.

Here, I suppose I should mention that the crab claws were $13 each, and the shrimp worked out to about $3.25 apiece (you get four for $12.95), so they by golly better be good. The stone crab was on the specials chalkboard, where none of the entries are priced, and our discreet server didn't elaborate. If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

Vallone's crispy fried Blue Point oysters ($8.95) were a disappointment. Or rather, the oysters themselves were small and flavorful, masterfully fried and crispy as advertised; they were just pitifully drowned in a dark brown, gelatinous sauce, heavy on the Asian taste register, with drowned strands of seaweedy spinach. The stuffed shrimp ($10.95) were better matched with their buttery white wine sauce, flecked with shreds of parsley.

Salads and soups were pretty much a wash, and I'll skip them completely in the future. The Greek salad ($5.95) was marred by too much iceberg lettuce, while the spinach and mushroom salad ($6.95) was simply a huge pile of too-large, leathery spinach leaves dotted with an occasional mushroom slice and soaked with a forgettable vinaigrette. There was no way to eat it gracefully and no room to cut it up, so I left most of it on the plate without regret. The fried corn and shrimp soup ($6.50) sounded wonderful, but tasted unmistakably of raw flour; and the seafood gumbo ($6.50) was, at best, average, even after we sent it back for the warming it needed.

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