Where were you when the president warned us that terrorists were trying to keep us from shopping? I am proud to say that I was drinking a slushy Bombay martini and eating "Asian oysters" at Vallone's. I had to read the president's comments in the closed captions -- the volume was turned off on the TV set behind the bar. But I got the gist of it.
Vallone's, Houston's headquarters for exuberant decadence, has been eerily quiet lately. When I first visited the River Oaks brat pack hideout a year ago, the bar was a madhouse. Divorcées in little designer dresses were goading men in silk T-shirts and Gucci loafers to outrageous behavior. The evening culminated in a performance by a well-oiled patron in a blazer and turtleneck who jumped up and did a table dance for a group of women at a birthday party.
Tonight, at seven o'clock, legions of waiters are standing forlornly beside empty tables in the posh dining room. And the atmosphere in the bar is subdued as people watch George Bush's press conference and murmur about terrorism.
The Asian oysters we are eating are part of a bold new menu at Vallone's that made its official debut September 10. The six fried oysters are served with some Asian hot sauce on top and a little rice wine vinaigrette underneath. It's a nice tidbit to eat with a martini, but nothing special. A little napa cabbage and shredded carrot slaw underneath might have helped. But at least they're still on the menu. As I discovered last week, the most interesting items on Vallone's September 10 menu were an early casualty of the war.
That night we got a table not far from the center of the dining room, where four half-moon-shaped banquettes are set back-to-back in a diamond pattern. A whimsical modern sculpture rises from the middle of the diamond along with several stacks of canned tomatoes. (The tomatoes are Vallone's brand; apparently this is an inside joke.) The tomato cans, the sculpture and a scattering of art deco chandeliers, which resemble upside down beach umbrellas, resonate with the restaurant's spirit of comic opulence.
The imaginative new dishes introduced on September 10 were supposed to provide a corresponding air of festivity to the menu. Vallone's had just hired chef Jimmy Mitchell, formerly of the Rainbow Lodge, where he was famous for game. I particularly wanted to try an entrée called Hunter's Mixed Grill, which featured grilled quail, smoked pheasant sausage, a venison medallion and an elk chop in Mitchell's barbecue sauce. But alas, I was too late.
"We aren't serving that anymore," the waiter informed me. What about the herb-encrusted elk with wild mushrooms? Or the quail stuffed with Swiss chard and apple-smoked bacon? Also gone, the waiter reported.
"Why?" I asked naively.
"The game did well at first," he explained. "But after September 11, nobody ordered it anymore." The restaurant was dead for a while right after the disaster, he remembered. And when people started coming back, they all seemed to order fish, or something light.
"And what about the new chef?"
"He's gone too," the waiter said.
I was stunned. I obviously wasn't going to be writing any articles about Jimmy Mitchell's new game menu at Vallone's. So I ordered the only surviving game dish, "red deer" venison chops. My dining companion got the roasted duck in cherry sauce. Then I tried to find a wine to match.
The wine list at Vallone's is short on bargains. Just like its parent restaurant, Tony's, Vallone's specializes in Bordeaux, burgundies and California cabs at exorbitant prices. Our waiter, who doubles as Vallone's "wine guy," confirmed that the cellar contains absolutely nothing from the Rhône region -- no Gigondas, no Châteauneuf-du-Pape -- none of the great $30 to $40 French wines that have become popular in the last 20 years. No innovative Australian, South American or Oregon wines either. He didn't even have any inexpensive California zinfandels left, although there were some on the list.
"Well what do you have in the $40 range?" I asked.
"Nothing. We haven't been ordering wine," he said grimly. I looked at him unamused. I wasn't going to break down and pay $70 or $80 for a bottle of wine. And I wasn't going to be really happy drinking beer with my venison either.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "I have a Ridge zinfandel on the list at 65. How about if I let you have it for 50 "
My jaw dropped, but I didn't say anything.
"Or 45 ," he muttered.
"I'll take it," I said.
Ravenswood zinfandel, which I had assumed we'd be drinking, sells at Vallone's (when they have any) for $35 and at the grocery store for ten. This 1999 Ridge Lytton Springs zin sells for $27 to $30 a bottle at retail, if you can find it. So $45 is an astonishingly good deal. But the real shock was the negotiation. I can't say that I've ever seen wine auctioned tableside before. We are living, in the truest sense of the Chinese curse, in interesting times.
For starters we tried the trendy "cone fries." These are simply hand-cut french fries in a paper cone inserted into a pilsner glass. The fries are excellent. They come with three dipping sauces in tall shot glasses: ancho ketchup, Parmesan ranch dressing and paprika aioli. The ancho ketchup was the richest of the three; I'd love to spread some on a cheeseburger. But the garlicky orange aioli was the knockout with the fries.
