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
Where were you when the president warned us that terrorists were trying to keep us from shopping? I am proud to say that I was drinking a slushy Bombay martini and eating "Asian oysters" at Vallone's. I had to read the president's comments in the closed captions -- the volume was turned off on the TV set behind the bar. But I got the gist of it.
Vallone's, Houston's headquarters for exuberant decadence, has been eerily quiet lately. When I first visited the River Oaks brat pack hideout a year ago, the bar was a madhouse. Divorcées in little designer dresses were goading men in silk T-shirts and Gucci loafers to outrageous behavior. The evening culminated in a performance by a well-oiled patron in a blazer and turtleneck who jumped up and did a table dance for a group of women at a birthday party.
Tonight, at seven o'clock, legions of waiters are standing forlornly beside empty tables in the posh dining room. And the atmosphere in the bar is subdued as people watch George Bush's press conference and murmur about terrorism.
2811 Kirby Drive
Houston, TX 77098-1220
Category: Restaurant >
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
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Asian oysters: $8.95
Cone fries: $5.95
Red deer venison chops: $29
Roasted duck: $22
Pumpkin seed-crusted chicken: $18.95
Red snapper with crabmeat: $23
The Asian oysters we are eating are part of a bold new menu at Vallone's that made its official debut September 10. The six fried oysters are served with some Asian hot sauce on top and a little rice wine vinaigrette underneath. It's a nice tidbit to eat with a martini, but nothing special. A little napa cabbage and shredded carrot slaw underneath might have helped. But at least they're still on the menu. As I discovered last week, the most interesting items on Vallone's September 10 menu were an early casualty of the war.
That night we got a table not far from the center of the dining room, where four half-moon-shaped banquettes are set back-to-back in a diamond pattern. A whimsical modern sculpture rises from the middle of the diamond along with several stacks of canned tomatoes. (The tomatoes are Vallone's brand; apparently this is an inside joke.) The tomato cans, the sculpture and a scattering of art deco chandeliers, which resemble upside down beach umbrellas, resonate with the restaurant's spirit of comic opulence.
The imaginative new dishes introduced on September 10 were supposed to provide a corresponding air of festivity to the menu. Vallone's had just hired chef Jimmy Mitchell, formerly of the Rainbow Lodge, where he was famous for game. I particularly wanted to try an entrée called Hunter's Mixed Grill, which featured grilled quail, smoked pheasant sausage, a venison medallion and an elk chop in Mitchell's barbecue sauce. But alas, I was too late.
"We aren't serving that anymore," the waiter informed me. What about the herb-encrusted elk with wild mushrooms? Or the quail stuffed with Swiss chard and apple-smoked bacon? Also gone, the waiter reported.
"Why?" I asked naively.
"The game did well at first," he explained. "But after September 11, nobody ordered it anymore." The restaurant was dead for a while right after the disaster, he remembered. And when people started coming back, they all seemed to order fish, or something light.
"And what about the new chef?"
"He's gone too," the waiter said.
I was stunned. I obviously wasn't going to be writing any articles about Jimmy Mitchell's new game menu at Vallone's. So I ordered the only surviving game dish, "red deer" venison chops. My dining companion got the roasted duck in cherry sauce. Then I tried to find a wine to match.
The wine list at Vallone's is short on bargains. Just like its parent restaurant, Tony's, Vallone's specializes in Bordeaux, burgundies and California cabs at exorbitant prices. Our waiter, who doubles as Vallone's "wine guy," confirmed that the cellar contains absolutely nothing from the Rhône region -- no Gigondas, no Châteauneuf-du-Pape -- none of the great $30 to $40 French wines that have become popular in the last 20 years. No innovative Australian, South American or Oregon wines either. He didn't even have any inexpensive California zinfandels left, although there were some on the list.
"Well what do you have in the $40 range?" I asked.
"Nothing. We haven't been ordering wine," he said grimly. I looked at him unamused. I wasn't going to break down and pay $70 or $80 for a bottle of wine. And I wasn't going to be really happy drinking beer with my venison either.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I have a Ridge zinfandel on the list at 65. How about if I let you have it for 50 "
My jaw dropped, but I didn't say anything.
"Or 45 ," he muttered.
"I'll take it," I said.
Ravenswood zinfandel, which I had assumed we'd be drinking, sells at Vallone's (when they have any) for $35 and at the grocery store for ten. This 1999 Ridge Lytton Springs zin sells for $27 to $30 a bottle at retail, if you can find it. So $45 is an astonishingly good deal. But the real shock was the negotiation. I can't say that I've ever seen wine auctioned tableside before. We are living, in the truest sense of the Chinese curse, in interesting times.
For starters we tried the trendy "cone fries." These are simply hand-cut french fries in a paper cone inserted into a pilsner glass. The fries are excellent. They come with three dipping sauces in tall shot glasses: ancho ketchup, Parmesan ranch dressing and paprika aioli. The ancho ketchup was the richest of the three; I'd love to spread some on a cheeseburger. But the garlicky orange aioli was the knockout with the fries.