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 bartender at the new Smith & Wollensky steak house on Westheimer pours a generous dose of Beefeater gin into an ice-filled stainless-steel shaker and then swishes some dry vermouth around in the chilled martini glass. I wait for him to pick up the shaker. The harder you agitate a martini, the more little crystals of ice you get in the cocktail. I like mine very icy. But the bartender never does any shaking. He just allows the gin to dilute awhile and then pours it into the glass.
Oh, well, I figure, as I sip my ice-free martini, at least there are plenty of people to watch -- and the bar itself is quite impressive. Behind the bartender, there's a brightly illuminated four-level display of liquor bottles. I made note of the inviting bar the first time I visited the restaurant. We didn't have time for cocktails, but I promised myself a rain check.
On that first visit, we were shown to the upstairs front dining room, which has three walls of windows. We sat at an excellent table overlooking the line of palm trees in front of Highland Village. It was a rainy night, and I started the meal with a hearty bowl of Wollensky's "famous" split pea soup. My dining companion had a Wollensky salad. There were two shellfish assortments available that night, one named for Charlie Smith and the other for Ralph Wollensky -- which would be ever so charming, if there really had been a Smith and a Wollensky associated with the restaurant. But in fact, Charlie and Ralph are pure fiction.
Houston, TX 77027
Region: Greenway Plaza
The steaks were real, though. I had a blackboard special called a Kansas steak, which is another name for a bone-in strip steak. The meat was rich, nutty and meltingly tender. It had been a long time since I'd eaten a dry-aged, USDA Prime steak, and I savored every bite. We also had the traditional chophouse sides of bright green creamed spinach and crispy hash browns. My tablemate had a filet mignon. She loved it, but it was too mushy for my taste. Both steaks arrived medium-rare, as ordered, on the first try.
The wine list was inspired. It featured an innovative all-American selection with special sections promoting local wines and great deals on lesser-known bottles. We tried Joseph Phelps Le Mistral, a California imitation of peppery Châteauneuf-du-Pape made with a blend of Rhône varietals including Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Along with the spicy nose, the wine had rich blackberry fruit balanced with just enough structure. It was an astonishingly good bottle for the money.
All in all, the meal was excellent.
I'm looking forward to another great meal as I sip my martini and wait for my dining companion to arrive. While I sit at the bar, I begin to look more closely at all the bottles on display. What a huge selection they must have to require so many shelves, I muse. But I can't seem to locate any rare single malt Scotches or estate rums. Instead, what I see is bottle after bottle of Ketel One vodka and Dewar's Scotch. And then it dawns on me. It's not really a huge assortment of liquor -- it's just merchandising. After all, this is Alan Stillman's bar.
In 1965, Alan Stillman was an unmarried New York City perfume salesman, trying to hook up with the stewardesses who lived in his neighborhood. But women didn't frequent the stale-beer-scented saloons found there. So he bought a bar and decorated it with potted plants, stained-glass lamps and hunky young waiters. It was called T.G.I. Friday's, and it was the first singles fern bar. Within a week, the police had to form a barrier around the place to control the crowds. Stillman went on to build 12 T.G.I. Friday's; he sold the chain in 1975.
In 1977, Stillman opened the first Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan. Legend has it that he picked the names Smith and Wollensky out of a New York phone book. The original location generates around $25 million a year in revenue. In 1997, during her stint as restaurant reviewer at The New York Times, Ruth Reichl called the original Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan "a steakhouse to end all arguments." Smith & Wollensky proudly displays this quote on its menus. But when the chain first opened, Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times restaurant critic at the time, was not so impressed. On December 23, 1977, she rated the restaurant "fair" and gave it no stars. Over the phone, Sheraton told me that she still doesn't eat there. "It's a madhouse," she said. The tables are too close together, and the atmosphere is too hectic and raucous.
The Houston outpost of Smith & Wollensky is quite handsome, and the atmosphere is delightful. The chain spends more money building and decorating their restaurants than most other chains do, and the average ticket at Smith & Wollensky is also among the highest in the steak-house chain business. The tables aren't too close together, and there doesn't appear to be any of the obnoxious "seating by social station" practiced at Fleming's. They give every impression of being a class act.