Usually, I'm not much for a side of gimmick when I dine. So I was delightfully surprised at how well "The World's Tiniest Desserts" work at Vin, the latest highbrow addition to the Theater District.
Once the dinner plates were cleared, the waiter brought out a menu no larger than a note card and playfully announced how, yes, they offer "The World's Tiniest Desserts." We ordered from the list of items, and the server returned with a wee little plate and miniature spoon that was, well, I can't believe I'm saying this, but just so damned cute. I know, it's only a spoon, but still, for some reason it actually did make scooping up the sugary treats more fun.
Because of their size, the waiter encouraged us to order several desserts. At three bucks a pop, it was the best deal in the joint. The sweet creations were served in small white ramekins on a rectangular serving plate impressionistically smeared with raspberry and chocolate. Lovely to look at, indeed.
Shaped like a muffin, the bread pudding was moist, yet light and fluffy. I tasted more than just a hint of bourbon, and the pecans sprinkled on top, with a tinge of chile spice rub, gave it a much-needed subtle crunch. There was a tongue-pleasing, spicy cinnamon aftertaste.
The chocolate cobbler was more chocolate than cobbler, but the orange flavoring of the Grand Marnier in it added a nice second layer of taste underneath the bittersweet chocolate. Again, a little dot of brittle on top provided a good crunch. The menu also boasted an ever-changing array of gelatos. I tried the blueberry-lavender, and though I was at first skeptical of the combination, I ate my words. It was smooth, creamy and refreshing when eaten alongside the slightly richer desserts on the menu. Sure, I could detect the blueberry, but I could also both taste and feel the lavender tickle the roof of my mouth. It was delicious.
I was a bit disappointed that Chef Jared Estes, who trained as a pastry chef under the famed culinary superstar Bradley Ogden of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, doesn't have any pastries on his mini-menu. But his skill as a dessert maker certainly shines through.
When I got this assignment, I was excited that my fiancée and I, who had just moved to Houston from Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay, could enjoy an opulent meal without dreading the bill.
"Hey, honey," I said, bounding into the living room, "we get to go to Vin."
"Oh, I've heard about that place," she replied. "But don't be such a boor. It's pronounced 'Vine.'"
"Hmmm," I said. "That's a little annoying."
"Maybe," she said, "but it's part of a chain. There's one of them back home in Baltimore. Maybe they'll have the same kind of seafood-from-the-bay sort of menu."
For Houston, Estes has concocted his own personalized menu, which resembles its East Coast cousin only in that both restaurants feature elegant dishes with a local flair. Several of the items Estes serves here use tasso ham, a specialty of Cajun cooking, and ingredients such as bourbon butter and balsamic-onion marmalade conjure romantic images of the South and the Gulf Coast.
On our first visit — which clocked in at just over $200 — we started with the foie gras special and sweet potato agnolotti with brown butter vinaigrette, fried sage and watercress. The foie gras was decadent. Before ordering, our waiter spoke at length about how the goose liver is first poached in Riesling wine, then rolled up in cheesecloth and hung in the air for a day to extract all the impurities. Clearly, this works. Served on sweet, toasted bread, the foie gras was dusted with salt flakes and green onions, with black cherries placed around the perimeter of the plate. The combination of the creamy foie gras and crunchy bread, mixed with the sweet from the cherries and salt, worked brilliantly and was no doubt the star of the evening.
The agnolotti noodles were nicely al dente, a necessary contrast to the mushy sweet potato inside them. Brown butter and sage always complement each other well, but I found the bitterness of the watercress overpowering. But overall, it was a rich, comforting combo of flavors cooked well.
Meat-eaters that we are, my fiancée ordered the grilled New York strip with béarnaise sauce and paprika fries, and I chose the filet of beef accompanied by Estes's take on mac and cheese, to which, according to the menu, he adds pieces of Maine lobster.
The strip steak was what you'd expect from a good restaurant, but the sauce is the reason you'd shell out the $32 for it. Heavier and creamier than the typical béarnaise, the little bits of crispy roasted shallots mixed in put it over the top. The fries, served in a steel colander with paprika dashed over them, were crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, just the way they should be.
When ordering the filet, get it for a good hunk of meat, not for the lobster.
The dish is served with orzo pasta instead of macaroni noodles, a terrific decision, as it holds and brings together the creamy melted cheese perfectly. Mixed in are peas and thyme-roasted tomatoes, which give the plate a vibrant, colorful look. On top of the steak was a lone lobster claw, which I have to say was quite a bit overcooked. But that was it for the lobster. Do not be fooled, like I was, into thinking heaps of lobster are mixed in with the mac and cheese, as the menu might lead you to believe.
