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 first time I ever had frites in a paper cone was in Amsterdam, where they're everybody's favorite fast food. Mayonnaise, curry and rémoulade are the most popular dips over there. I've also had a cone of frites at Café de Bruxelles, a Belgian restaurant on Greenwich Avenue in New York, which has been serving them this way for years. Lately the Dutch and Belgian serving style has caught on in Manhattan, where pedestrians are now wandering the streets with cones of frites slathered in mayo, just like back in the Benelux. Vallone's is the first place I've seen cone frites in Houston.
The duck in sun-dried cherry sauce was slow-simmered until it was as soft and comforting as a fall-apart confit. Served with an herbed corn-bread stuffing, it provided a foreboding of Thanksgiving dinner with its balance of poultry, sweet-tart fruit sauce and moist bready dressing.
The two red deer chops were served in a mushroom demi-glace, and they were outstanding. It's difficult to describe the bold red meat flavor of venison without resorting to meaningless clichés like "gamy." Gamy implies a sort of funkiness that this meat doesn't have. You could say it tastes very similar to well-aged beef, but more intense. (Can anything be beefier than beef? If so, this is it.) The earthy mushroom sauce, made with chewy shiitakes and lots of reduced veal stock, stands up well to the deer meat. And the deep concentrated blackberry tang of the Ridge Lytton Springs was pure purple velvet. The venison chop, mushroom demi-glace and zinfandel all came together in a mouthful of wild, over-the-top excess.
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
Wild game, caviar, foie gras and other luxury ingredients have fallen out of favor in the post-September 11 dining scene. People are still eating out, but what they're eating has changed. Comfort food is in, exotica is out. Mom-and-pop eateries and inexpensive ethnic joints are doing just fine. But fine dining has had some serious trouble.
New York has been hit the hardest. High-end restaurants there are off by up to 50 percent, according to an article in The New York Times ("Behind Quiet Tables, a Quiet Crisis in the Kitchen," by Amanda Hesser, October 10). Chefs are replacing halibut with catfish, jet-flown turbot with cheaper local fish, and exotic sushi creations with "friendly" dishes like steak-and-mushroom soup. Manhattan restaurants that once had a waiting list for reservations are now mailing out coupons.
Last week Congress went so far as to consider a stimulus package for the hospitality industry. Expense account meals, which have been slowly whittled to 80 and then 50 percent as a tax write-off over the years, would return to 100 percent deductibility under one proposal. And it's the Democrats, the traditional opponents of the three- martini lunch, who are calling for the change.
After the president's press conference, we take a seat in the mostly empty dining room. The waiter offers the two of us a big round banquette in the corner that is set for six. I order pumpkin seed-crusted hen. I thought the menu meant game hen, but it turns out to be nothing more than a boneless, skinless chicken breast flattened and coated with a crunchy seasoning containing some ground pumpkin seed. It's tasty, though, so I try not to be too disappointed.
My date gets Gulf red snapper stuffed with crab, lobster and crawfish. I expected a whole fish, like you get at Tampico, but this is just a small piece. It's red snapper season, and there are several gleaming, clear-eyed fish displayed on a bed of ice just outside the kitchen. The snapper is fresh off the boat, and the lobster and crabmeat stuffing are succulent. There are plenty of inexpensive white wines to choose from too, so we don't get into an auction this time.
By the end of our dinner, every table in the dining room is full and the noise level is a roar. John DeMers, the food editor of the Houston Chronicle, comes in with a gang of oil executives and slinky women. DeMers walks back and forth from the table to the bar on his cell phone several times -- negotiating his next big cookbook deal, no doubt. The celebrities are back. The seeing and being seen has resumed. And Vallone's seems like Vallone's again -- or almost, anyway.
Tony Vallone reports that while things were slow right after September 11, business is nearly back to normal in his group's restaurants. More moderately priced restaurants recovered even sooner. General manager Eric Estefano at Osteria d'Aldo reports the restaurant had one of its best weekends in history last week. Charles Clark at Ibiza says business is at an all-time high there too, and wine is moving briskly.
Of course, restaurant owners and their PR folk are trying, as ever, to put a happy face on things. But make no mistake, things were hurting there for a while. The night I went to Vallone's for venison, the desperation was so thick you could have cut it with one of their signature oversize steak knives. And while Houston's fine dining restaurants haven't been hit as hard as New York's, you may still notice leaner menus and more somber attitudes this fall. Of course, much of this will depend on you.