The chef's counter at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse is the best seat in the house, unless you're trying to get romantic. When the hostess told my brother Gordon and me that we could either sit at the counter or wait an hour for a table, we jumped on a pair of stools.
From our perch at the polished granite counter, we looked directly into the orchestrated bedlam of the brightly lit kitchen, where white-clad cooks flew, leaped and slung the hash. As the steaks came out of the high-temperature broiler, we watched a guy finish them with a spritz of butter, a sprinkle of kosher salt and a torrent of coarse black pepper.
The medium-rare, 26-ounce porterhouse my brother ordered was probably the best steak I've sampled in a steak house this year. Only a handful of steak houses in the city offer dry-aged USDA Prime, and Pappas Bros. has more than anybody else.
I preferred the nutty flavor and slightly denser texture of the porterhouse's strip portion, but the filet on the other side of the bone was nearly as spectacular. Having also sampled the New York strip steak at Pappas Bros., I can definitely say that the bone makes a big difference. If the strip steak is excellent, the strip section of the porterhouse is out of this world. Steaks cooked on the bone not only pick up more flavor but they also stay juicier.
On a previous visit, I was disappointed by the 16-ounce rib eye. While this is normally one of my favorite steaks, the rib eyes at Pappas Bros. are cut by weight with no regard to the resulting thickness. A full pound sounds like plenty of meat, but in fact, the steak was barely half an inch thick. There are also an 18- and a 20-ounce rib eye on the menu -- these are probably a better bet if you like thick steaks.
This time, I got the double lamb chops grilled medium-rare. They came with mint jelly, but I ate the succulently moist and loose-textured lamb meat smeared with the creamed spinach we'd ordered as a side instead. I loved the slightly gamy tang of the lamb, but I must say I felt a little envious as I watched my brother power down the porterhouse.
Gordon and I were as hungry as a pair of bears. Every year, the two of us get together and play a three-round golf tournament for a dinged-up trophy we bought at a secondhand shop more than a decade ago. This year, the first game of the Walsh Brothers Cup challenge coincided with the arrival of a polar air mass. The temperature was 38 degrees when we teed off in our gloves and long underwear. He won the round by one stroke. After hitting the scalding showers, we headed for Pappas Bros. Steakhouse with growling stomachs.
I convinced Gordon to resist the temptation of salads and appetizers and to wait for the steak. This is my new steak-house philosophy. When you're splurging on a monster steak, why fill up on lettuce first?
And speaking of splurging, when the Pappas Bros. wine list arrived, I handed it to my little brother. The wine list here is one of the best in the city -- if you're loaded. Gordon is a financial executive for a major defense contractor, and he doesn't mind spending money on a good bottle of wine. But even he was shocked by the prices on this list. There are more wines in the four-figure category than in the two-figure category.
A couple of months ago, on my first visit to this restaurant, I annoyed the wine steward for quite some time as I attempted to find a bottle that I could afford.
"Which of these Gigondas do you recommend?" I asked him, pointing to a selection of the Rhône wines that were priced around $50.
"None of them," he replied.
"Well, what do you recommend?" I asked innocently. The sommelier's finger went to a California Cabernet that sold for $150, a $200 Bordeaux and a variety of other expensive bottles before I stopped him. "What about this super-Tuscan?" I asked, pointing to a wine that cost $65.
"You could get that," he said unenthusiastically. When the wine arrived, I was shocked by its bathwater temperature. I had asked the waiter if the wines were kept in temperature-controlled storage, and he had assured me that they were. So I called him over and asked him why my wine was warm.
"We don't keep that wine in the wine cellar," he explained.
"We keep our faster-moving wines at room temperature in another area," the wine steward told me and Gordon.
"What's your definition of 'faster-moving'?" I asked him.
"Wines that we sell the most of," he said.
"And how can I figure out which ones those are?" I pushed harder.
"Generally, the wines that sell for under $100," he finally admitted.
While I find this kind of wine snobbery obnoxious, I played along this time. And to his credit, the steward gave us an excellent overview of Bordeaux subregions and recommended several wines under $200. And since the price of wines on this list averages $400 or $500, $200 seemed like a bargain.
Finally, I asked him to recommend a ballsy Bordeaux that was a good deal by virtue of being unknown. In that category, he recommended a 1995 Château Pape-Clément. This winery has long been overshadowed by its neighbors, Château Haut-Brion and its sister winery Mission Haut-Brion, which are located in the same Grand Cru Classé region, he told us. The wine was available for the bargain-basement price of just $175. And to my delight, my little brother sprang for it.
When the steward appeared with the bottle, he flashed the label quickly to Gordon, who nodded his assent. The steward cut the foil, but before he could pull the cork, I shouted, "Wait! Stop!"
The wine he was attempting to uncork was actually a Mission Haut-Brion that sold for well over $200. I pointed to the wine we had ordered on the list and sent the steward back to get it. How he could forget which wine he had recommended after the long story he told us is beyond me. But surely the wine stewards at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse would never pull the old switcheroo on you just to pad the bill. Right?
The 1995 Château Pape-Clément was lovely. Berry notes dominated the aroma, and the acidity was ideal. But in truth, the wine was much softer than what I expected from the kick-ass region. When I got home, I looked the wine up. Wine journals rate the 1995 Pape-Clément vintage "good, but not excellent." It retails for somewhere between $60 and $80. On a restaurant wine list, you expect to pay at least double retail, so $175 is not really too out of line.
Anyway, a wine list that includes older vintages of great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines is a rarity. And you can't expect to get such treasures cheaply. My hat's off to Pappas Bros. for keeping such a huge selection of great wines on hand. But there's a fine line between connoisseurship and snobbery. And I'm not sure everybody there knows the difference.
Pappas Bros. has a cognac on its after-dinner drink list that sells for $500 a glass. The overpriced-liquor phenomenon is familiar to anyone who has ever seen a gangster rapper chugging Cristal. Houston's special reputation for booze-as-bling snobbery was explained to me by a French brandymaker at the Germain-Robin distillery in Ukiah, California.
He told me that Germain-Robin once held a blind tasting in a Houston restaurant in which their much less expensive "California cognac" beat an expensive French cognac hands down. "But still, nobody wanted to buy it," he told me.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because the restaurant owners told us that Houston customers paid $500 for a glass of cognac to impress people. What it tasted like didn't matter."
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse is certainly a good place to impress people with your ability to shell it out. It's a magnificent restaurant with great food, a plush atmosphere, a world-class wine list and a special lounge where you can enjoy overpriced cognacs and big fat cigars. Sure, they cater to bling drinkers, but if you can get past that, it's also a first-class steak house.
Granted, the dark-paneled men's-club atmosphere is getting a little dated, as is the whole cigar-lounge thing. Newer steak houses like the Strip House offer much more imaginative side dishes. And the gender-neutral Fleming's offers much better deals on wines. But in the category of old-school chop houses, Pappas Bros. is tops in Houston -- as long as you're willing to go all out.
There's no point in going to Pappas Bros. Steakhouse on the cheap. Try to spend less than $100 on a bottle of wine, and you can expect to be sneered at while you slurp it down warm. To really enjoy the place, you've got to drop $80 for two good steaks, $20 for a couple of sides and desserts, and at least $150 for a wine they actually keep cold in the cellar. Add on the tip, and a first-class dinner for two with no appetizers will run you a minimum of $300. If you go for a first-class bottle of wine, you can easily spend a grand or more.
If you still feel flush after that, order some cognac.
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.