The martini is icy, the club chair is plush, Frank Sinatra is crooning on the sound system, and on the flat-screen TV the Astros are slaughtering the Orioles. We're munching on a huge order of crispy fried onions and homemade potato chips, an appetizer that sells for a mere $4.95 here at Vic & Anthony's, the opulent new steak house just down the street from Minute Maid Park.
Still, none of these distractions is enough to warm my heart to a restaurant owned by the infamous Tilman Fertitta. Rather, it is a small black-and-white photo on the wall that melts my frigid disdain. In the photo, a smiling Sinatra poses with Fertitta's cousin Anthony. Imagine, a Houston steak house with some honest-to-God family history on display.
We are here without a reservation on the night of a baseball game, and the place is packed. I'm a little underdressed in a Hawaiian shirt and khakis. (Jackets are suggested, and baseball caps are forbidden.) But the hostess is gracious. She parks us in the cushy bar to wait for a table. I take the opportunity to wander around the spectacular restaurant under the guise of looking for the restroom.
At Ruth's Chris franchises, they decorate the walls with generic black-and-white photos fished out of garage sale bins in an effort to fake character. At Vic & Anthony's, the walls are decorated with old black-and-white pictures documenting the real history of downtown Houston and of Fertitta's colorful Italian family. What a difference a little reality makes.
On the wall by the front door there's another photo, this one of Fertitta and two white-haired gentlemen. The caption underneath introduces the restaurant's namesakes, Fertitta's dad, Vic, and his cousin Anthony. According to the text, the three men traveled all over the country checking out steak houses. And they designed this place to combine all the best things they found.
After a half-hour wait, the hostess walks through the crowded bar holding up a little blackboard with my assumed name written on it. (So much classier than screaming.) We are ushered into a small dining room across from the kitchen. The interior of the restaurant is luxuriously appointed in exotic woods and polished stone, with intricate chandeliers built into the high ceilings. The chairs are big and comfortable. The crystal wine glasses and heavy-duty steak knives are oversize, too.
And the prices seem amazingly low. An iceberg wedge is $4.95, and although the meat is USDA Prime, not one of the steaks is priced over $30. The wine list, on the other hand, is short, unimaginative and overpriced. The Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône-Villages I paid $36 for at Chez Nous a couple of weeks ago is priced at $50 here. (It sells for $17 at Spec's.)
The sommelier also points out the restaurant's collection of classic Bordeaux vintages. The wine buyer has decorated the lackluster list with some very old wines that no one will ever order. How about a 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild to go with that $5 iceberg wedge? It's only $18,000 a bottle. We splurge on a Guigal Gigondas that seems like a comparative bargain at $60.
We start our meal with salads, which proves to be a mistake. The iceberg wedge is enormous and heavy on the Roquefort. Hungry as I am, I devour the whole thing. My dining companions sample two other salads: a pear and Saga blue cheese combination, which is short on pears and long on cheese; and a tomato and onion salad made with under-ripe tomatoes and lots more Roquefort. The table groans under the load of blue cheese. But we can't resist spreading the stuff on slices of the crusty sourdough bread that comes to the table hot out of the oven. After the martini, the onion strings and chips, the cheesy salad, the hot bread and the lovely glass of red wine, I am pretty well sated.
My rib eye arrives and I am underwhelmed. Maybe that's because I'm not hungry anymore. But it also seems like the steak is too thinly cut. There is little variation between the taste and texture of the outside and the center. One of my dining companions gets a filet mignon, which proves to be a much better choice. The steak comes with tasty charred fat on the outside and a rosy red medium-rare center. It's also meltingly tender. My other companion samples the Gulf red snapper à la nage, which means "swimming" in French. The meaty fish is poached in a broth with baby vegetables and topped with lots of lump crabmeat.
