Jekyll & Hydesky
The bartender at the new Smith & Wollensky steak house on Westheimer pours a generous dose of Beefeater gin into an ice-filled stainless-steel shaker and then swishes some dry vermouth around in the chilled martini glass. I wait for him to pick up the shaker. The harder you agitate a martini, the more little crystals of ice you get in the cocktail. I like mine very icy. But the bartender never does any shaking. He just allows the gin to dilute awhile and then pours it into the glass.
Oh, well, I figure, as I sip my ice-free martini, at least there are plenty of people to watch -- and the bar itself is quite impressive. Behind the bartender, there's a brightly illuminated four-level display of liquor bottles. I made note of the inviting bar the first time I visited the restaurant. We didn't have time for cocktails, but I promised myself a rain check.
On that first visit, we were shown to the upstairs front dining room, which has three walls of windows. We sat at an excellent table overlooking the line of palm trees in front of Highland Village. It was a rainy night, and I started the meal with a hearty bowl of Wollensky's "famous" split pea soup. My dining companion had a Wollensky salad. There were two shellfish assortments available that night, one named for Charlie Smith and the other for Ralph Wollensky -- which would be ever so charming, if there really had been a Smith and a Wollensky associated with the restaurant. But in fact, Charlie and Ralph are pure fiction.
The steaks were real, though. I had a blackboard special called a Kansas steak, which is another name for a bone-in strip steak. The meat was rich, nutty and meltingly tender. It had been a long time since I'd eaten a dry-aged, USDA Prime steak, and I savored every bite. We also had the traditional chophouse sides of bright green creamed spinach and crispy hash browns. My tablemate had a filet mignon. She loved it, but it was too mushy for my taste. Both steaks arrived medium-rare, as ordered, on the first try.
The wine list was inspired. It featured an innovative all-American selection with special sections promoting local wines and great deals on lesser-known bottles. We tried Joseph Phelps Le Mistral, a California imitation of peppery Châteauneuf-du-Pape made with a blend of Rhône varietals including Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Along with the spicy nose, the wine had rich blackberry fruit balanced with just enough structure. It was an astonishingly good bottle for the money.
All in all, the meal was excellent.
I'm looking forward to another great meal as I sip my martini and wait for my dining companion to arrive. While I sit at the bar, I begin to look more closely at all the bottles on display. What a huge selection they must have to require so many shelves, I muse. But I can't seem to locate any rare single malt Scotches or estate rums. Instead, what I see is bottle after bottle of Ketel One vodka and Dewar's Scotch. And then it dawns on me. It's not really a huge assortment of liquor -- it's just merchandising. After all, this is Alan Stillman's bar.
In 1965, Alan Stillman was an unmarried New York City perfume salesman, trying to hook up with the stewardesses who lived in his neighborhood. But women didn't frequent the stale-beer-scented saloons found there. So he bought a bar and decorated it with potted plants, stained-glass lamps and hunky young waiters. It was called T.G.I. Friday's, and it was the first singles fern bar. Within a week, the police had to form a barrier around the place to control the crowds. Stillman went on to build 12 T.G.I. Friday's; he sold the chain in 1975.
In 1977, Stillman opened the first Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan. Legend has it that he picked the names Smith and Wollensky out of a New York phone book. The original location generates around $25 million a year in revenue. In 1997, during her stint as restaurant reviewer at The New York Times, Ruth Reichl called the original Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan "a steakhouse to end all arguments." Smith & Wollensky proudly displays this quote on its menus. But when the chain first opened, Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times restaurant critic at the time, was not so impressed. On December 23, 1977, she rated the restaurant "fair" and gave it no stars. Over the phone, Sheraton told me that she still doesn't eat there. "It's a madhouse," she said. The tables are too close together, and the atmosphere is too hectic and raucous.
The Houston outpost of Smith & Wollensky is quite handsome, and the atmosphere is delightful. The chain spends more money building and decorating their restaurants than most other chains do, and the average ticket at Smith & Wollensky is also among the highest in the steak-house chain business. The tables aren't too close together, and there doesn't appear to be any of the obnoxious "seating by social station" practiced at Fleming's. They give every impression of being a class act.
I knock back the last of my drink when I see my dinner companion, Press food writer Paul Galvani. Paul is a man who loves good steaks. I meet him at the reception desk, and right away he starts throwing curves.