The first time I ever had frites in a paper cone was in Amsterdam, where they're everybody's favorite fast food. Mayonnaise, curry and rémoulade are the most popular dips over there. I've also had a cone of frites at Café de Bruxelles, a Belgian restaurant on Greenwich Avenue in New York, which has been serving them this way for years. Lately the Dutch and Belgian serving style has caught on in Manhattan, where pedestrians are now wandering the streets with cones of frites slathered in mayo, just like back in the Benelux. Vallone's is the first place I've seen cone frites in Houston.
The duck in sun-dried cherry sauce was slow-simmered until it was as soft and comforting as a fall-apart confit. Served with an herbed corn-bread stuffing, it provided a foreboding of Thanksgiving dinner with its balance of poultry, sweet-tart fruit sauce and moist bready dressing.
The two red deer chops were served in a mushroom demi-glace, and they were outstanding. It's difficult to describe the bold red meat flavor of venison without resorting to meaningless clichés like "gamy." Gamy implies a sort of funkiness that this meat doesn't have. You could say it tastes very similar to well-aged beef, but more intense. (Can anything be beefier than beef? If so, this is it.) The earthy mushroom sauce, made with chewy shiitakes and lots of reduced veal stock, stands up well to the deer meat. And the deep concentrated blackberry tang of the Ridge Lytton Springs was pure purple velvet. The venison chop, mushroom demi-glace and zinfandel all came together in a mouthful of wild, over-the-top excess.
Wild game, caviar, foie gras and other luxury ingredients have fallen out of favor in the post-September 11 dining scene. People are still eating out, but what they're eating has changed. Comfort food is in, exotica is out. Mom-and-pop eateries and inexpensive ethnic joints are doing just fine. But fine dining has had some serious trouble.
New York has been hit the hardest. High-end restaurants there are off by up to 50 percent, according to an article in The New York Times ("Behind Quiet Tables, a Quiet Crisis in the Kitchen," by Amanda Hesser, October 10). Chefs are replacing halibut with catfish, jet-flown turbot with cheaper local fish, and exotic sushi creations with "friendly" dishes like steak-and-mushroom soup. Manhattan restaurants that once had a waiting list for reservations are now mailing out coupons.
Last week Congress went so far as to consider a stimulus package for the hospitality industry. Expense account meals, which have been slowly whittled to 80 and then 50 percent as a tax write-off over the years, would return to 100 percent deductibility under one proposal. And it's the Democrats, the traditional opponents of the three- martini lunch, who are calling for the change.
After the president's press conference, we take a seat in the mostly empty dining room. The waiter offers the two of us a big round banquette in the corner that is set for six. I order pumpkin seed-crusted hen. I thought the menu meant game hen, but it turns out to be nothing more than a boneless, skinless chicken breast flattened and coated with a crunchy seasoning containing some ground pumpkin seed. It's tasty, though, so I try not to be too disappointed.
My date gets Gulf red snapper stuffed with crab, lobster and crawfish. I expected a whole fish, like you get at Tampico, but this is just a small piece. It's red snapper season, and there are several gleaming, clear-eyed fish displayed on a bed of ice just outside the kitchen. The snapper is fresh off the boat, and the lobster and crabmeat stuffing are succulent. There are plenty of inexpensive white wines to choose from too, so we don't get into an auction this time.
By the end of our dinner, every table in the dining room is full and the noise level is a roar. John DeMers, the food editor of the Houston Chronicle, comes in with a gang of oil executives and slinky women. DeMers walks back and forth from the table to the bar on his cell phone several times -- negotiating his next big cookbook deal, no doubt. The celebrities are back. The seeing and being seen has resumed. And Vallone's seems like Vallone's again -- or almost, anyway.
Tony Vallone reports that while things were slow right after September 11, business is nearly back to normal in his group's restaurants. More moderately priced restaurants recovered even sooner. General manager Eric Estefano at Osteria d'Aldo reports the restaurant had one of its best weekends in history last week. Charles Clark at Ibiza says business is at an all-time high there too, and wine is moving briskly.
Of course, restaurant owners and their PR folk are trying, as ever, to put a happy face on things. But make no mistake, things were hurting there for a while. The night I went to Vallone's for venison, the desperation was so thick you could have cut it with one of their signature oversize steak knives. And while Houston's fine dining restaurants haven't been hit as hard as New York's, you may still notice leaner menus and more somber attitudes this fall. Of course, much of this will depend on you.
You can give in to terrorism and spend the winter whimpering over your mashed potatoes and gravy at home. Or you can show some patriotism by going out to the most luxurious restaurants in the city and ordering champagne, caviar and venison. It's your call.
But President Bush recommends the venison.
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