The sides are disappointing. The spinach in the creamed spinach hasn't been sufficiently chopped, so it requires way too much béchamel and cheese to bind it. And the lyonnaise potatoes, which are supposed to be potatoes baked in butter with caramelized onions, are actually fried potatoes with undercooked sautéed onions thrown on top. But none of us makes a dent in the sides or finishes our entrées anyway.
The check is pretty hefty, especially since I didn't even love my steak. On the way out, I pause in front of the glass case where the meat is displayed. In the center of the case there is a double-cut USDA Prime porterhouse. It must be almost three inches thick. That, I muse, is the steak I should have ordered.
On a Sunday evening a little over a week later, the restaurant is quiet. This time, I adopt a completely different ordering strategy. Eschewing appetizers, salads and cocktails, we start off with a steak -- the giant double-thick porterhouse for two. I also order mashed potatoes and the skinny green beans called haricots verts for our sides on the theory that the kitchen would have trouble screwing up either one. And we order a $7 glass of low-rent Marqués de Cáceres Rioja and a decent $12 glass of Pezzi King Zin instead of an overpriced bottle this time.
This dinner is absolutely delightful. The green beans are crunchy, the mashed potatoes are creamy, and the honking 40-ounce porterhouse, which includes both the filet and the strip on opposite sides of a T-shaped bone, has all the taste and texture the rib eye was missing. Because of its thickness, I ordered the steak medium to medium-rare. It comes out with a well-charred outer edge. Some of the filet is a little well done, but the meat from beside the bone is still bright red and very juicy.
After polishing off most of the steak, I suggest that we follow our entrée with a salad, French-style, but my companion says she doesn't have room to eat even half a salad. She is willing to nibble on some cheese, however, so we order the cheese assortment for dessert. There's a nice slab of Roquefort, some Cambazola, a Gruyère-style cheese and a misplaced slice of fresh mozzarella on the plate, surrounding a dried fruit compote along with some strawberries and blueberries. A glass of very sweet late-harvest Riesling goes well with the riper cheeses. I sit back and enjoy the rosy glow of a delicious meal.
"I really like this place," I say. "Tilman Fertitta has built a better steak house." This causes her to become red in the face and spew a torrent of invective.
"Tilman Fertitta is guilty of a long string of aesthetic crimes against this city," she rails. The Disneyfication of the once charming fishing village of Kemah and the way the garish Aquarium mars the downtown skyline are sins that Houstonians will never forget, she says, along with a lot of other unprintable words.
"But look at this place," I argue. "You have to give him credit for being architecturally sensitive here."
Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse is in a new freestanding brick building with light stone-colored pillars and cornices that, like Minute Maid Park, imitate the look of the renovated Union Station. Fertitta has a hotel under construction next door, fashioned on the same architectural model. My dining companion fumes that the pillars and cornices aren't really stone but a fake concrete imitation. Then again, she isn't crazy about the design of the ballpark, either. But she has to admit that at least Vic & Anthony's fits in with the neighborhood.
She also complains about a few interior details. The etched-glass panels that divide the dining rooms are turn-of- the-century in appearance, she says, while the wavy glass partitions right beside them are incongruously modern. Such nitpicking draws a shrug from me. I've been feeling kindly toward Fertitta ever since I found out he bought the Brenner's steak house out on the Katy Freeway, a old-time Houston institution that had recently gone out of business. He has reportedly shelled out $1 million to restore the funky old eatery to its former glory.
After years of eating shopping center steaks at Morton's, Palm and Capital Grille, I am astonished by the one-of-a-kind integrity of Vic & Anthony's. This isn't an Outback with social pretensions like the insipid Fleming's. This is a home-grown steakhouse that clearly outclasses the national cookie-cutter chains. And that's a huge step forward for the Houston restaurant scene.
"Maybe Tilman Fertitta has turned over a new leaf," I suggest to my skeptical friend. She agrees that Vic & Anthony's is better than the chains, but she isn't as ready to forgive Fertitta's past sins as I am.
"He hasn't done enough penance yet," she says.
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