"I understand you dry-age your USDA Prime on the premises," he says to the maître d'. The big guy agrees that that's true. "So can we take a tour and see your dry-aging room?" Galvani queries. The host is a little surprised, but he finds somebody to cover his station and takes us back on a long trek through the kitchen.
When we walk inside the meat locker, the host holds his nose. "Sorry, I can't take the smell," he apologizes. The aroma is indeed funky. But that's as it should be. Bacteria are partially responsible for the tenderization that occurs during the aging process, and the smell is somewhat putrid.
"So, are all of your steaks dry-aged USDA Prime?" I ask the maître d' while we're in the locker.
"Not the filet," he says. USDA Prime filet mignon gets too soft, he explains, so Smith & Wollensky uses the lower-grade USDA Choice for the filets mignons. That's pretty common, and I usually have no complaints about it [see "Aging with Grace (and Science)," August 30, 2001]. But when we are shown to our table upstairs, I take a closer look at the menu.
There is a box labeled "Classics," and beneath it a sentence that reads: "Our USDA Prime steaks are dry-aged and butchered in-house." But that statement doesn't apply to the first two items on the menu, "filet mignon" and "filet au poivre." So I guess that means that when they do serve USDA Prime, it's dry-aged and butchered in-house. And when they don't, ha ha, they fooled you.
Paul tells me he loves to eat steak tartare at a good steak house. Capital Grille makes his favorite in town. When he made the reservation for this evening, he asked if steak tartare was available. The reservationist said it wasn't on the menu, but the chef would be happy to make it. So Paul sends our server to the kitchen to ask the chef. She returns and explains that the chef can't do it. Paul asks to see a manager. Several layers of management confer and finally turn Paul down. We make do with salmon tartare, which is on the menu.
Just to keep up his reputation for being difficult, Paul orders a T-bone, which does not appear on the menu, either. And when it arrives, I start to wonder if the chef's trying to tell him something. The tiny filet side of the steak is tender and full-flavored, but the large strip on the other side of the bone is nearly impossible to eat.
Paul passes his plate over and I try a bite, which I'm forced to remove from my mouth. Then I try to carefully carve out a bite of meat without any gristle or sinew, a task that proves extremely difficult. It's dry-aged USDA Prime all right -- dry-aged USDA Prime gristle.
For my entrée, I order the "crackling porks," which I've heard a lot about. "USA Today's #1 Dish of the Year," reads a circle beside the menu item. Known as Schweinshaxe in German, the cut is a meaty knuckle of pork. In the Smith & Wollensky dish, the outside is crisped under the broiler. The result should be a combination of crunchy, crackling skin on the outside and tender, slow-cooked pork on the inside, all served over cabbage with applesauce on the side.
When the enormous gnarly pork shank comes to the table, it stands a good six inches tall. There are two bones protruding from the top. The first problem is logistical. How do you attack it?
"Cut between the bones," the server advises, walking away. I slide my oversize steak knife between the two bones and attempt to run my knife down to split the shank apart. But it's no use: They won't budge. So I try to pry them apart. But they show no sign of yielding. As the kind of guy who butchers his own deer and feral hogs out in the backyard, I'm not about to let a little pig's knuckle beat me. So I stand up at the table to get better leverage, and while Paul holds another knife in between the two bones to keep them apart, I violently cleave the shank in two.
After all that, the pork shank proves very disappointing. There is a thick white layer of fat inside, and the meat is none too tender. My guess is that the shank is supposed to be slow-cooked until it's completely falling apart, then broiled to crisp the skin at the last minute. This one is nicely crisped on the outside but underdone on the inside. Paul requests a doggie bag for my entrée. He says he's going to take it home and cook it for another couple of hours.
My two dinners couldn't have been more different. It's almost like I've eaten in two different restaurants. The first time, Smith & Wollensky seemed like a sleek, sophisticated steak house with a smart wine list and some of the best dry-aged USDA Prime steaks in the city. The second time around, it seems like a slickly merchandised chain with a deceptive menu and an incompetent kitchen. I don't know whether to thank Paul Galvani for helping me see this, or blame him for bringing bad karma down on us by ordering off the menu and being a difficult customer.
Anyway, I recommend you visit the first Smith & Wollensky and avoid the second.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.