To drink, we picked out a bottle of Craggy Range, a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Now, I know this is being picky, but the menu says that the wine is made in Marlborough, the country's most fertile Sauvignon Blanc-producing area, when in fact this wine, as it states on the bottle, was created just across the Cook Straight in Martinborough. Nevertheless, it is a terrific specimen, not as acidic and piercing as some of its fellow whites produced by the Kiwis. The cost: $49, on the low side when you consider wines range from $22 to well over $200. To be fair, more than half of the selections are on the lower end of the spectrum.
On other visits, I also tried the veal osso bucco and crawfish bisque. The osso bucco meat was served already off the bone, and I doubt it would have slipped off like it's supposed to: slow and sexy, like the clothes of a leggy Parisian stripper. It was a tad dry, but the rest of the flavors in the dish came to its aid. Served underneath the osso bucco were collard greens and white cheddar grits with smoky, salty cubes of tasso ham mixed in. Combined with a dollop of pesto on top of the meat, the tastes worked well when everything was eaten together. The soup had a nice bite to it — and a tasty surprise at the bottom of the bowl. Though it was difficult to break off with a spoon, the hominy fritter at the bottom offered a nice addition to the well-made, silky bisque.
From the outside, you cannot peek through Vin's dark tinted windows at what lies ahead; only a wooden door with white tinted glass and a metal handle greets diners.
Inside, there's a long, narrow side room almost immediately off to the left for private gatherings. The restaurant itself is spacious, with very tall ceilings. Overall, it has a modern decor, with deep, rich-colored wood and red leather seating. A bank of booths is laid out on a platform on the right side of the room, and the bar is straight ahead. Tables fill the center of the floor, and off in a corner there is a little nook, made to look like an Asian-inspired tea house, with soft yellow lighting.
Make no mistake about it, this is definitely a "cool-guy" restaurant.
Throughout my meals there, high-BPM house music pumped through the sound system and muted James Bond movies — with Sean Connery, of course — and Breakfast at Tiffany's played on the flat-screen TVs over the bar. Even the restrooms get in on the act; the sinks are illuminated and made of translucent red glass.
But strangely enough, I didn't see a lot of "cool guys" eating at Vin. In fact, I didn't see a whole lot of anybody eating there. On a Thursday night at seven, the place was only about a quarter full, and two weeks later on a Saturday night at 7:30, it was maybe a third full.
With so few people to attend to at one time, you'd think the service at a high-priced joint like this would be flawless.
No question, the waiters bubble with enthusiasm and are more than happy to take as much time as you need to describe the specials and answer inquiries concerning the menu. But though pleasant and friendly, the service suffered a few hiccups along the way. At one point, our waiter forgot which desserts we had ordered and brought us the wrong one (a good thing, it turned out, as we got to taste four instead of three of the miniature delights), and during another meal, a member of the staff dumped ice water into my wine. Embarrassed, he quickly replenished the glass and no one was hurt.
Lunch turned out to be the best meal of all. Chef Estes has taken the mundane rudiments of lunchtime fare and elevated them to dreamy cuisine.
"Try the hamburger," the waitress said. "Honestly, it doesn't even taste like a hamburger; it's totally different."
Well, it does taste like a hamburger, but a really damn good one. In between a sweet bun rests a generous-sized patty topped with sprouts, onion, Thousand Island, white cheddar and slices of bacon and tomato. It comes with a side of those paprika fries and makes for a great afternoon escape.
Clearly, Vin is not known for its lunches. Hardly a soul was there at 12:30 on a Thursday, but they should have been. As he does on the dinner menu, Estes offers a variety of hand-tossed stone-oven flatbreads for lunch that can be shared or, if you're like me, selfishly gobbled down alone. I tried the "bianco" — served with a thin stripe of zucchini and tomato slices topped with lump crabmeat, thyme and bourbon butter. It all tasted so good, it made me wish I'd had one for dinner.
But what made me fall in rapture was Estes's reinvention of the ham-and-cheese sandwich. Thick cuts of tasso ham were piled on top of a French-toasted piece of bread, served open-face style. White cheddar was melted over the tomato, and it was all topped off with a fried egg. Sure, it might look like a heart attack, but one that will surely send you to heaven.
It will be interesting to see if Vin makes it through the long haul. It's a bit pricey for dinner, but its location right in the heart of the Theater District means it's sure to attract diners seeking a fancy meal as part of a big night out.
And don't let the somewhat "too cool for school" feel of the restaurant deter you — it's an oasis during the busy day for lunch, and a great place to pop in for a coffee or cocktail and to taste some tiny desserts.
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