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Pegging Plonk

A neighborhood wine bar that's hard to categorize

The crab had turned. In a mean way.

Ammonia is the byproduct of seafood and fish's deterioration process. In the same way our bodies excrete urine, so do fish and crab and a whole host of other seafood excrete ammonia. Except that when a human being smells like our waste byproduct, it usually means they're homeless. When crab smells like its waste product, ammonia, it means it's well past its prime and quickly on its way to becoming a tiny food poisoning bomb.

We immediately alerted Dwayne, who took the crabcakes back to the kitchen while apologizing profusely. They were comped, as expected, and the poor kid spent the remainder of the night apologizing about the spoiled crab at every turn. Chef Christopher Vega also came out of the kitchen to apologize.

The guanciale burger just might be the best "bacon" cheeseburger in town.
Troy Fields
The guanciale burger just might be the best "bacon" cheeseburger in town.

Location Info

Map

Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro

1214 W. 43rd St.
Houston, TX 77018

Category: Restaurant > Bistro

Region: Outer Loop - NE

Details

Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Mondays, 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays through Thursdays, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. to midnight Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Gardenia plate: $15

GOOF Balls: $16

Ram Balls: $9

Lamb chops: $28

Guanciale burger: $12

Muffuletta: $11

Pepperoni pizza: $11

Cataplana mussels: $15

Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro

1214 W. 43rd St., suite 100, 713-290-1070.

I mentioned the ammonia incident two days later to a friend of mine, a well-known chef at a popular seafood restaurant here in town. "That's the difference between a line cook and a chef," he said, shaking his head. We were both in disbelief that the spoiled crabcakes had even made their way into a fryer, much less out of the kitchen. "A line cook just sends stuff out," my friend said. "A chef needs to be there as a means of quality assurance. A real chef would have never sent that crab out."

It was a black mark that hung over the remainder of our meal that night, even though everything else was extraordinary. And I do mean extraordinary.

My notoriously picky Cajun friend all but devoured his muffuletta, gnashing teeth furiously guarding against stolen bites. Lamb was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, with no gamy flavor present in the pert little chops. Fat mussels were served in a beguiling yellow curry sauce with a hint of garlic, which was soaked up beautifully by ragged pieces of focaccia bread.

And I all but fell in love with the guanciale burger, a blend of ground beef and pork cooked to a still-juicy medium — a good amount of pink left inside — served on a soft onion brioche bun. On top, a tangled heap of caramelized onions and several thick strips of cured pork jowl married into a melted mess of Swiss cheese. I ordered it again on a second visit to further confirm its majesty. It did not disappoint.
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The things that did disappoint on the menu are items which I think have room for improvement. It turns out that Miller, not content to simply serve his friends and neighbors in what is more or less a glorified living room, just hired a new executive chef to help out Vega.

Erin Smith, who was just hired a day before this review was written, staged in New York City restaurants Per Se and Mario Batali's Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca before returning to her hometown. It remains to be seen whether the young chef's pedigree will help the kitchen in areas like not sending out spoiled seafood to diners, but — like I said — I have higher hopes now that she's on board. I'll be back to see what she's doing with the place.

Where the restaurant doesn't need help is in its fabulous wine and beer selection. Even a cursory glance over the by-the-glass and by-the-bottle lists shows that nothing here was antiseptically compiled by a wine distributor; these are personally cultivated selections made by a man who knows his audience as much as he knows his wine. It's all carefully stored in a 55-degree-Fahrenheit room and served at the appropriate temperature, something that other "wine bars" in Houston (I'm looking at you, Boheme) still haven't managed to get right.

Those ho-hum, low-end selections seem meant for people who don't know wine but just want something inexpensive to order. Miller is smart in offering a broad if boring array of Merlots to that crowd. But wine geeks, like my dining companion one evening — Marc, a local wine director — will find little gems to be equally excited about here. One caveat would be to mind those more expensive wines by the glass; the clientele here doesn't seem like the type to order an $18 glass of Honig Cab on a nightly basis, so I'd want to check and make sure the bottle was fresh.

I've seen comments online about whether or not a little bistro like Plonk would make it if it were to be plonked down in Montrose or Midtown. Not only is that question inappropriate — Plonk is where it is — it's irrelevant. Plonk is a product of its neighborhood and simply couldn't be located anywhere else; maybe the food and wine would still be as good, but it would be missing that hardscrabble charm that makes it worth the drive north of 610.

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