A New Tony's Order
When nighttime rolls around, stomachs start growling and dinner choices are discussed, one option never mentioned among my ilk is Tony's. This is for several reasons, some of which, if I'm being honest, are born of my own prejudices.
It's a dinosaur. It's snobby. It's a retirement home. In short, it's an old-world joint catering to old-world cats with old-world money, and I'm not a member of AARP.
Of course, I don't know any of this firsthand. I've never been. But I'm a cook, and cooks talk to other cooks. When we aren't telling dick jokes or calling each other "gay" in Spanish, we're talking about eating. We save our meager wages and head to the Aries of the world as much for the education as the palate-pleasing, gut-busting debauchery. When we do, we report back to our brothers in the grease-soaked trenches. "So-and-so is an overrated dump." "This-and-that is out of this frigging world!"
It is unfair of me, of course, to accept these opinions as fact, but I do.
When Tony's moved in February from its stuffy old confines to the former Maxim's on Richmond, spent a crap-ton on refurbishing, and hired on hot young French-trained chef Olivier Ciesielski to help with the transition, the community of cooks started cackling once more. This time, instead of talking it down, they started talking it up.
Gone are the "Jacket required!" separatist snobbery, the cigar-chomping oil moguls leering from favored seating and the heavy cream sauces mounted with blocks of butter. This is a New Tony's Order -- one more focused on opening its arms to a larger number of culinary thrill-seekers than ever. The country-club atmosphere is a thing of the past.
Could it be? One thing's for sure, it's time I add my own voice to the cooks' chorus.
After the complimentary valets get the privilege of parking my clunker, we're whisked past parting glass doors surrounded by walls of ever-flowing water. Waiting on the other side is a shallow, very well lit, very tan dining room accented by a huge Jesús Moroles sculpture called The Three Graces, featuring what appear to be three headless women bowing to one another.
We're seated, menus are dispersed, and I'm quickly reminded of another "fact" that's been keeping me from Tony's -- only this one is undeniably true -- it's damn expensive.
Cow, baby cow and game entrées run around $40 at Tony's after dark. Fish and fowl hover around the $30 mark. Appetizers offer little relief to the weary wallet, hanging out in the mid-teens.
We decide to share a trio of apps, picking at each plate with our forks like ravenous hawks.
The diver scallops sit on opposite ends of a sleek, rectangular plate and are adorned with fat lumps of crab. They sit in a puddle of mildly tart tomato sauce that's bright red despite a touch of cream. The meaty mollusks -- cooked perfectly -- and plump crab are right at home in the flavorful tomato cream, and hints of scallion oil add a refreshing, palate-cleansing element.
Rich truffle risotto is accompanied by freshly grated, sharp ribbons of Parmigiano-Reggiano and topped with a dollop of foamed cream. The skill involved in its flawless preparation is breathtaking, but its price -- $15 for what couldn't have been more than half a cup -- has left a bit to be desired.
The most inspired appetizer gobbled is the mind-blowing raviolo di manzo, a pasta pillow stuffed full of tender, braised and shredded short-rib meat. About six inches in diameter, the plump raviolo swims in a bright, tangy sauce laced with sage that's almost, forgive my saying, barbecuelike. Once the sauce soaks into the moist meat, be warned, eyeballs will roll back into skulls.
They'll keep rolling when the entrées arrive. A healthy slab of grilled tuna rests atop crunchy spears of asparagus and thick cuts of grilled portobello mushrooms playfully called "planks" on the menu. The Asian-inspired, ginger-spiked sauce is chock-full of such flavor, it's near-potent. A small bit goes a long way.
A medium-rare veal chop is dressed simply with a rich beef-stock reduction and could be cut with a wooden spoon. My venison makes its home on a plate with an itty-bitty baby pumpkin stuffed full of cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. Its jus is tinged with tart, juice-bleeding blackberries. The dish screams "fall" in the middle of winter.
The most remarkable entrée of the night is a simple seared sea bass. Accompanied by the same cabbage-and-mushroom hash as the venison, its crispy brown sear gives way to a lush, white fillet that's so meaty, its mouth-feel is like chicken, only less dense, as if it's been pumped full of air.
After stomachs are filled and belts are loosened, the check arrives. To our dismay, our shared Grand Marnier soufflé, Tony's "signature dessert," is a checkbook-busting $44, or $11 per person -- something we certainly would've passed on had we been smart enough to ask about the price. But it simply wasn't on our minds when the soufflé was recommended to us the second we sat down. Nor did we know how huge it was -- the towering, behemoth pound of egg whites, in fact, takes a whopping 45 minutes to bake. Having no idea that it would look like an architect's model for the Astrodome, we naively asked for two. The waiter said, "Oh, one is enough."
Fortunately, at Tony's, when the sun shines, the prices decline. Not to mention there's no time for the soufflé suggestion.
A clever, three-course "crescent express" special is offered for a mere $17. Options include a soup or salad and your choice of entrée. My twin brother chooses the hand-rolled veal-and-spinach cannelloni and the soup du jour, butternut squash. The soup, remarkably rich, is a touch sweet. The cannelloni is a delight. "Much better than Olive Garden," Twin reports.
A lunch salad called burrata (think "caprese") could be used in a Ciesielski cooking clinic. The lesson: Ingredients are key. The mozzarella is so fresh, it falls apart and spreads across the plate, giving it the appearance of poached eggs. The accompanying olive oil, fruity and robust, adds to the illusion.
One thing the chorus of cooks never criticized the old Tony's for was the impeccable service. It becomes apparent why when I'm served a steaming bowl of lunchtime chili. After a busboy spoons heaping portions of red onion, jalapeño and cheese into my bowl, I ask if I can get any Fritos. Upon overhearing this, a back-waiter rushes to his captain to see about getting me some. I have to insist I'm kidding before they send someone down the street to grab a bag. Respect! On top of that, the chili is incredible. Big chunks of tender sirloin float in a marvelous, spicy brown and reddish hue. "Much better than Wendy's," I report to Twin.
Again, the bill offers a surprise. The price of the burrata, an appetizer ordered here as an entrée, is doubled. When the server, stellar all around, asked if we'd like it "a bit bigger," we said sure, never imagining "a bit" could've meant "Double it!"
This, coupled with the soufflé debacle, has left me a tad weary of up-sells at Tony's.
For instance, on the lunch visit, I ask our server about the soufflé's intended serving size. While we paid $44 for it, he tells me it would be perfect for a table of three -- bringing its price to $33. When asked if we'd be served the entire soufflé, cut into thirds, he said yes, we would. "Only not the bottom; the top of the soufflé is the part we serve." He went on to say the honking soufflé could also easily feed a table of six -- $66 for 16 eggs and a bucket of sugar. It's a marvelous spectacle, to be sure, but if you're going to order it, better do so with fewer people to get your dollars' worth.
But these squabbles are minor. When I report back to my cult of cooks, I'm going to tell them to eat at Tony's. Skip the soufflé, ask for dressing on the side (my portobello salad was woefully overdressed), and don't order apps as entrées. The experience will be well worth your hoarded pennies.
After that, of course, I'll call them all jotos while holding an eggplant to my crotch.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.