By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The pretty people waiting for a table won't step outside because it's pouring rain, but they won't back up to let us in, either. There is no lobby at Aries, the new restaurant on Montrose where 43 Brasserie used to be, so we have to decide between standing in the rain or shoving our way indoors. I do the blocking honors for my girlfriend and her sister while the witless patrons scurry around honking at me like geese. There is no one at the hostess stand, and even if there were, she wouldn't be able to see us among the idling humanity. After a few minutes, the valet appears, and the turtlenecked and high-heeled gaggle files into the rain and out of our way.
The hostess finally appears, and we decide to wait for a nice table up front that will be ready in a few minutes. Meanwhile, we simmer at the bar over some icy martinis. The alcohol takes the edge off the awkward entrance, and we are soon joking with the bartender. The table is readied quickly, and we sit down with our cocktails. For a restaurant named after the fiery sun sign, Aries has an awfully cool color scheme, with sage-green walls and taupe tweed fabric on the low-backed banquettes. There's not much art on the walls either, so the place has a sort of "blank slate" ambience; it assumes the personality of whoever's in there, whether they're in black tie or black jeans.
The menu at Aries changes daily; tonight there are several soups on the starter menu. I order celery root soup with a Maine dayboat scallop. My girlfriend gets white asparagus soup, and her sister decides on the organic iceberg wedge with Danish blue cheese and hickory-smoked bacon. The wedge salad is so good that my girlfriend and I reach impolitely across the table to mop up her sister's blue cheese and bacon.
4315 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006-5823
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The cream of celery root is buttery, and the scallop that sits in the middle of the bowl is seared on top but perfectly underdone. Celery root is also known as celeriac; it's a variety that's grown just for its root and tastes a little stronger than regular celery. Dayboat scallops are appropriately named; they come off boats that fish the waters and return to dock the same day, thereby assuring the scallops stay fresh. It's a good soup, with a striking presentation, but it's still not quite as impressive as my girlfriend's.
Her white asparagus soup is flavored with truffle oil and garnished with baby tips. Early March is the cusp between the beginning of the white asparagus and the end of the black truffle seasons, so there's some playful gastronomic astronomy at work here. And serving this combination in a creamy soup on a rainy night makes it absolutely magical. But it's the bunch of tender asparagus tips, bound together with a scallion green, standing upright in the bowl like a tiny shock of wheat that turns a bright idea into culinary art.
To call Aries chef-owner Scott Tycer an artist doesn't do him justice. There are lots of egocentric culinary artists in America, and they all scream, "Look at me!" with every over-the-top dish they cook. Tycer is something better. He is a culinary genius who has grown up and gotten over himself.
Tycer, who is originally from Houston (see "Today's Horoscope," by George Alexander, December 7, 2000), spent several years in Northern California working his way up from line cook to sous-chef at Spago in Palo Alto. Spago owner Wolfgang Puck, the original celebrity chef, is now better known for his frozen pizzas, movie appearances and Hollywood ego than for his former prowess in the kitchen. Tycer seems to have learned the lesson.
At Aries, Tycer exhibits none of the caviar-pizza cutesiness that makes California cuisine look so dated these days. His food isn't just brilliant, it's brilliantly restrained. He insists on making remarkable ingredients his main subjects, and he complements them with an imagination that never loses its focus. But it's in the presentation that Tycer shows true self-discipline. There are no tentacles sticking out of things, no Jackson Pollock squeeze-bottle paintings and no extraneous garnishes. Like the giant scallop and the white asparagus tips in the middle of the soup bowl, the food itself is the garnish. American cooking just doesn't get much better than this.
It's difficult to categorize the food at Aries, because American fine dining is in transition. Six or seven years ago Texas chefs were obsessed with regionalism; they emphasized local ingredients and local cooking traditions. But that is beginning to change.
"Southwestern cuisine, New England cuisine and the other regional cuisines are fading," Chicago's Charlie Trotter commented at a food seminar in Madison, Wisconsin, last fall. "Regional cuisine is too limiting. Chefs want to incorporate flavors they've tasted in other countries."
Scott Tycer is a rising star in this new era of individualism. I returned to Aries three times looking for something to complain about, and I came away without a quibble. Well, except for the lack of a lobby on a rainy night. And a chatty maítre d' who can be excessively informative when he knows what he's talking about and annoyingly oratorical when he doesn't. But that's being awfully damn picky. The truth is I went back three times because Tycer's cooking is extraordinary.