Before my wine or food (or even my dinner date) had arrived at The Tasting Room at CityCentre last night, I thought that I'd already had the place mostly figured out. The shiny new space sat directly across the street from my dilapidated old haunt, the Burlap Barrel Pub, an incongruous placement that served to highlight the dramatic transformation that the former site of Town & Country Mall has undergone in the last few years.
I expected my visit to The Tasting Room to be rather a non-event; the other locations of the Houston-only wine bar chain are inoffensive and have a clever retail side that was the precursor to places like Block 7 Wine Co. and Sugar Land's Vineyard on the Square. The food has never been particularly stunning, but why should it be? The Tasting Room is a wine bar, first and foremost.
Even with this grand new space, all 13,000 square feet of it, and a partnership with one of Houston's best chefs, Michael Kramer, I didn't have unreasonably high expectations. What I expected was a decent meal and a few good glasses of wine. What we got was something entirely different.
We'd been seated in the very rear of the restaurant, an empty space that could easily be curtained off to form a private room. It was great for privacy, but we couldn't figure out why we'd been segregated from the rest of the dining room. Our waiter was scant most of the night, and the bussers kept quickly removing glasses of wine that we hadn't yet finished. We'd intended to try a few "tastes" of the wines on tap in the Enomatic system, so when you're paying $5.75 for just a "taste" -- roughly one-quarter of a glass -- you want every drop of that Domaine de Bosquet Gigandas. It was frustrating to keep stopping them, although I couldn't fault their inclination to keep the tables clean.
The way the wines are listed by the glass and by the Enomatic system is confusing. Yes, they're sorted by price, but there's often no hint as to the wine's region or the grapes used. "Tangy raspberries, blueberries and white peppercorns" is a great description of how the R. Vineyards "Field Blend" might taste, but where is it from? What grapes are in that blend? The waiters certainly don't know, and the sommelier wasn't that much more helpful.
My dining companion, a longtime veteran of the service industry and a sommelier by profession, eagerly asked The Tasting Room's own sommelier about that fancy Enomatic system the restaurant has in place. These questions, along with some other fairly simple inquiries ("What's in this Gramona Gessami white blend?"), were met with a lot of hemming and hawing. We were told that the sommelier, a young man named Paul, was a Level 3 somm, but he seemed uncomfortable answering basic questions about the wine itself and instead talked a lot about The Black Door, TTR's wine retailing side operation, and how we could take home wine by the case on the cheap.
And although the wines that came out of the climate-controlled Enomatic system were all at ideal temperatures, two reds ordered by the glass came out miserably warm, as if they'd been stored outside in the heat and humidity.
All of this wine geekery fails to take into account how miserable the food was, something which could be expanded into its very own post.
Grouper crudo was an abomination of the dish itself, the fish rubbery like Silly Putty and tasting the way I imagine the ice under a seafood display at Randall's tastes after a long day. I shudder to think that someone who'd never ordered crudo before would have this as their sole example of the genre.
Truffle fries were served with mayonnaise, a bonus. But The Tasting Room is awfully proud of fries that look and taste as if they were pre-cut, frozen and tossed into a fryer. The $8 price tag makes it even more insulting.
And that vaunted pizza... The pizza oven of which venerated chef Michael Kramer was so proud, the VPA training he and his sous chef received in Los Angeles, the promised Neapolitan-style pizza that was supposed to be the answer to boring pizza in Houston -- all of it glimmering with so much promise -- turned out a prosciutto and arugula pizza that was so wet and soggy it had to be eaten with a knife and fork. Neapolitan-style pizza should be soft in the middle, yes. Wet, no. Although I admire the use of authentic, homemade mozzarella on the pizza, its moisture content last night gave the pizza the effect of having sat in whey prior to serving.
Kramer, listen: You are better than all of this. That might be the most frustrating thing of all.
"It's as if he just came up with the recipes and then left the kitchen to a bunch of line cooks," said my dining companion as he poked listlessly at the sodden pizza.
One of the most exciting things about the new Tasting Room location was its full-on partnership with the talented Chef Kramer, but if this is how his dishes are going to be presented, it may as well go back to being a wine bar with a few snacky items to go with your Tempranillo.
But even if The Tasting Room stopped focusing on food today, I still couldn't recommend it as a wine bar either, with wines that are stored at improper temperatures and a staff that knows little to nothing about what they're dispensing from the Enomatic system, Star Trek replicator-style.
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Despite all of this, I have hope for the place. The Lascos are eagle-eyed owners who are always quick to correct mistakes. And West Houston has been thirsty for a big-city wine bar like The Tasting Room for years now. To wit, the place had a hearty crowd on a run-of-the-mill Monday night. And for all its excesses of square footage, it's a beautiful space filled with niches for groups or cozy spots for lingering, most of which have a stunning view onto the pizza oven and semi-open kitchen.
But is it worth the drive west? Absolutely not. And certainly not for the "Neapolitan-style pizza." Maybe someday though.