Boring by Design
Classical pianist Loreta Kovacic arrived a little early for our dinner date. So she sat down at the bar of Spencer's for Steaks and Chops, the restaurant in the new Hilton Americas-Houston, which adjoins the George R. Brown Convention Center.
There were only three other people in the bar, and Loreta was getting bored. Spying a grand piano over in the corner, she asked the bartender if she could play it. Loreta, who has appeared at Carnegie Hall, gets thousands of dollars for a recital. But the bartender would not allow any unscheduled live music.
"Did he think I was going to break the piano?" Loreta fumed as she recounted the story after we were seated at a booth in the dining room. Maybe he was worried about liability issues, I volunteered. Or perhaps he was trying to preserve the mind-numbingly dull atmosphere that Spencer's has created. If you hate noisy restaurants, check this place out. You'll find yourself complaining about the silence.
The interior design echoes the bartender's wet-blanket theme. The pale-colored tile floor, light-hued stone walls and simple booths give the place an airy, well-lit atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of an upscale Denny's.
Sure, lots of hotel restaurants are equally dull. But a wave of exciting new dining rooms in Houston hotels has proved it doesn't have to be that way. Quattro in the Four Seasons and Bank Jean-Georges in Hotel Icon, for instance, are among the most cutting-edge restaurants in town.
Spencer's for Steaks and Chops is a cookie-cutter chain with several other locations in Hilton hotels. And sometimes the steak house doubles as the hotel coffee shop. Spencer's in the Hilton at the Seattle airport, for instance, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nobody wants to eat their cereal next to the cigar humidor that would be standard in a typical dark wood-paneled steak house, I suppose. And even though the Houston Spencer's doesn't serve breakfast, it has the same coffee-shop atmosphere.
This one-size-fits-all approach to interior design hasn't endeared Spencer's to anybody. "Spencer's is open, airy and disappointingly generic in décor," wrote Sue Kidd about the Seattle location in the Eastside Journal.
"For a generic steakhouse in a national-chain hotel by the airport, Spencer's soars," gushes Sheila Himmel of the San Jose Mercury News in a review of the one at the San Jose Airport Hilton. Spencer's in Houston reprises the same boring airport hotel decor, and the same surprisingly good food.
The steaks are wet-aged USDA Prime. The best I sampled was the cowboy steak, a thick, bone-in rib eye served with a mushroom sauce that cost $40. Adding a sauce to a juicy rib eye seemed like gilding the lily, until I realized how large the eye of fat in the middle of the steak really was. A large eye of fat in the middle of a rib eye is a good thing -- it gives the surrounding meat exceptional flavor. But squeamish American diners frequently complain and send the steak back. No doubt Spencer's decided to add the extraneous gravy for cosmetic reasons. I also tried a much smaller rib eye steak for lunch one day. The eye was tinier, though the flavor was pleasant.
The filets mignons here are exceptional. Few steak houses actually serve USDA Prime filet, as it tends to get too mushy. Whatever their trick, Spencer's turns out a Prime filet with a firm texture and a wonderful flavor. The veal chop was also a pleasant surprise. Cooked medium, it was nicely charred on the outside with a rich flavor.
The worst steak I tried was the oversize porterhouse. While I have no doubt it really was 24 ounces, as advertised, it was cut too thin. Spencer's cooks their steaks under a high-heat broiler. In order to develop a nice color and char on the outside of a steak while keeping it medium rare on the inside, a steak needs to have a substantial thickness. This one didn't. If you order this steak medium rare, as we did, it's a bloody mess. But if you send it back, you're going to end up with a medium or medium-well steak.
The wines here are surprisingly inexpensive. There are several bottles of Côtes du Rhône at around $30 that make smashing steak wines. We drank a 2001 Belleruche one night that delivered more fruit and structure than you get from many wines that cost twice as much as what we paid: $34. And the long list of half-bottles makes it possible for fish lovers to get a good white wine without breaking the bank.
The side orders are something of a crapshoot. The creamed spinach was excellent. And the mashed potatoes tasted great too, until they congealed into a pasty lump. The gigantic 20-ounce baked potato arrived on an ornate tableside cart along with nine bowls of accompaniments and a potato preparation specialist. We asked the potato man what he recommended and went along with his suggestion of a little bit of everything. After fluffing up the interior with a series of deft cuts, he tossed in herb butter, sour cream, two kinds of cheese, scallions, bacon bits and roasted garlic. It was a deliciously over-the-top, old-school baked potato.
The house salad comes with a horrific, sweet balsamic vinegar dressing. We can only hope that someday the American restaurant industry will heed Italian cooking expert Marcella Hazan's pleas to stop overusing balsamic vinegar. Most of the balsamic vinegars in American restaurants are cheap imitations polluted with caramel and other additives. Please, make your salad dressing with good red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar -- anything but this cloying balsamic stuff. Marcella begs you!
Luckily, your server at Spencer's will recommend one of the other salads on the menu, which include an iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing and a Caesar salad. The server may or may not tell you that the upgrade to a decent salad involves a surcharge.
Like so many fine-dining restaurants, Spencer's has trained its servers to work you over for upgrades. There's the bottled-water scam, of course. Here, they come to your table with a bottle of still water and a bottle of sparkling water and ask you which you want -- as if tap water didn't exist.
Then there's the salad upgrade, and a crab topping upgrade for your steak. In her review, Himmel reported that the Spencer's in Seattle also added $1 for ice cream she didn't order with her pie.
On my last visit, the bill for dinner arrived with a 15 percent gratuity added by the computer in small print, despite the fact that there were only two of us eating. Just a mistake, the manager explained. But in a restaurant that tries so hard to stick you with surcharges for everything else, you have to be a little suspicious.
That night business at Spencer's for Steaks and Chops had picked up considerably. But oddly, many of the tables were occupied by just one man. I asked the manager what the story was. She told me there was a gathering of plastic surgeons at the convention center that day. These were evidently the surgeons without dinner dates.
The generic decor seemed oddly appropriate under the circumstances. And maybe that's the idea. Spencer's food is fine. And although the atmosphere is dull, it's just the kind of anonymous waiting-room environs you look for when you're alone in a strange city trying to kill some time.
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