The 28-ounce T-bone at Maverick Supper + Whiskey comes with a smear of red chile-flavored butter on top. That's it. No potatoes, no vegetables, not even a sprig of parsley. The oversize steak sits there on its large white plate looking naked and lonely. It costs $36. You want mashed potatoes? They're $4. Spinach is another $6.
À la carte pricing is not so unusual at a top-end steak house. After all, thick USDA Prime steaks cost a lot of money to begin with. You gladly pay the premium because this kind of meat isn't even available at the grocery store. And if a family-sized bowl of fried potatoes or creamed spinach costs a couple of bucks more, well, so be it. But Maverick is not a top-end steak house.
On my first visit to Maverick, I asked the waitress if the steaks were USDA Prime. She told me that they were, so I ordered the 14-ounce rib eye, medium rare. My date got the Shiner Bock-seared tenderloin, also medium rare. It was served with serrano grits, and the combination was quite good. The thick chunk of beef stayed juicy in the middle and the spicy grits supplied a pleasantly contrasting texture.
I wasn't so lucky. I knew from the first look at the skinny steak that it couldn't possibly be USDA Prime. It didn't have the fatty sheen of a Prime steak. And it was cooked medium well. So I sent it back and ordered a cocktail while I waited.
Since Maverick's motto is "Supper + Whiskey," I ordered a Chivas Regal and my date asked for a Maker's Mark. Surprisingly, the waitress came back and told us that the bar was out of these popular brands. So my date ordered a vodka martini. Turned out they were also entirely out of vodka. How could a supposedly swanky restaurant have no vodka on a Friday night? At this point I walked over to the bar to see if I could find something, anything, for us to drink. I settled on Pinch Scotch on the rocks, and I got my date a Booker's bourbon.
My second steak was delivered by a tall man with a black beard whom I assumed to be the restaurant manager. He asked me to cut into the thick part of the steak while he watched. The steak was closer to medium rare, but it was still lean and dry. He brought me a glass of Merlot on the house -- a nice gesture. Still, I pressed him for the truth about the steaks.
"Is this a USDA Prime rib eye?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said. "Why do you ask?"
"Because it doesn't look like USDA Prime. There is no circle of fat in the middle. It's not juicy, it's thin and lean."
He mumbled some vague excuses and then said something about serving the best Black Angus beef.
"Wait a minute. Are you saying this is Certified Black Angus?" I asked.
"Yes, I believe so," he said.
"Certified Black Angus is a USDA Choice program," I argued. "A steak can be either USDA Prime or Certified Black Angus, but it can't be both. So which is it?" The man with the beard went off to the kitchen. When he returned, he said the meat was Black Angus. By then, I wouldn't have believed anything he said.
Are they deliberately lying to customers about the meat at Maverick, or is the manager just completely clueless? Is Maverick routinely passing off cheaper steaks as USDA Prime (or Black Angus)?
The restaurant space in the boutique Hotel Derek has already seen one high-end eatery come and go. Ling & Javier burst onto the scene with a grand-opening pajama party in November 2001. Jeff Skilling wore a long flannel robe over his slacks and sandals, while his fellow Enron alum and fiancée, Rebecca "Va Voom" Carter, wore a sexy halter dress, according to the gossip columns. Houston high-society wannabes stood in line for hours just to get into the bar.
"Okay, Houston, apparently you got the memo about Ling and Javier in the super-swanky Hotel Derek because you are all there," gushed Inside Houston magazine. "This newly renovated and highly stylized hotel dining room is hip, hip, hip, and so is the menu," said My Table magazine, which named Ling & Javier one of its best new restaurants of 2001. PaperCity called it "the Chino Latino haute spot." And Texas Monthly not only raved about the place but hosted a huge party there shortly before the restaurant went out of business in September.
The food at Ling & Javier was supposed to be a mix of upscale Cuban and Chinese dishes. Whatever it was, most of it tasted awful. The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook and I both panned it ("Supermodel Cuisine," February 7). And while the bar continued to be a success, the restaurant soon flopped.
Ling & Javier was closed for more than a week when it was converted to the "Supper + Whiskey" concept of Maverick, the bartender told me. Hotel management wanted to kill off the bar business, he said. Why would you want to drive away bar business? Because the life span of a bar is only about two years, but a successful restaurant will last a long time, he said.
This second attempt at success is based on "cowboy cuisine," a movement that blossomed in Houston in 1993 with the opening of Robert Del Grande's Rio Ranch. While the novelty has worn off around here, the oxymoron of upscale down-home cuisine is still considered cutting edge in self-described cow towns like Fort Worth and Abilene. The menu at Maverick was modeled after the West Texas version of cowboy cuisine served at the Reata restaurant in Fort Worth, where Maverick's general manager, K.C. Sorber, was once vice president. I am very familiar with this food; in fact I wrote Reata's cookbook, A Cowboy in the Kitchen, with founding chef Grady Spears.
The cowboy cuisine at Reata is bold and spicy with lots of flavor, and the food overflows the plate. Entrées are served with mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables and tamales, and in all sorts of inspired combinations. One of my favorites is a T-bone steak that comes with two cheese enchiladas on top.
Some items on Maverick's menu such as fried dill pickles with buttermilk dressing, Dr Pepper bone-in pork chop and barbecue green beans are excellent examples of the genre. But most of the menu lacks the bold flavors and generosity of spirit that cowboy cuisine implies.
On our second visit to Maverick, my date and I were joined by a friend who doesn't eat red meat and her boyfriend, who doesn't get enough of it. He had the 28-ounce T-bone and she ordered grouper with a garlic shrimp butter sauce. The steak was adequate, but the fish was disgustingly mushy. Luckily she ordered creamed spinach on the side -- or so she thought.
Creamed spinach is one of those chophouse classics that seems to go equally well with any kind of grilled meat or fish. It is essentially chopped spinach sautéed with butter and garlic and blended with a flour-based cream sauce (béchamel). Many chefs also add a distinctive spice like nutmeg, fenugreek or anise to give it an extra spark. Unfortunately, what they serve at Maverick isn't recognizable as creamed spinach. It's a bowl of what tastes like garlicky whipping cream with leaves of spinach floating around in it. When you attempt to fish the leaves out, the cream drips all over the place.
My date ordered the 12-ounce strip steak, which came with "potato poblano hash," a miserly spoonful of pepper strips and soggy potatoes. The steak looked to be around a half-inch thick. It was cooked medium well and tasted chewy and dry. She didn't eat half of it. I got the Dr Pepper pork chop with barbecue green beans. The chop was overcooked, but I used the barbecue sauce that came with the beans to moisten each bite. I was quite fond of the beans and thankful that they made it possible to eat the dry pork. By this time, I had despaired of sending food back at Maverick.
Luckily, Maverick had restocked its bar, and we all got our desired cocktails. The booze, along with a dessert called double fudge bread pudding, which tasted like crumbled brownies, comforted those whose dinners were inedible.
When it was over, we sat back and had a look around at the restaurant's new decor, which isn't all that different from the old decor. The Asian minimalism of Ling & Javier has simply been accented with Western-looking artifacts.
I asked my date how she would describe the look. "Cowboy minimalism," she snickered. With its naked steaks, underseasoned entrées and overpriced side dishes, that's not a bad description of the food, either.
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