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 and Javier and the Hotel Derek opened in mid-November, and I ate there twice in December. One month is the usual waiting period before we report on a new restaurant, but in this case, I decided to give them more time to get their act together.
The Derek is Houston's first boutique hotel. Ian Schrager, the former proprietor of Studio 54, launched the boutique hotel trend in the mid-1980s when he opened the Royalton and Morgan hotels in New York. These "urban inns" for the supercool attracted throngs of upscale tourists. The bars and restaurants became hangouts for local hipsters and visiting celebrities. The tiny rooms, decked out in cutting-edge fashions, rented for twice the price of other rooms of the same size.
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
The trend had become one of the hottest in the hospitality business. But September 11 derailed the luxury locomotive. The occupancy rate for New York hotels over Thanksgiving fell from 74 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2001. The hardest hit were unaffiliated properties that lacked the toll-free reservation systems of the major chains. With minibars stocked with Dean and DeLuca chocolates, expensive champagne and condoms, boutique hotels in particular may seem too frivolous in the post-traumatic atmosphere. Suddenly, prices are dropping and the upscale hostelries are offering incentives. "Boutique hotels like The Muse and The Dylan are offering packages as low as $157 that include hotel accommodation, a Broadway show, a dinner gift certificate, parking coupon and donation to the Twin Towers Fund," reports one online magazine. Some industry watchers are questioning the very viability of boutique hotels in the current climate.
Houston had a similarly steep decline in hotel occupancy this fall, and the Derek opened smack-dab in the worst of it. Nevertheless, the hotel drew rave reviews and the bar has been wildly popular since the beginning.
In the lobby, a huge pile of firewood surrounds a television screen playing video of a roaring fire. Nestled in front of the virtual hearth is a conversation pit of textured leather sofas, bizarrely upholstered chairs and a table with a glowing Lucite chess board. Inside the restaurant, a trance-techno soundtrack throbs, and the stylishly thin waiters seem to move to the beat. We nibble on our wonton chips and finish our cocktails. An appetizer arrives, five itty-bitty fried wontons with some dipping sauce. At $8, that's $1.60 per wonton, I figure. Hey, it's the atmosphere you're paying for, right?
Some of the choicest tables at Ling and Javier are right in the thick of the action in the bar area (the place for fashionable singles to strut their leather pants this season). Luckily, there's also a large dining room in the back for those of us in the hard-of-hearing set. The bar is packed, but the dining room is little more than a quarter occupied on a Wednesday night at eight o'clock; business seems slower than on my last two visits. And the entrées set before us tonight illustrate why Houston diners don't come back to Ling and Javier. It's a "boom or bust" restaurant.
The pan-fried grouper with almonds, brown butter and mashed plantains is stunning, the best entrée I've had here. The meaty fish is perfectly cooked and served over a pile of plantains mashed with yams. The hearty tropical starch provides a wonderfully soft, sweet and creamy underpinning while a topping of almonds and brown butter supplies a crunchy, savory counterpoint. I wish I could eat more of this fabulous dish. But, alas, I have to switch plates with my dining companion.
She ordered "saffron potato and albacore tuna with green olives, asparagus and creole mustard vinaigrette." She's surprised that the fish is raw. We call the waiter over and ask for the menu, which we study carefully before calling him back.
"It doesn't say 'raw albacore tuna' or 'albacore tuna sushi' on the menu," we point out.
No, he shrugs, but after all, that's the best way to appreciate albacore tuna. If we would prefer something else, he will gladly take it back, he says. I weigh the decision. The dish is a failure, but the waiter is insinuating that we are Philistines for not appreciating its sophistication. Okay, I figure, if this is what the chef intended, then let's review it.
The saffron potatoes and the greens are quite good together; it's the fish that's the problem. The chef was trying to create a clever spin-off of the classic French hareng pommes à l'huile, a salad of potatoes, greens and herring in oil. It's a good start. Scott Tycer at Aries does a splendid version of this with his own smoked salmon and clams over potato fingerlings. I once had a superb rendition in Quebec with smoked salmon and crispy curls of smoked sturgeon fried as crisp as bacon on top of the greens. In truth, a salad of potatoes, fish and oil is the kind of simple idea that's pretty hard to screw up.
Raw tuna could have been brilliant on this salad -- if the chef at Ling and Javier had spent the money for sushi-grade bluefin. But the waiter's line about albacore being best enjoyed raw is a lot of hooey. Albacore is the premium grade of canned tuna, but not the best sushi fish. Shiro maguro, as it's known in Japanese, is considered hard to work with by sushi chefs because it's so soft and it discolors quickly, says Mia Detrick in her book Sushi. "Even when it is available, shiro maguro is almost never on a sushi-bar menu," she writes.