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
Ling must be the smiling Chinese gal in the big painting on the restaurant's wall. That would make the Cuban with the high collar in the other painting Javier. The paintings have the look of a bygone era, like they came from turn-of-the-century cigar boxes. The restaurant named after these fictitious characters set out to be hip, high-concept and extraordinary. And it succeeded. The place drips with coolness; diners seem to pose with their forks in the air, as if they were being photographed. And the food is all extraordinary -- in some cases extraordinarily good, but mostly extraordinarily bad.
Our waiter brings a paper cone filled with fried wonton wrapper triangles, lightly seasoned with five spice powder. It's a clever spin on tortilla chips, and my date is charmed by its cleverness. She is also intrigued by the tall, skinny champagne glasses that look like bud vases. And she loves the lighting: Spotlights are placed under plants so that they throw organic shadows on the ceiling. I loved the wonton chips in the paper cone too, the first time I came here. Lord knows I've tried to love this place.
The concept of Ling and Javier is an inside joke. The menu is divided into Cuban and Chinese sections, just like New York's wacky Cuban-Chinese restaurants. Ethnic Chinese who once had restaurants in Havana moved to Manhattan when Castro came to power. There they established restaurants just like back home -- half Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and black beans, and half Chinese standards like pork lo mein. Ling and Javier took the idea one step further by upscaling the menu.
2525 W. Loop S.
Houston, TX 77027
Category: Hotels and Resorts
Region: Greenway Plaza
Stir-fried lamb with crispy noodles: $19
Wok-roasted mussels: $8
Lobster Cantonese packages: $9
Siu mai potstickers: $9
Jade flower chicken wontons: $8
Corn tamale with ropa vieja: $9
Cuban beefsteak: $26
Pan-fried grouper and mashed plantains: $18
Saffron potato and albacore tuna: $11
I visited the restaurant three times and tried at least half the menu. The cleverness wore off, and the problems wouldn't go away. The food doesn't come together as anything resembling a meal; the protein, starch and vegetable trio doesn't play here. It's the kind of restaurant that's best appreciated when you aren't very hungry.
The only edible elements I could find in the "stir-fried lamb with plum sauce and crispy noodles" were the lamb chunks. The nest of fried noodles was too sharp to eat. I tried to soften it in the plum sauce, but this was a disaster. The broken noodles flew everywhere, and the few I coaxed into the bowl tasted awful because the sauce was too salty. The lamb was okay, but it wasn't much of a dinner.
Bathed in a broth that seemed to consist almost entirely of soy sauce, the wok-roasted mussels had a similar problem. The flavor of the mussels was drowned out, and you couldn't even dip your bread in the broth -- first, because it was too salty, and second, because the restaurant doesn't serve bread.
Red snapper steamed in a banana leaf came with pineapple salsa and purple designer rice. The presentation was charming -- the whole thing served in a bamboo steamer basket instead of on a plate -- but the fish was utterly unseasoned as far as I could tell. The rice was also plain, and the salsa was sweet. I tried various combinations of the discrete elements, but they remained discrete. No matter how I mixed or matched, I could find no there there.
Maybe Ling and Javier was just not designed with big hungry boys like me in mind. Picking a few mussels or lamb chunks out of a savory sauce, nibbling on unseasoned fish with salsa on the side -- this is how supermodels must eat. Waifishly thin fashion enthusiasts will also love Ling and Javier appetizers like the lobster Cantonese packages with white wine and peach nectar, siu maipotstickers with shrimp, and jade flower chicken wontons. But to my taste, they're bland, skimpy and overpriced.
There was, however, one appetizer I really loved: a roasted corn tamale topped with ropa vieja and jicama-radish salad. It wasn't authentic ropa vieja, as it was seasoned with serranos, but I'm not complaining, since it was the only appetizer with any flavor. A sesame noodle bowl with napa cabbage salad and sizzling vinaigrette was a big hit with me too. Cuban beefsteak, a cumin-marinated sirloin on a pile of mashed potatoes and boniato, is also a safe bet. The steak was top-quality, grilled medium-rare as requested, and the potato-boniato combination was unique and satisfying.
And the wine list is cutting-edge, made up almost entirely of fantastic bargains in the $25 to $45 range with a few big bottles thrown in for fun. Innovative California vineyards are well represented. There are also unusual varietals like Gruner Veltliner that go great with spicy food; inexpensive but tasty bubblies like Roederer Estate; and sturdy reds from around the world, including Argentine malbecs, Australian syrahs and Spanish riojas.
But to say the food is uneven here would be a gross understatement. The dishes that fail aren't just mediocre, they verge on the inedible. Salt shrimp were served with fried leeks tossed with what should have been fried bean thread noodles -- only somebody forgot to fry the noodles. You eat them at the risk of cracking a tooth. In fact, you get the idea that the chef didn't intend for anybody to actually eat any of the vegetables.