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Spy vs. Spy

Our restaurant critic gets busted at Gravitas, so we send in our counterintelligence team


On a recent Thursday evening, my dining companion and I sat down at the bar at Gravitas to kill a few minutes before our eight o'clock reservation. We asked the bartender if the restaurant had a cocktail list. He said it didn't. So we asked for Mount Gay rum and pineapple juice. They didn't have pineapple juice. We finally settled for rum and OJ.

The only other person sitting at the bar at that moment was Scott Tycer. He took a good look at me, and I took a good look at him. I wanted to be sure he recognized me.

Gravitas's strength is in "slow food" entrées like the 
beef Burgundy.
Troy Fields
Gravitas's strength is in "slow food" entrées like the beef Burgundy.

Location Info

Map

Gravitas

807 Taft
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant >

Region: River Oaks

Details

Lunch hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Brunch hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Fridays

Spaetzle with Gruyre: $7
Roast chicken and corn bread: $18
Beef Burgundy: $17
Steak frites: $27
Lemon tart: $6.50

807 Taft, 713-522-0995.

A few minutes later we were shown to a prime table along the front windows. Just as we were seated, Houston Press staff writer Josh Harkinson and his date showed up for their eight o'clock reservation. I had asked Josh to book a table at the same time in order to perform a little experiment.

The point of dining anonymously is to experience a restaurant the same way the general public does. Restaurant critics who aren't anonymous say there is no significant difference between the food and service they get and what the general public experiences. So I asked Josh to help me put that claim to the test.

On this visit, we received excellent service. Our waiter was well informed, low-key and instantly attentive. And the food was terrific.

I finally sampled the creamy spaetzle baked in milk with nutty, full-flavored Gruyère cheese. My date was indifferent about her arugula salad and the enormous disk of goat cheese that came with it. But she liked my homemade noodles and stinky cheese so much, she said she would like to curl up in a bathtub full of the stuff.

For dinner, I ordered steak frites and got a big, thick, tender New York strip steak cooked perfectly to medium rare with a pile of Belgian-style frites so high, I could barely make a dent in them. She got mussels steamed in Belgian beer. I think wine makes a better broth; the beer gets a little bitter.

With my steak, I asked for an obscure beer that I saw on the drink list called Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA (India pale ale). When it turned out they didn't have any, our waiter said that he would have the chef suggest something else. He came back with a Saint Arnold's Elissa and asked if that would be all right. I said sure, I love Saint Arnold's hoppy new IPA-style beer. "But I have a refrigerator full of the stuff," I added. "It would have been nice to try something new." Before I was halfway through with my Elissa, the waiter returned with a plain brown bottle.

"Scott wants you to try this," he said, as if Tycer and I were on a first-name basis. It was a bottle of the chef's own home-brewed porter. If Tycer ever wants to get out of the restaurant business, he ought to consider becoming a brewer, because the porter was outstanding -- just the beer to drink with a thick steak and a pile of fries. And, of course, only the chosen few will ever get a chance to sample Tycer's homebrew. That beer didn't show up on the bill.

I think I could get used to this celebrity-restaurant-critic thing.

Meanwhile, across the restaurant, Josh, our representative of the general public, was not doing nearly as well. His waiter, a gentleman with a goatee, was unenthusiastic, uninformed and prone to mumbling, according to Josh.

When asked about the house martinis, his waiter expressed complete ignorance. But it turned out that there was a list of house martinis on the wine list, which Josh pointed out. The waiter asked Josh if he wanted him to go to the bar and find out about them. Finally, after much ado, Josh and his date ordered two of the signature martinis. Fifteen minutes later, the drinks still hadn't shown up.

When they finally flagged down the waiter again, they faced a dilemma. Their appetizers were coming out, but they still hadn't gotten their aperitifs. After some negotiations, the waiter put a hold on their food and slogged off to the bar in search of the cocktails.

Coincidentally, Josh ordered the same steak frites that I did. But oddly, his chunk of New York strip wasn't juicy and tender like mine was. He said it was gristly and a bit tough. (Do you think they might have sorted through the steaks and picked out a special one for the restaurant critic?) His dining companion's dish of trout and peas was excellent, he said. Josh says he wouldn't go back to the restaurant because the service is lackluster and the prices are too high for casual bistro food.

The general public has spoken. But our pampered restaurant critic doesn't agree.

I think Gravitas is a new restaurant with some high points and some problems that need to be worked out. Its strength is in "slow food" entrées like the roasted chicken and corn bread and the braised beef Burgundy, which have instantly become the best upscale comfort food dishes in the city.

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